Last Sunday had not prepared them for this feeling. Last Sunday’s three-touchdown rout of Arizona on the Cardinals’ field had built up a euphoric buzz, a booming sense that after several seasons of disappointment they were ready to unleash havoc on the rest of the NFC East. Then, in less than three hours, that bravado was crushed.
It was taken apart by Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, who didn’t play all of last season with a shoulder injury but who took advantage of a pair of solid running backs, a stout offensive line and an endless series of “pick” passing routes in which two receivers cross to create traffic for opposing defensive backs, leaving at least one pass catcher open. Enough of those picks worked, allowing Luck to throw for 179 yards and two touchdowns. While neither of which seem like spectacular numbers, especially given he was intercepted twice, they were plenty good enough on a day when the Redskins could do little right offensively. A 334-to-281 advantage in total yardage meant nothing to Washington when Indianapolis converted 56 percent of its third downs.
Washington Redskins tight end Jordan Reed is swallowed up by Indianapolis Colts defenders in the fourth quarter. (Jonathan Newton)
The Washington Redskins drop home opener to the Indianapolis Colts
Last week, Washington thundered for 182 rushing yards, running so effectively the passing game seemed like an afterthought. On Sunday, the Colts would not allow the Redskins’ running backs to break free. Openings in the line were quickly filled. Short passes were defended. Peterson, who looked like his old self in Arizona, had just 20 yards on 11 carries.
Chris Thompson, who was the star of the Cardinals game with Peterson, didn’t even have 100 combined yards of offense. Perhaps Washington could have survived these performances if it could find success in the downfield passing game, but Josh Doctson dropped one pass and saw another knocked from his hands in the end zone, and none of the other pass catchers could break away with any consistency.
In the end, everyone was frustrated.
“We had no chemistry at all today, and it’s myself as a play caller,” Gruden said in a rare moment of self-admonishment by an NFL head coach. “I couldn’t get any rhythm calling plays. The inside zone wasn’t working. The outside zone wasn’t working. Our read-options weren’t working very well. We became one-dimensional in our play passes. We got sacked on two [play-action passes] for goodness sake.”
The Redskins, who held the lead for almost all of the Arizona game, played from behind all of Sunday. Luck moved the Colts 75 yards on 11 plays to a touchdown on Indianapolis’s first drive, a seven-yard pass to tight end Eric Ebron putting Washington behind 7-0. Another 75-yard drive, following a Redskins field goal in the second quarter, put Washington down 14-3 when running back Nyheim Hines ran eight yards for a touchdown.
The last score, which came at the end of one final 75-yard drive, was on one of those pick plays. Norman was left alone with two Colts on either side of him, watching helplessly as a Luck pass settled into the hands of wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, who ran it in for the touchdown that would break Washington. Norman threw out his arms in despair. At the time, the Redskins had pulled within 14-9 with field goals on consecutive possessions. The touchdown ended any hope of a comeback.
It summed up the day for the Redskins. Each time they got close, some little thing pushed them back, and nothing was more agonizing than those pick plays. They knew the Colts ran them, having seen them on the hours of game film devoured last week, and even talked about adjusting to them — at times they even did adjust.
“But when we didn’t do it, it was just like elephants on parade,” Norman said. “We just got knocked out. It sucked, but that’s what it was when it comes down to it. Yeah, it was that kind of a day. It was really how they got [almost all] of their third-down conversions.”
Gruden later lamented that he didn’t do more to keep his defensive backs from being picked, but he then added: “That’s pro football, and if you are going to play a lot of man-to-man, you have to expect some pick plays. And we did not do a good job of passing those off or switching them in and out.”
Several players used the phrase “copycat league” to suggest future opponents will use the same strategy on offense, or force Washington to prove it can win a game by throwing the ball downfield and not relying upon Peterson and Thompson. Redskins quarterback Alex Smith completed 33 of 46 passes for 292 yards, and yet many of those came late, when they were behind and scrambling to catch up.
The Redskins seemed confident they will have answers for the strategic failings, but a bigger question was the lack of energy some talked about. With a chance to win back many fans who seem to have abandoned the team, as evidenced by empty seats and an undisclosed number of unsold tickets, the Redskins were flat. Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers loom next week.
“You have to handle the good with the bad and see what kind of team you are made of,” Gruden said. “And this is an adverse situation.”