The Redskins’ offense isn’t just surviving without tight end Fred Davis and left tackle Trent Williams; it’s somehow thriving.
“Yeah, very surprised,” Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan conceded earlier this week.
Saturday’s game against the Minnesota Vikings will be the Redskins’ third without Williams and Davis, who were suspended this month for the final four games of the season for repeated violations of the league’s drug policy. But the Redskins’ offensive performance hasn’t suffered without either. In most key categories — points per game, yards, first downs, sacks allowed, rushing yards and passing yards among them — the team’s averages in the past two games top its production in the first 12 games, when Davis and Williams were in the lineup.
“Everybody, as a coaching staff and players, you’ve got to change things up a little when you lose some key guys,” said offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. “As you’ve seen, we’ve done a few different things, mainly personnel-wise.”
While the team’s replacement parts have had to bear a heavier burden, coaches have adjusted more, becoming increasingly creative with their game plans, personnel groupings and play-calling each week.
Williams was replaced primarily by Willie Smith, an undrafted rookie out of East Carolina, and Davis by Logan Paulsen, a second-year tight end who joined the Redskins as an undrafted rookie a year ago out of UCLA. Coaches knew there’d be a drop-off in talent, but they hoped to mask it with formations and plays that would keep defenses guessing.
“Obviously, the play-calling’s going to be a little bit different,” Mike Shanahan said. “You don’t want to put yourself in a situation where you’re putting all the pressure on new players, but they still have to go out there and execute regardless of what it is.”
Paulsen is lining up in Davis’s spot, but he’s not used the same way. Davis was averaging five catches per game. In two starts in Davis’s place, Paulsen has a single catch. Last Sunday at the Giants, he was targeted only once by quarterback Rex Grossman. One week earlier against New England, the Redskins didn’t target a tight end at all — a far cry from the opening games of the season, when Davis and Chris Cooley were popular options.
Instead, the Redskins have relied heavily on a formation that has featured three wide receivers and two running backs in the backfield.
“You don’t see a lot of that in the NFL,” Grossman said. “[Defenses] have to make up their minds as far as what type of personnel they want to match with that, and what type of plays we can run. We still have a fullback in the game, and we can run a lot of our run plays, and spread them out a little bit and still have a lead blocker on a lot of things. And it’s also, with three wide receivers, you can run a lot of different pass concepts that we have.”
The Redskins still run their base offense out of this formation, but even if the plays look similar, defenses still must adjust. A play that was run out of a two-tight end set last month requires a different response when there’s a fullback and extra wide receiver on the field.
“When Fred was getting off, it was coverage to one side and somebody else was able to get open,” said wide receiver Santana Moss. “Now it’s like, we’re missing Fred, so we have to put more receivers over there. We have to do something a little different here and there.”
It’s not a formation the Redskins used much earlier this season. With Cooley and Davis, they preferred to have one tight end — and often two — on the field at all times. It also changes some blocking assignments up front and requires Grossman to have greater awareness in the pocket.
“When you don’t have a tight end, you can’t double team the defensive ends with that tackle,” Kyle Shanahan said, “unless you teach a receiver how to do that, which they wouldn’t be good at even if they learned how to. But really there’s two open edges. It’s kind of like four-wide sets with two open edges.”
The offense has been able to keep opposing defensive coordinators on their toes. Kyle Shanahan likes to be aggressive and unpredictable, and that never has been more evident than in the past couple of weeks.
Wide receiver Niles Paul ran a reverse for a seven-yard gain against New York, his first rushing attempt of the year. Anthony Armstrong ran one, too, and gained 14 yards. Against the Patriots, receiver Brandon Banks threw a touchdown pass, and the Redskins opened the Giants’ game with a failed flea flicker.
“Kyle’s finding ways to get the ball into playmakers’ hands, get different guys involved,” Armstrong said. “It keeps the defense off-balance. When they don’t know what to expect, it makes it a lot easier to run your base offense.”
Still, coaches say it ultimately comes down to the players on the field. They’ve noticed improvement in Smith, who is charged with protecting Grossman’s blind side. They think Paulsen is a strong blocker. And Darrel Young is a versatile, athletic fullback — he played linebacker at Villanova — who is getting a chance to show he can contribute more.
Young has played in 11 games this season. With Williams and Davis in the lineup, the fullback carried the ball only once. Last Sunday at New York, he had four carries, including one for the first rushing touchdown of his career.
“[It] just says a lot about the guys playing, playing hard,” Mike Shanahan said of the team’s success without Davis and Williams. “They’re working, doing the little things during the week to give yourself a chance.”
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