The Washington Redskins’ starters used the preseason opener against the New England Patriots on Aug. 7 to get their feet wet. They logged limited snaps — 10 for the offense and nine for the defense. Monday night, as the Redskins play their second game of the preseason, the starters will take a deeper plunge, logging at least a quarter against the Cleveland Browns at FedEx Field.
Still far from a finished product, the team has work to do in all three phases of the game. Coach Jay Gruden and his staff remain in evaluation mode when it comes to the 68 non-starters vying for roster spots and jockeying for position on the depth chart.
But when it comes to the starters on offense and defense, they’re looking for progress. Gruden wants to see players build on last week’s performances.
Here are five areas to watch Monday night:
GRIFFIN’S COMMAND: Gruden opted to ease Robert Griffin III into action last week rather than just turn him loose. The coach kicked off the game with a heavy dose of running back Alfred Morris and called only four pass plays for his starting offense.
This week, Gruden will unclamp his quarterback a little more.
One of the biggest changes in the operation of the offense under Gruden involves the coach giving his quarterbacks the green light to make changes at the line, depending on the look of the defense. Former offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan didn’t let his quarterbacks make many audibles, so this represents a new freedom and responsibility for Griffin. He said he relishes it.
“It’s a quarterback’s dream. You want to have some control at the line of scrimmage to get out of some things and protect yourself with different protections,” Griffin said. “So, I enjoy it. It’s fun. . . . It’s just more command of the team in general as a quarterback.”
More comfort in the offense should translate into improved tempo and rhythm. Each practice, Gruden devotes segments to the running of the no-huddle offense.
If Griffin can become proficient in this area, Washington has the ability to put more pressure on defenses.
Asked what he wants to see out of Griffin & Co. this week, offensive coordinator Sean McVay said, “You want to see quick operation. You want to see us get in and out of the huddle, be able to run and throw the football efficiently, and ultimately put points on the board and finish drives with touchdowns.”
ANSWER FOR MANZIEL: Increased aggression has served as the top point of emphasis for Washington’s defense, and last week the first unit did well, flustering quarterback Ryan Mallett, who started in place of Tom Brady, and holding the Patriots’ starters without a first down.
Now the challenge increases; the Redskins must prove they can remain disruptive while containing a mobile threat in Cleveland quarterback Johnny Manziel.
The rookie won’t start, but Manziel, the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner, is expected to see playing time in the first quarter and face Washington’s starting defense.
Former Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan has taken his playbook with him to Cleveland. So the plays he will call for Manziel will look familiar. Washington’s players hope that leads to success.
“It’s going to help us be able to play faster,” defensive end Chris Baker said. “. . . I wouldn’t say we have an advantage, because we have to go out and compete on every down. But we do have familiarity, and we know how they want to run that offense. We see the same offense every day.”
RECEIVING DUO’S DEBUT: Last week’s game didn’t provide a true indication of what Washington’s offense will look like, because wide receivers Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson missed that game with injury.
The starting offense moved the ball and put itself in scoring position, but came away without a touchdown. It might have been different with Garcon and Jackson as the top targets rather than Andre Roberts and Aldrick Robinson. Both are coming off of 1,300-yard receiving seasons. Garcon boasts a physical style of play, while Jackson capitalizes on his speed.
Their returns should provide a boost. It’ll be interesting to see how Gruden uses each receiver and how Griffin spreads the ball around to these two as well as Roberts, who will return to his role of slot receiver, and tight end Jordan Reed.
KICKING DUEL: While the Redskins know their starters at just about every position, they do not yet know who will be their place kicker.
Rookie Zach Hocker bested veteran Kai Forbath in last week’s game.
It’s not just about field goals. Special teams coach Ben Kotwica wants excellence on kickoffs as well, and Forbath has been weak there. The strong-legged Hocker did well in this area last week. Forbath did not. In practices, we’ve seen them alternate good and bad plays.
Forbath will have the better showing on one day, and then Hocker will bounce back and do well while Forbath struggles.
KEY BACKUPS: Once the starters call it a night, the battle for roster spots will ensue. The position groups with the most to prove: running back, offensive line and safety.
Coaches still need to see more from fourth-year veteran Evan Royster and rookies Lache Seastrunk and Silas Redd as each competes for a spot behind Morris and top backup Roy Helu Jr. The other contestant in this position battle — second-year running back Chris Thompson — will miss the game with a low ankle sprain.
Coaches also want to see improved consistency out of backup linemen Josh LeRibeus and Morgan Moses. LeRibeus, a third-year pro, had some decent moments at left guard last week, but as is the case in practices, he also had some head-scratching moments. Meanwhile, Moses — the third-round pick out of Virginia — appeared overwhelmed at times last week. Now with his first NFL game out of the way, he needs to have a more effective showing.
On defense, second-year pro Bacarri Rambo held his own as he started at free safety in place of Ryan Clark. This week, he has worked at strong safety with Brandon Meriweather questionable because of a toe injury. Rambo, who has struggled with tackling, made a key stop to prevent a big run against the Patriots. Coaches were encouraged, but they need to see him do it on a consistent basis. Meanwhile, 2013 draft pick Phillip Thomas finally will get onto the field after missing all of last season with foot surgery and last week’s game with a strained hamstring.