Three consecutive losses, four in five games, a dispirited performance on their home field — the Redskins have come unglued. Their free fall raises troubling questions about the foundation of a franchise that finds itself in the NFC East basement only a season after winning its first division title in 13 seasons.
The 49ers overwhelmed the Redskins, now 3-8, at the line of scrimmage, produced big plays and cruised to a victory in a nationally televised game. The differences were crystal clear — especially at the quarterback position.
In a matchup of high-profile young quarterbacks, San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick easily outdueled Robert Griffin III. The Redskins were awful on offense and their secondary disappointed again, but Griffin’s no-show in a hyped battle against another of last season’s breakout stars was the most disturbing development for the Redskins. Let’s start there.
No matter how Griffin plays, Redskins coaches praise him. The view from around the NFL about Griffin’s performance isn’t as rosy.
Fact is, Griffin still is in his infancy as a pocket passer. He must improve significantly at reading defenses, decision-making and getting rid of the football, a longtime defensive coach who has studied tape of the Redskins said recently.
One play in the third quarter Monday night illustrated Griffin’s shortcomings in the pocket. On second and 18 at the Washington 11-yard line, Griffin dropped back and surveyed the field. The 49ers — again — had the Redskins’ receivers blanketed.
The Redskins were backed up near their goal line, and Griffin had been sacked on the previous play. Under the circumstances, Griffin, realizing the play would not work, should have thrown the ball away. Instead, as he often does, Griffin held on to the ball too long and had to scramble to avoid absorbing another big hit.
In another shaky outing, Griffin finished with only 127 yards passing and a poor 58.7 passer rating. His failure to protect the football — Griffin had an interception, and the Redskins recovered his fumble — is almost as alarming as his lack of progress at the skills he must master to become an elite pocket passer.
By design, the Redskins have a small (by NFL standards) offensive line. Coach Mike Shanahan prefers agile linemen capable of moving quickly in his zone-blocking scheme. The approach helped the Redskins lead the NFL in rushing last season, and they top the league again.
Problem is, the Redskins’ offensive line often gets overpowered in pass blocking. San Francisco outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks and inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman dominated the Redskins’ line.
Brooks manhandled right tackle Tyler Polumbus throughout the game. Bowman was extremely disruptive as well. They had key roles in Griffin’s awful opening quarter: 1 for 6, minus-1 yard passing and one interception.
Washington’s top offensive lineman had problems, too. In the third quarter, left tackle Trent Williams, who committed glaring errors during a Week 11 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, displayed awful technique while whiffing against outside linebacker Aldon Smith, who sacked Griffin for an eight-yard loss.
For the Redskins, replacing Polumbus should be a priority in the offseason. They also could benefit from adding at least one new starting interior lineman. Their line has many holes.
For the past two seasons, Washington defensive coordinator Jim Haslett has watched Griffin direct the read option. Haslett and offensive play-caller Kyle Shanahan have matched wits in practice. Haslett should know how to game-plan for a college option-style offense.
Lack of talent, however, can ruin the best-laid plans — and the Redskins definitely lack talent on defense. Haslett’s approach against the 49ers was sound: use a player to “spy” Kaepernick, contain him in the pocket and play disciplined. Unfortunately for the Redskins, the 49ers identified one of the Redskins’ many weak links: starting cornerback Josh Wilson.
Although Kaepernick has struggled as a passer this season, he quickly got into a groove against the Redskins. After studying tape of the Redskins, the 49ers figured they could pick on Wilson. They were right.
There’s nothing like getting off to a fast start to help a young quarterback’s confidence. On consecutive plays in the first, Kaepernick teamed with wide receiver Anquan Boldin, who was covered by Wilson, for gains of 24 and 19 yards, the latter resulting in a touchdown. Kaepernick’s 40-yard connection with tight end Vernon Davis (Wilson was late on that one, too) helped set up a 49ers field goal. Overall, Kaepernick had 235 yards passing, three touchdowns without a turnover and a sparkling 134.5 passer rating.
To slow down Kaepernick as a runner, Haslett assigned safety Brandon Meriweather to follow the second-year starter. Outside linebackers Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan were instructed to keep Kaepernick within the pocket, and Washington’s defensive linemen and inside linebackers were supposed to maintain their rush lanes. Absolutely no freelancing, Haslett demanded.
Haslett got some of what he wanted: Kaepernick had only 20 yards rushing and a 2.2-yard average. But the Redskins’ defense wasn’t nearly as effective against the pass, and that was the difference in the game.
Whether a team uses a 3-4, a 4-3 or any other alignment, a defense won’t succeed without talent. The Redskins’ defense needs much more of it.
The Redskins are limping to the finish in one of the more disappointing seasons in team history. And judging by the empty seats in the fourth quarter, the roads to FedEx Field in December could be wide open.
For more by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.
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