On both counts, Washington took a step backward under the white-hot glare of “Monday Night Football,” yet came away with a 24-23 victory over the Cleveland Browns, who had their own share of misadventures in the heavily hyped clash.
In outplaying the Browns, whose performance did little to settle the roiling quarterback competition in Cleveland, the Redskins extended their feel-good preseason mark to 2-0.
But in several ways, the success masked a defeat by Washington’s first-team offense, which piled up plenty of yards but scored no points and turned the ball over twice. It wasn’t the progression Gruden wanted to see after the starters were limited to a field goal in their lone series in the preseason opener.
There were signs of encouragement, to be sure.
Playing for the first time with a full complement of receivers, Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III had three completions of 15 yards or more, including a beauty down the left side that Andre Roberts extended to 49 yards to the Cleveland 8.
Washington’s defense got good pressure on quarterback Brian Hoyer and his rookie challenger Johnny Manziel, with linebacker Ryan Kerrigan flying in for a sack of each and the defensive backfield frustrating their decision-making.
Tackling was good all around. Even three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver DeSean Jackson threw himself into the fray, diving on cornerback Joe Haden the moment he intercepted a late throw by Griffin.
And the Redskins outgained the Browns through the air and on the ground, finishing with 429 yards to Cleveland’s 286, while once again dominating the time of possession (32 minutes 2 seconds to 27:58).
“We moved the ball effectively, but you have to finish drives and you have to protect the football,” Gruden said.
With the regular season less than two weeks away, Gruden and Redskins fans wanted to see more. They wanted to see proficiency in the red zone, toughness on the goal line and a starting quarterback who is gaining fluency in a revamped offense, comfortable in the pocket, swift in his reads, decisive with his progressions and accurate with this throws.
At this stage, all of that is a work in progress.
Like Griffin, backup quarterbacks Kirk Cousins and Colt McCoy each threw an interception. But Cousins (12 of 21 for 145 yards) led the second team to two touchdowns in his five drives. McCoy (2 of 6 for 73 yards), who mopped up in the fourth quarter, orchestrated one touchdown and a field goal.
The starters’ three fruitless drives ended in particularly discouraging fashion:
• A fumble, with normally reliable Alfred Morris inexplicably dropping a routine toss from Griffin.
• An interception, with Griffin throwing a tick late and into the hands of Haden rather than Jackson, his intended target.
• And a failure to punch the ball in the end zone given three runs from the 1-yard line.
Though Griffin accounted for two of Washington’s 11 penalties, called for false starts because he moved on a hard count, Gruden said it wasn’t a concern. The infraction is among several that NFL officials are clamping down on with vigor this offseason. And both coach and quarterback said they’d make whatever fix is necessary.
“I can clean up whatever I did wrong on the false starts, make the change there and try not to move on those hard counts,” Griffin said.
Gruden’s other agenda items are trickier and more time-consuming stuff. Among them: teaching Griffin when and how to slide when he’s outside the pocket, beefing up goal line plays and fine-tuning the passing game.
“Offensively, we haven’t got a lot of chances at goal line periods in practice or in games,” Gruden noted. “It was a great chance for us to line up in there and get things corrected. Hats off to Cleveland. . . . We did a poor job.”
The Redskins have a short work week to make the corrections, with a Saturday game at Baltimore.
But it was an upbeat locker room after Monday’s victory, with one player after another pointing out that the offense moved the ball and the team appeared to have emerged without injury.
“Everybody is healthy; everybody is doing things we need to do to accomplish what we want to accomplish,” said Jackson, who caught two balls for 34 yards in his preseason debut.
“I think we are moving along nicely,” said Griffin, acknowledging that penalties were a concern. “We got the win, and we did move the ball well.”
Both are achievements, to be sure. But as the 3-13 Redskins learned last year, moving the ball without scoring is a hollow achievement.
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