In a game very much of two halves, the Washington Redskins managed to throw away a 10-point halftime lead to lose 34-27 to the 1-7 Minnesota Vikings. Washington’s inability to close out games, particularly to a one-win team, is worrisome. Here’s my position-by-position review.
We saw a much more controlled Robert Griffin III in the first half. He did a good job keeping his eyes downfield and stepping up in the pocket to make throws. But in the second half, he saw more pressure arrive from the Vikings’ defense and was forced to try and scramble more often, which led him to not step into all of his throws.
Such an important staple of the Redskins’ offense is the post route off of play-action. Teams have been taking it away this year, and Griffin has really struggled. But Minnesota failed to plug the hole created by play-action, and Pierre Garcon found himself open over the middle. The play is an easy one-read throw for Griffin, easy for the offensive line to block because they use play-action and an easy route for Garcon because there’s plenty of space vacated by the fake. Washington leaned on this concept all night and it allowed Griffin to settle into the game.
Griffin did an excellent job pump faking and waiting for Jordan Reed on his second touchdown pass. Reed came underneath, but had a linebacker in position to jump the route. Griffin noticed the linebacker and pump faked to get him to bite down. Reed did a good job of staying with the play and running through the route to find the space in the defense. Griffin was hit as he threw, but still got an accurate pass away and it paid off.
But Griffin still has some issues with the ball sailing on him. He doesn’t appear to fully step into his throws and transfer his weight over his front foot. That means the throws come more from the shoulder and pure arm strength than his footwork. As a result, some throws will fly high over the receiver, others won’t be placed where he would like.
Alfred Morris was excellent once again. He ran the stretch, the counters and the read-option with great effect. His vision and ability to set up blocks for the cutback is fantastic. He again displayed his outstanding lower-body strength as he bounced off multiple high tackles; defenses should know by now that they have to tackle him low and stop his legs from pumping. He was a constant threat to the Vikings, which they couldn’t stop. That opened up the entire play-action game, which makes the Redskins offense such a huge threat.
Roy Helu Jr. was effective as a receiver out of the backfield, picking up a couple of first downs on screen passes and check downs underneath. Like last week though, Helu was limited with carries as Morris was so effective.
The obvious standout was Pierre Garcon. He, along with Morris, did not deserve to be on the losing side. After somewhat of a slow start, possibly due more to Griffin being rusty than anything else, Garcon has come to life over the past few weeks. He was an effective outlet on screen passes, taking a bubble screen for a 32-yard gain after running over a safety and through an arm tackle of a linebacker. He took a slant-screen pass on third and 17 for a first down, thanks to some good blocks downfield by Helu and Reed. His touchdown reception was also a bubble screen.
But Garcon was at his best running the post routes off of play-action. They are easy enough routes for him, releasing inside and then cutting towards the post into a big gap created by play-action. But his ability to locate and pull in high or misplaced passes from Griffin and still pick up yards after the catch is what makes him a favorite target. Garcon is proving to anyone who doubted him that he can be a legitimate number one receiver.
But outside of Garcon, only Hankerson did anything of note. He was a nice third option for Griffin after Garcon and Reed. He picked up a couple of first downs early in the first quarter running on a deep crosser and a quick underneath route.
I feel like I’m writing the same thing every week with Reed. He’s quickly found the trust of Griffin, which has seen him go from third-round pick to Griffin’s second favorite target. No defense has found a way to stop him yet, making him a constant outlet over the middle for Griffin, who had no problems finding him. Reed was unlucky not to draw a pass interference penalty on the goal line on the final drive. He was clearly held by the defender, who stopped him from turning and getting both hands on the ball.
I also like how Washington is using counter runs to help him with his blocking. On counter plays, Reed lines up almost as a fullback as he sifts back across the line. All Reed has to do is cut off the backside defender to spring Morris free; sometimes just being in position is enough. Making Reed an effective blocker allows him to be on the field for running plays, rather than tip off a pass play to the defense.
Logan Paulsen is also worthy of a mention. He did a good job fighting through traffic on play-action to find himself open in the back of the end zone for a touchdown. He also was a consistent blocker on the edge, allowing Morris or Griffin to get to the edge and into open field.
It’s been said many times before that this offensive line is built to run the zone scheme and play-action off the back of that. In that regard, the offensive line dominated. Right guard Chris Chester and right tackle Tyler Polumbus had some really nice blocks on the right side of the line to create huge lanes for Morris up front and set up play-action. Trent Williams did a great job down blocking on counter plays to help Kory Lichtensteiger inside before reaching the second level. Their blocking in the run game led to Washington averaging 5.3 yards per carry and set up the play-action game well.
But when it comes down to needing to pass protect without the help of play-action, this offensive line struggles as badly as any in the league. The interior core of the line couldn’t handle the defensive tackles of the Vikings, let alone any kind of stunt Minnesota opted to throw at them. Kevin Williams dominated Chester and center Will Montgomery inside on his way to a three-sack game. Griffin doesn’t always step into his throws and transfer his weight over his front foot as it is; the last thing he needs is his offensive line surrendering quick pressure up the middle that forces him to throw off his back foot and repeat bad mechanics. Interior offensive line is quickly becoming a major need for Washington this offseason. They cannot afford to continue allowing big hits on Griffin so quickly. There’s no way he’ll be able to develop his mechanics and progress through reads if there’s constant pressure in the A and B gaps.
On first downs, the defensive line did a good job. Washington sold out to stop Adrian Peterson on first down, a tactic which worked for most of the game. Peterson found little room to manuver early on, often losing yards on carries and setting up second-and-long passes. Had this continued the whole game, I expect the result would have been different. But Peterson showed his class. He only needs one play to break off a long run. On Peterson’s first touchdown, nose tackle Barry Cofield lost his gaps. He lined up over the center and was responsible for the A gaps either side of the center. But Cofield was driven back off the snap and then handed off to the left guard, allowing the center to peel off and block someone else on the play side.
Chris Baker saw plenty of snaps at nose tackle, but had similar troubles in the second half, getting pushed back too easily on some running plays. I felt that Baker was unlucky to be called for a roughness penalty. The referee explained that there had been helmet-to-helmet contact, but the replay showed that Baker had hit Ponder cleanly.
Brian Orakpo started off the game very well. He went with a speed rush outside of the left tackle Matt Kalil on the third play of the game. Kalil looked to have him locked up, but then Orakpo suddenly broke free and sacked Ponder, forcing a third and long, which Ponder was then intercepted on. Orakpo didn’t manage another sack or too many tackles, but he did generate pressure from his side against a very talented left tackle. Ponder often found himself scrambling and throwing on the run because of it.
Ryan Kerrigan had a quiet game. He did drop a potential interception on a play we’ve come to expect from him. The tackle attempted to cut block him to force his hands to stay low. But Kerrigan read the tackle and knew that a bubble screen was coming. Kerrigan got both hands up and on the ball, but couldn’t hold onto it.
Perry Riley Jr. did an excellent job in coverage on Meriweather’s interception. He dropped into the deep middle of the field in what appeared to be Tampa-2 coverage. He stayed with the slot receiver running up the seam. Ponder saw a receiver on a linebacker and thought he’d take a shot, but Riley secured the route well. That allowed Meriweather to come over and play the ball in the air instead of the man. But Riley lost a one-on-one matchup against a slot receiver in the second half. Bacarri Rambo couldn’t get over in time, and Riley gave up the big catch for a first down. But you can’t expect a linebacker to cover a slot receiver too often.
What was one of the most surprising outcomes of this game was the lack of impact London Fletcher had. Sure, he still got everyone set pre-snap, but his name was hardly called post-snap. Against a team with a back like Peterson, you would expect Fletcher to be in the thick of things, but Fletcher was often caught up in heavy traffic without a clear route to the runner.
Reed Doughty had one of the better games I’ve seen from him. He was used constantly as an eighth man in the box to try and flood the running lanes and slow down Peterson. Doughty made a number of good tackles, particularly on Peterson himself. Doughty showed good form in wrapping up and stopped Peterson from keeping his legs moving. That’s something that Brandon Meriweather could learn from, as he charged in from his deep safety spot late in the game. Meriweather went for a big, high hit on the best running back in the league. Peterson bounced off it like Meriweather wasn’t even there.
I was surprised to see DeAngelo Hall play so much off coverage, especially given how effective he’s been this season playing close to the line in press. Perhaps Washington was worried about screen passes, or getting beat deep for speed; or maybe they just wanted their corners to have eyes on the quarterback and be able to break on the ball. Whatever the reason, Vikings receivers took advantage with short timing routes that the defense couldn’t do anything about.
But Hall did make a key stop in the third quarter. Ponder scrambled to his left and took off running. Ponder dived for the pylon and reached out for it. Hall came flying in out of nowhere and landed a huge hit on Ponder that forced the ball loose and saved the touchdown. Hall was slow to get up and left the game before later returning. Ponder wasn’t able to return after what looked to be a wrist or arm injury. But in the end, it didn’t matter.
Washington finally gave up on Josh Morgan as a kick-off returner. Tight end Niles Paul went back deep and looked a lot more comfortable. He made the right decision to take a knee or run it out every time. When he did run it out, he was able to reach at least the 20-yard line each time, if not more.
Morgan still saw time as the punt return man, but he can count himself lucky to fall on top of a punt that he fumbled. The Redskins did the right thing in taking Morgan off kick returns, they should really do the same on punt returns. Nothing against Morgan, it’s just not a natural thing for him.
Kai Forbath made all of his kicks, which is a positive after having two low kicks blocked last week. But how long can Washington continue to deliberately kick short and allow teams to start on the 30- or 40-yard line in fear of what the deep return man might do? The Redskins will have to be more confident in their kick coverage unit or trust Forbath to consistently make touchbacks, otherwise the field position battle will be lost.
Mark Bullock is The Insider’s Outsider, sharing his impressions of the Redskins’ play without the benefit of access to the team.
● Mike Jones’s five observations, and reaction to Thursday night’s loss.
More on the Redskins & NFL: