By Jason Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 11, 2008
If pass catchers are well covered and Washington Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell is in need of help, that's usually when wide receiver Antwaan Randle El does his best work. He freelances by design in Coach Jim Zorn's spread offense and provides Campbell with timely assists.
The team's No. 2 wideout is among many who have responded favorably to a less-complex scheme than Washington's approach under former play-caller Al Saunders. With more freedom in patterns, Randle El has capitalized on opportunities and contributed to the Redskins' impressive start.
The Redskins (4-1) will attempt to extend their winning streak to five games tomorrow against the St. Louis Rams (0-4) -- whose offense Saunders now directs -- at FedEx Field. Physically sound again after having been slowed by hamstring and knee injuries during the 2007 season, Randle El finally has a role with Washington that suits him well. Now, if only he could get going on punt returns, too.
"Antwaan is having fun," Campbell said. "As soon as I started to learn Coach Zorn's offense, and understand the things that you can do it, I knew Antwaan would be one of the guys who would really get into it. Coach Zorn puts a lot of trust in him, and you know you can count on him."
Santana Moss leads the team in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns, but Randle El has settled into a key role. Primarily positioned as the slot receiver in Zorn's version of the West Coast offense, Randle El has one touchdown catch and is third on the team with 21 receptions for 219 yards. Statistics, however, do not reflect his importance, especially as an outlet in pressure situations.
Under Zorn, the Redskins are "running more option routes than last year, and that's been good for him," wide receivers coach Stan Hixon said. And Zorn "gives him a lot of freedom versus certain coverages. He tells him, 'Just get open and we'll read you.' "
Randle El often succeeds at maneuvering through defenses from the slot because of his size (he is listed at 5 feet 10 and 190 pounds) and quickness, Hixon said. When facing spread offenses, most teams use their third cornerbacks against slot receivers. Randle El usually draws favorable matchups, and "he does win a lot" of those individual battles, Campbell said. Of Randle El's 21 catches, 13 have produced first downs, the third-highest total on the team behind Moss and tight end Chris Cooley (18 and 16, respectively).
Attempting to run out the clock late in the fourth quarter of Sunday's 23-17 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles, Washington needed four yards on third down. After a timeout, Zorn, Washington's play-caller, called for a pass play that did not seem to work as the Eagles had tight coverage on everyone in the pattern, and Campbell was chased from the pocket.
Randle El, running an option route, realized what had gone wrong and adjusted, locating a hole in the defense he thought would be the only opening for Campbell against the Eagles' alignment. The result was an 11-yard completion and a first down.
The Redskins maintained possession, gained two more first downs -- including one on a fourth-down draw play -- and Campbell kneeled to end a game for the fourth time in as many weeks. "He sees me scrambling, and he's not open initially, but he gets himself open," Campbell said. "I'm able to get the ball to him and he's able to get the first down. That was big."
Earlier in the second half, Randle El, a quarterback at Indiana, threw an 18-yard touchdown pass to Cooley on an end-around play. "He acts like a quarterback when he's out there. That's what fires me up," said Zorn, a former quarterback. "He understands how to see an open receiver. He's a tremendous guy and he's got unique talents."
During the second quarter of a 26-24 victory over Dallas on Sept. 28, Campbell and Randle El teamed on a two-yard touchdown pass. Although the touchdown occurred on a conventional route, Randle El ran many option routes in the first half that helped draw Cowboys defensive backs away from Moss, who had six receptions for 125 yards in the first half (he finished with eight catches for 145 yards).
"Under Coach Zorn, we've called the option routes more, more so than we did in the past, but the other thing, too, is that we have more freedom in running 'em," Randle El said. With Zorn's option routes, "we can break in if we want, we can break out if we want, we can just go up there and stop.
"We can go any way we want to go. It's basically backyard ball, one-on-one, mano y mano, just get open, but it's always all within the structure of the offense."
The offense is more user-friendly than Saunders's, with its 700-page playbook. "It's not as much volume," Randle El said. "The things that we run, we run good, and because of those things that we run and run good, we're able to run different things off those things.
"In the past, we would run so many things, [opponents] wouldn't know what we were doing, but sometimes we didn't, either, in terms of getting a true feel of Jason knowing, 'Okay, he's going to come out right here.' Now, he knows my break. We didn't have options like that last year. We had a bit much because the volume was so much."
Said Hixon, "Our playbook is a lot smaller."
The Redskins, in part, pursued Randle El in free agency before the 2006 season because they envisioned him doing big things for them as a slot receiver. Randle El was a productive third receiver in his first four seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers, and a big part of their offense on end-around and option plays. During Pittsburgh's 21-10 victory over the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XL, Randle El became the first wide receiver in Super Bowl history to throw a touchdown pass (he combined with wideout Hines Ward on a 43-yard play).
The Redskins also devised trick plays for Randle El, but Joe Gibbs and Saunders rarely were on the same page, many in the organization said, and the offense did not take shape. Ousted in the staff shakeup that occurred after Gibbs retired in January, Saunders quickly joined the Rams.
"It's just different now," Campbell said. "Guys can really show what they can do in this offense."
Randle El, however, has not been as productive as he would prefer on punt returns, averaging only 7.5 yards. He also has committed Washington's only turnover this season, a fumble on a return.
Criticism about his performance in the return game "doesn't bother me," Randle El said. "You've got to remember, I've been playing in this league seven years. Criticism comes with it, but I evaluate myself more critically than any reporter or coach could."