The Washington Redskins took care of business against the New York Giants, jumping out to a 20-0 lead, and then holding on for a 20-14 victory to improve to 5-6 and move into first place in the NFC East.
Up next, a Monday Night Football date with the Dallas Cowboys at FedEx Field.
But first, here are five observations from Sunday’s win:
1. Versatility, discipline and Perry Fewell – The key to Washington’s success on defense this week involved the flexibility and versatility, particularly on the back end. Secondary coach Perry Fewell has flown under the radar, but the former Giants defensive coordinator deserves a lot of credit for the work he has done while overcoming obstacles left and right. From injuries to DeAngelo Hall, Chris Culliver and Bashaud Breeland in the preseason, to disappointments in the now-departed David Amerson, coaching up rookie sixth-rounder Kyshoen Jarrett both as a nickelback and a safety, incorporating street free agent Will Blackmon and transforming Quinton Dunbar from a wide receiver to a cornerback, nothing has been simple for Fewell. However, all of the mixing, matching and shuffling has made the Redskins more well-rounded in the secondary.
As you saw Sunday, having players capable of playing multiple positions lends itself to more creativity, and also causes confusion for opponents. Multiple times in that game, Eli Manning identified would-be blitzers, then second-guessed himself and switched the call because he couldn’t get a read on how Fewell was using Hall or Jarrett. Having two players on the back end with the range of Hall and Dashon Goldson also enabled cornerbacks Breeland, Blackmon and Dunbar to play more press coverage, which in turn disrupted the Giants’ receivers.
Odell Beckham Jr. had a productive day with nine catches for 142 yards and that spectacular touchdown catch, but outside of Ruben Randle’s touchdown, where he took advantage of a greedy Blackmon, the Giants’ receivers struggled to get open.
In addition to the versatility, Redskins players say that discipline served them well. Said Blackmon, “The key was stop trying to so much figure out what [Manning] was doing and truly just play our defense, and play fundamentally sound. That’s communicating and trusting each other. We were just playing our rules. My interception, I just played disciplined football. I should’ve had it initially, but I was there.” He then explained that trying to do too much got him into trouble and led to the Randle touchdown.
Communication also helped the Redskins compensate. The defensive backs were doing a lot of talking back and forth, double-checking, pointing things out. There’s always some of this going on, but there was more than usual on Sunday, which stems partially from the increased level of accountability among the players. Guys understood how much they needed to work together to finally flip the script on Manning & Co., who have had their number for years.
2. True commitment to the run – The Redskins finished the game with 37 carries for 105 yards and one rushing touchdown. That’s a lot of carries, but not the greatest output of yards. It’s an average of 2.8 per carry. But what we saw on Sunday was a true commitment to the run.
Coaches have said all season long that they’re committed to the run, but we haven’t often seen it. The 37 carries ties a season high. Washington had the same number of carries in Weeks 1 and 2, but haven’t had that many since. It was easy to stick with the run in those games, because the Redskins had success (4.4 and 4.9 yards per carry, respectively). But commitment to the run doesn’t mean sticking with it as long as you’re striking gold. Commitment to the run means having patience and plugging away. We saw that on Sunday. Alfred Morris would have a yard here, two or three yards there, then eight, then two, and one, then five and then seven.
Sticking with the run enabled Washington to better sell the play-action passes. We saw more play-action passes on Sunday than we normally do. Eight of Cousins’s 29 pass attempts came out of play action or fake tosses. That’s 27 percent, which is a spike from the average of roughly 17 percent this season. (Cousins completed seven of those eight play-action passes).
So not only does sticking with the run ensure balance on offense, but it also helps the quarterback because just having the threat of the run can plant a seed of doubt in the minds of the defenders. That in turn leads to openings. Discipline in play-calling – particularly when it comes to the run – is something that Jay Gruden has seemed to struggle with, even during his time in Cincinnati. He’ll always say he needs to do better and be more patient. On Sunday, he finally did that. We’ll see if this determination is the turning over of a new leaf, or a flash in the pan.
3. Winning matchups – Football is often about matchups and mismatches. You have to identify them, figure out how to capitalize on them and then win them. On Sunday, we saw the Redskins winning their one-on-one matchups on both sides of the ball. We talked about the secondary. Breeland led the way as he forced incompletions on four of his five downfield coverage assignments of Beckham.
Dunbar played well in man coverage as well, and struck gold as he undercut Randle for the interception that wound up defining the game.
Up front, Washington’s defensive linemen and linebackers did a better job in their individual matchups as well. Yes, the Giants were short-handed in the trenches, but we’ve seen the Redskins fail to capitalize here before.
Ryan Kerrigan appeared more explosive and more powerful than we’ve seen him this year, and he had his first multiple-sack game of the season. Teammates Jason Hatcher and Preston Smith didn’t record sacks, but they proved disruptive enough to put pressure on Eli Manning.
On offense, the Cousins and his play-callers did a good job of identifying the mismatches they faced. The best example was the touchdown pass to DeSean Jackson. Aware that the speedy Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was out getting checked for an injury, the Redskins went deep, knowing backup Jayron Hosley and Brandon Meriweather were no match for Jackson.
They put Jordan Reed in position to make plays all day long, but none proved more crucial than the fourth-quarter first-down pickup of 20 yards, where Reed beat safety Craig Dahl off the line and got open down the center of the field.
4. Stronger unity – We’ve heard “culture change” thrown around a lot this year, because the Redskins are indeed in need of one, and that’s what Gruden and Scot McCloughan are trying to accomplish.
On days like Sunday, you can feel things changing. Not just because the scoreboard said so, but little things like Dashon Goldson – who only just got here this year – taking it upon himself to call a players-only meeting so they could sort some things out and pull closer together.
Or, Ricky Jean Francois and Jason Hatcher standing on the field at the end of the first half while the rest of their defensive teammates headed to the locker room. Jean Francois and Hatcher waited to welcome each offensive player off the field before they went in for the break.
Even during the week, there seems to be a stronger sense of unity. There haven’t been instances of finger-pointing after tough losses, no veiled shots at coaching decisions, which we’ve definitely witnessed over the years.
Accountability is one the talking points, and players not only feel accountable to themselves, but they’ve even discussed how accountable they feel to their fans, who have suffered so long.
“They’ve put up with a lot of crap, and I just want to win so bad for them,” Hatcher said yesterday.
Whether or not the Redskins do win the division, it certainly seems like the core is getting stronger, and things are headed in the right direction.
5. To-do list: As much of a feel-good story as Sunday’s win offers, the Redskins know they have a lot of work left to do.
Asked about moving into first place, Breeland said, “It’s big but at this point, it means nothing right now. We’ve got to keep going. At the end of the year, if we’re still No. 1, then you can ask me this question.”
The schedule appears to play out favorably for Washington with a home game against Dallas, road game at 5-6 Chicago, home game against up-and-down Buffalo and then road games at Philly and Dallas to close out the season.
But the Redskins must tighten up in some key areas if they expect to remain atop the division. Here are a few of those areas:
● Penalties. They had gotten better, but in the past two weeks, the transgressions have started popping up again, and they’re costly. Jordan Reed, in particular, needs to remember how to block better, keeping his hands inside instead of grabbing guys by the outside of their shoulder pads, which warrants him a flag every time. He also needs to remember that you can’t engage a defensive back downfield while the ball is still in the air.
● Run blocking. The offense needs to continue refining itself in this department. There were far too many times when linemen were blocked into the backfield, leaving Morris with little to no running room.
● Taking advantage of turnovers. The offense also needs to do a better job of capitalizing. The defense got the ball back three times, and Washington didn’t score a single point off of those turnovers. That can’t happen.
● Run defense. The defense did a good job of tightening up against the run on Sunday, and then the Giants neglected that element of the offense because they found themselves in a hole. The Redskins must remain stout, particularly next week as they go against a Cowboys line that is full of talented players.
The players also have to keep the chip on their shoulders. They admitted Sunday night that following the Saints blowout, they got complacent. It’d be such a usual Redskins thing to do to come off this win and then put on a listless performance against the Cowboys. If this is indeed a new era, players will show they have learned from their mistakes and will play like double-digit underdogs next week.
And then, the Redskins need to bottle up whatever special intensity that they have at FedEx Field and take it on the road. Playoff teams can win in any environment. We won’t know if this team really is a contender until we see quality road wins. As it turns out, three of the next five will be on the road. Truth-telling time continues.
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