For anyone curious about the state of the Washington Redskins two games into the preseason and 19 days from the regular season opener, they need only refer to the final minutes of the first quarter and opening minutes of the second quarter of Monday night’s 24-23 win against the Cleveland Browns at FedEx Field.
Those eight minutes served as a microcosm of the good, the bad, the ugly and still incomplete of the rebuilding franchise.
The good: A stingy defense that appears primed to be “unleashed,” a description players have thrown around all offseason, and offensive weapons capable of producing an electrifying play at any time.
The bad: Inconsistent play out of the franchise quarterback looking to rebound after a difficult second season, and continued struggles in the red zone for a unit that last season had to settle far too often for field goals instead of touchdowns.
The ugly: Two turnovers in the opponents’ territory, six first-half penalties for 55 yards, and no points on 26 plays by the starting offense — even with four plays that began inside the Cleveland 5-yard line.
The Redskins’ backups shook off a slow start, began clicking in the second half and held on, just barely, for a win when a failed Cleveland two-point conversion with no time left decided the outcome. But Coach Jay Gruden, Robert Griffin III the rest of the Redskins left FedEx Field fully aware that they may have the tools to work with, but they still have a lot of improvements to make between now and the Sept. 7 opener in Houston.
“You’ve got to finish drives and protect the football,” Gruden said. “Part of my pre-game speech was eliminating penalties and protect the football. We did neither.”
Gruden said both areas will receive a greater emphasis in practice. He said there’s plenty else to take from the game.
“There’s a lot of good things off of this tape we can learn from,” Gruden said. “A lot of people say the preseason isn’t very important, but I bed to differ. There’s a lot of teaching we can learn from this game. . . . There’s a lot of situations that are very beneficial moving forward. We just have to do a better job of execution, and my play-calling.”
Ramping up the aggression of the defense has served as a leading point of emphasis ever since Gruden arrived, met with defensive coordinator Jim Haslett and elected to retain him.
Haslett vowed to dial up more blitzes while also giving his pass rushers more opportunities to get after the quarterback. The defense flustered Ryan Mallett in the preseason opener against the Patriots on Aug. 7, giving up only one first down and no points against the starters.
The defense remained keyed in 11 days later. Ryan Kerrigan sacked Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer on the first play from scrimmage, and two plays later, Washington denied Cleveland on third down and forced a punt.
The Redskins’ defense forced three-and-outs on the second and third drives of the game, and Kerrigan recorded another sack on the latter.
The Browns played Hoyer two series, and then rookie Johnny Manziel the next two so both could receive action against Washington’s starters. Both struggled.
Hoyer went 2 for 4 for 16 yards in his two possessions of play versus the Redskins’ first team. Manziel completed 2 of 7 attempts for 29 yards. Both were sacked once.
However, Hoyer and Manziel weren’t the only quarterbacks to struggle.
Washington’s offense turned the ball over on its first two possessions — first with a fumble when running back Alfred Morris mishandled a pitch from Robert Griffin III, and then again when Griffin threw an interception at the Cleveland 17-yard line, killing a potential scoring drive.
However, the stretch of play that summed up the game and state of the team came with 4 minutes 10 seconds left in the first quarter.
Washington got the ball at its 14-yard line and then went 82 yards to threaten to score. With six seconds left in the quarter, Griffin connected with slot receiver Andre Roberts on the quarterback’s best throw of the game — a 49-yard bomb that dropped over Roberts’s shoulder at the 8. Two Morris runs and a defensive holding call put the ball on the 3, and Gruden went to the Redskins’ bread-and-butter rushing attack.
But the offensive line generated little to no push, and Morris was stopped at the 1 on three straight plays.
On fourth and goal, Gruden went back to Morris, and initially, officials awarded him a touchdown, believing he stretched the ball over the goal line as defenders piled on top of him. But the replay showed Morris’s knee touched the turf before the ball did. Washington came away scoreless, and thus concluded an anticlimactic 26-play performance by Washington’s starting offense.
“It’s been the same thing for a while now,” fullback Darrel Young said. “We get into the red zone and we’re just killing ourselves. And penalties. So many penalties. Again, we shoot ourselves in the foot.”
In two preseason games, the starting offense has played a total of four series and thus far has only three points.
However, Griffin said he saw progress in the offense.
“On offense, we moved it well,” he said. “Something we talked about in camp: we can’t hurt ourselves. With some of the penalties we had, the interception, fumbles, anything like that. We did a good job overcoming those things within those drives or the next drives. We know we’re still a long way to go before we’re where we want to be.”
The second unit struggled initially as Kirk Cousins threw an interception. But a two-yard touchdown run by running back Evan Royster gave Washington a 7-3 halftime lead. Cousins later completed a 14-yard touchdown pass to rookie Ryan Grant to extend the lead. The Browns scored back-to-back touchdowns (an eight-yard pass from Manziel to running back Dion Lewis, and a Colt McCoy interception returned for a touchdown by safety Jim Leonhard). Kai Forbath’s 26-yard field goal and a 30-yard touchdown pass from McCoy to Nick Williams rounded out the scoring for Washington.
Then, Cleveland third-string quarterback Connor Shaw completed a 45-yard touchdown pass to tight end Emmanuel Ogbuehi with no time left. The two-point conversion pass fell incomplete, however, and Washington escaped with the win.