Is this real? The Washington Redskins have won five straight, the latest of which came without the services of Robert Griffin III, and now hold a share of first place in the NFC East after opening the season with a 3-6 record?
The Redskins rebounded from a shaky start at Cleveland Browns stadium to pull off a rather authoritative victory. They now control their own destiny down the final stretch of the regular season.
Kirk Cousins proved once again that Mike Shanahan made the right choice – not only in drafting him, but in sitting Griffin to ensure an extra week of healing to his knee. Cousins had a shaky first couple series, and then found a rhythm and only seemed to get better as the game progressed. He finished with a stat line that read 26-for-37 for 329 yards, two touchdowns, an interception and a 104.4 passer rating.
Meanwhile, the defense answered the call with one of its better outings of the season, and decisive plays that changed the tide of the game.
Here are five observations from the 38-21 victory:
1.) More diversity on offense – Kyle Shanahan has talked about how his goal is for the Redskins offense to be able to adopt whatever approach it needs for a given game and for that to succeed. We’ve seen the approach with Griffin vary from week to week: option heavy, to more pocket passing, to the pistol. On Sunday, we saw Shanahan go back to his roots and run the traditional Mike Shanahan offense that worked so well in Denver for years. Browns defensive players said that they hadn’t seen so many play-action bootlegs all year. Linebacker D’Qwell Jackson said that the way Cousins was used was vintage Mike Shanahan-Jake Plummer. Center Will Montgomery said the Redskins went back to “the pre-Robert era” as they attacked the Browns. The interesting thing was to see that while the pre-snap looks differed from what we’ve seen for much of the season, the results were the same, whether for the Redskins’ stretch plays, bootlegs and route trees. Any time you can put up 38 points with a backup quarterback, you know you have a dangerous attack.
2.) Quarterback preparation – There’s no denying that Robert Griffin III is an exceptional talent. Now we know that Cousins is pretty good as well. But one thing stood out when you looked at Cousins throughout the game, and then Brandon Weeden, who was taken two rounds higher: the way they have been prepared, and the way their coaches help them with their play-calling. Mike Shanahan, Kyle Shanahan and quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur have put both Griffin and Cousins on a program that has developed their skills and helped ensure a smooth transition from the college game to the professional level. Because of the way Mike Shanahan had Jim Haslett bring all sorts of complicated looks throughout training camp, neither Griffin nor Cousins has seemed to be confused by the coverages they face. They both recognize formations, make adjustments and put their offenses into the best possible situations. Weeden, on the other hand, looked tentative as the Redskins would start with one look, and then switch to a different formation once the ball was snapped. Another thing is that the play calling and pass routes that Kyle Shanahan draws up consistently get receivers open. Asking Ed Reed why Griffin has done so well avoiding interceptions, the future Hall of Fame safety said that the offense always gets receivers open, so the decisions are easier on the rookie. The same proved true for Cousins. Yes, he forced the one throw to Pierre Garcon, and had another risky throw to Logan Paulsen. But overall, he looked comfortable from the late-first quarter on, and wound up having a stellar debut. Weeden has the physical tools, but mentally, you can tell he’s not there yet. Browns fans were furious as they watched another rookie quarterback of lower draft grade do so well. But I’m willing to wager that Cousins and Weeden probably could have switched places, and that Cousins could have had the same struggles for the Browns, and that Weeden, had he been prepared the way Griffin and Cousins have, would have enjoyed more success. All of that said, nothing should be taken away from Cousins. It’s evident that he has carried himself with the utmost professionalism since coming to Washington. He studies so well that Shanahan wasn’t limited in his play calling. We also saw Cousins continue to show that he can learn from mistakes. After locking onto receivers early, he began looking off defenders, going back to his intended target, and at times – like the Hankerson bomb – he made it all the way to his last read and delivered a big play.
3.) Alfred Morris – I’ve had an ongoing debate with several people this season as to whether Alfred Morris’s success all hinges on Griffin, or if the Florida Atlantic could indeed succeed in another system, without Griffin. All the Cleveland radio stations asked the same question when they had me on this week leading up to the game. From talking to coaches and teammates, and watching Morris pick up yards after contact, and run with such a physical style, I’ve believed that Morris could have success with Griffin on the shelf. Morris proved Sunday that he is a legitimate workhorse back in the NFL regardless of who his quarterback is. The sledding was tough early on, but the Redskins didn’t go away from Morris, instead capitalizing on the Browns’ focus on him. They had great success in the play-action attack. In the second half – after managing just 18 yards on nine carries in the first and second quarters – Morris gained another 69 yards on 18 carries to finish with 87 yards and two touchdowns on 27 rushes. He now is over the 1,300-yard mark, joining Clinton Portis, John Riggins, Terry Allen and Stephen Davis as the only Redskins backs to do that in a single season. Yes, the Redskins would not be in this position without Griffin’s heroics. But back in training camp Griffin himself raved about Morris. The superhero buff joked that he and Morris would join their rookie super forces to give Washington a dynamic duo. They’ve been able to do just that.
4.) Rob Jackson – For a third straight week, Rob Jackson has come up with a decisive play in the second half, when his team has needed them most. First the sack on Eli Manning, then the sack-fumble on Joe Flacco, and this week the third-quarter interception that changed the game, along with a sack later in the second half. After rotating him with teammates as the Redskins tried to compensate for the loss of Brian Orakpo, Jim Haslett finally settled on Jackson as more of a full-time player. And Jackson has since recorded a sack each week while demonstrating growth in pass coverage. Getting to the quarterback was more natural for Jackson, but dropping into coverage was something he still was learning, even this year. But ever since he challenged Haslett to give him more opportunities, Jackson has delivered. Jackson’s teammates gushed over the strides that he has made as a seventh-round pick who had to convert from defensive end to linebacker, then go from practice squad guy to special teams player/defensive backup and then platoon player to the full-time force that he is now.
5.) Playoff picture – Two games remain, and both are within the division. The Redskins must win at Philadelphia and then at home against Dallas, and they – believe it or not – will win the NFC East, and would host a first-round playoff game. (I’m still shaking my head in disbelief as I type this). The Redskins still have a chance for a wild card if they were to somehow lose to Philadelphia, but they then must beat Dallas and hope for help from others to do it. As the Redskins player said last night, their focus and approach must remain the same. They must devote all of their attention to the Eagles, and can’t afford to soak up the success they’ve had these last five weeks. Once the Philadelphia game is in the books, they must do the same as they prepare for that Dec. 30th regular season finale.
Bonus – One important area to monitor is the offensive line. After holding up all year long, and enjoying success because of that continuity, the unit appears to be breaking down. Tyler Polumbus has a concussion, Will Montgomery a knee sprain, and Trent Williams continues to be hobbled by a thigh injury. The line struggled early against Cleveland, but improved as the game went on and as they were continually put in more run-blocking and play-action situations than straight drop-back passing plays. This week we’ll find out how much shuffling must be done. The game ended with Kory Lichtensteiger at center, Maurice Hurt at left guard and Jordan Black at right tackle. Can the starters heal up to maintain the effectiveness they’ve shown this year, or are we about to find out if the depth of the line is improved as the Redskins hoped when they entered the season?