In his first year as Washington Redskins coach, Jay Gruden earned a reputation as a blunt truth teller, with quarterbacking shortcomings a frequent topic.
On Monday, following a 25-19 overtime loss at Atlanta that was riddled with missed opportunities in the passing game and a disappearing running game, Gruden turned his famously critical lens on his own play-calling.
And it didn’t measure up when it mattered most — particularly a key third-down call with 2 minutes 49 seconds remaining in regulation and the Redskins clinging to a 13-12 lead after momentum had shifted in the Falcons’ favor.
On third and goal from the Atlanta 6-yard line, Washington called a bubble screen to rookie wide receiver Jamison Crowder, who’d gained 14 yards on the same play in the second quarter. But this time the Falcons’ defense anticipated the play as Crowder took off in motion to his left. A linebacker streaked past tight end Derek Carrier and hammered the 5-foot-8, 185-pound rookie for a four-yard loss.
The only option from there — fourth and goal from the 10 — was a field goal. So the Redskins settled for the three points, taking a 16-12 lead, when they desperately needed a touchdown for a safer, potentially game-clinching margin.
“That was awful,” a weary-looking Gruden said Monday, asked if he was happy with the third-and-goal call. “Probably too conservative.”
It wasn’t the only example, either, of the Redskins’ offense settling for half measures rather than taking bolder swipes against the heavily favored Falcons, who improved to 5-0 with the come-from-behind victory.
On sports-talk radio, social media and in the coaching offices at Redskins Park, there was plenty of second-guessing about Sunday’s play-calling.
Gruden conceded he wasn’t happy with the imbalance of pass plays (33) to run plays (24).
“Every time you come out with a loss and don’t have a lot of production in the running game, you second-guess all your calls,” Gruden said. “That’s what we’re doing. It’s our job as coaches to put our players in the best position possible. Obviously we feel like we didn’t do that.”
As for Kirk Cousins’s game-ending interception, Gruden didn’t assign blame, instead calling it “a tough deal” that resulted from Cousins unleashing the ball in a hurry and facing pressure from an unblocked defender, plus wide receiver Ryan Grant falling while trying to adjust to the throw.
“Whether it would have been complete or whether it would still have been intercepted, we don’t know,” Gruden said.
In some ways, Sunday’s loss represented a step forward in the evolution of an NFL team that has won just seven games in the past two seasons.
Cousins, who was 21 of 32 for 219 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions, led two successful come-from-behind drives in the fourth quarter — including the 24-second one that forced overtime.
Washington’s defense sacked Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan three times , and the secondary intercepted him twice despite playing without both of its starting cornerbacks. With linebacker Will Compton’s fumble recovery, the Redskins’ defense finally had made the potentially game-changing plays that Gruden had been clamoring for.
But the offense didn’t capitalize, coming away with just three points from those turnovers.
“We had opportunities on both sides of the ball to change the outcome of the game,” Gruden said, citing again the bubble screen he described as “a very bad call” that wasn’t well executed, to boot. “We had a couple fourth downs on defense where we didn’t get off the field. There were some other plays that, quite frankly, we didn’t make. We didn’t coach well enough. But we’re right there. You can see the improvement; I think everybody can. But we consistently have to do a better job of putting games back to back to back somehow.”
When the 2015 season opened, it appeared as if the Redskins’ offense would hang its identity on a run-first mentality, with veteran Alfred Morris and rookie Matt Jones sharing the load in a medley of patience and power.
But Gruden tends to back off the running game if the Redskins get behind, as they did early in the Week 3 loss to the New York Giants, or if the backs struggle early.
The latter is a problem for Morris, who usually hits his stride later in games, often after a dozen or so carries.
Against Atlanta, Morris rushed only eight times for 15 yards . Jones was stymied as well, carrying 11 times for 20 yards . The upshot was the Redskins’ least productive rushing day this season: 51 total yards and a 2.1 yards-per-carry average.
Gruden said Monday that multiple variables contribute to a successful running game — blocking by the linemen, help from tight ends, backs hitting openings and making smart cuts — and all must work in concert.
That didn’t happen against the Falcons. And the Redskins’ passing game, which was missing its biggest playmaker in wide receiver DeSean Jackson and its go-to tight end in Jordan Reed, wasn’t capable of picking up the slack.
“There’s so many things that go into a good running play or a bad running play that it’s hard to just put your finger on it,” Gruden said. “But I know that our blocking in the running game was not up to our standards. It was not winning football for us. . . .
“If we don’t have that part of our offense going, you see what kind of troubles we have: We’re not very good.”