Robert Griffin III completed 5 of 8 passes for 20 yards and an interception in a loss to the Ravens. (John McDonnel/The Washington Post)

Coach Jay Gruden was eager to see strong performances from the Washington Redskins’ first-team offense and defense Saturday night in their most important preseason game. Unfortunately for Gruden, one out of two isn’t good enough.

The team’s top players on defense — inspired by the effective debut of prized pass rusher Jason Hatcher — impressed during a lengthy dress rehearsal, but the sputtering offense continued to stir concern during a 23-17 loss at M&T Bank Stadium. And again, Washington’s problems on offense start at the sport’s most important position: quarterback.

In another shaky performance, Robert Griffin III failed to direct a touchdown drive. While playing into the third quarter, Griffin compiled an awful 27.1 passer rating. On a positive note, at least Griffin wasn’t reckless while running.

After making a couple of blockheaded decisions — including exposing himself to being hit three times on one play — against the Cleveland Browns, Griffin avoided unnecessary pounding and was much better at getting out of bounds. That established, Griffin also is experiencing problems not related to having too much bravado.

He’s coming along slowly in Gruden’s offense, which requires quarterbacks to make quicker decisions than Griffin often did during his first two NFL seasons. Although it’s not surprising Griffin would need time to adjust to a new style of play, he’s clearly struggling mightily, with Washington scheduled to kick off the regular season in two weeks against the Houston Texans.

Without Griffin providing a spark, the team’s first-string offense has failed to develop the type of rhythm Gruden would have preferred by late in the preseason. No matter how much talent Washington has at skill positions on offense — and it has a lot — the group won’t thrive unless Griffin gets it together quickly. It’s that simple.

For Washington’s fans, there’s a lot to be encouraged about on defense. We’ll get to some of it. But the team’s franchise quarterback isn’t playing like one. Let’s start there.

A long way to go

Before the preseason began, several people in the organization told me it would take Griffin some time to become comfortable in Gruden’s offense. They were encouraged by Griffin’s dedication in closed practices and diligence in the film room, but he was experiencing expected growing pains, they explained. Those have continued deep into the preseason.

On Saturday, Griffin completed 5 of 8 passes for 20 yards with an interception — on an ill-advised pass — and was sacked three times. It’s always difficult to make judgments without benefit of reviewing game film or speaking with coaches. But Griffin generally holds the ball too long, said a former NFC offensive assistant who has watched Washington play.

At the start of the third quarter, Griffin made a questionable decision while trying to connect with Alfred Morris. Operating from the shotgun on first and 10 from the Washington 24-yard line, Griffin threw a short pass toward Morris. Ravens linebacker Daryl Smith, playing tight on Morris, tipped the pass. Linebacker C.J. Mosely intercepted it and returned the ball 17 yards to the 9-yard line. Four plays later, Baltimore kicked a field goal to extend its lead to 13-3.

Often, Griffin projects confidence about his performance. While speaking with reporters, usually he accentuates the positive. To be sure, the offense has done a few things well at times. Of course, when your front-line players on offense fail to produce a touchdown through three preseason games, something’s wrong. Gruden knows where to look.

Nice start

You couldn’t tell that Hatcher started participating in full-squad practice only this week. After sitting out training camp while rehabilitating from arthroscopic left knee surgery June 20, Hatcher mostly was sharp in his first game.

On the game’s opening series, Hatcher moved well, showing no lingering problems from surgery while pressuring Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco. Later, he displayed his strength, overpowering guard Marshal Yanda on a bull rush en route to sacking Flacco.

Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett capitalized on Hatcher’s ability to get after the quarterback. Hatcher, who lined up at different spots, drew double teams, opening things up for others along the line. For a player of whom much is expected, Hatcher sure looked ready to deliver a lot.

He wasn’t in great condition, which was to be expected. Over the next two weeks, Hatcher figures to do a lot of side work with trainers to build stamina.

Hatcher is the linchpin of President and General Manager Bruce Allen’s plan to improve Washington’s poor defense. Although it was only one preseason game, Allen’s plan definitely started well.

Young playmakers

Hatcher wasn’t the only player who put a smile on Haslett’s face.

Inside linebacker Keenan Robinson, replacing longtime fixture London Fletcher, quickly set the tone for the defense’s solid night.

After receiving the opening kickoff, Baltimore went for it on fourth and one from the Washington 49-yard line. Robinson made a nifty open-field tackle, bringing down running back Bernard Pierce for a one-yard loss.

In the final two minutes of the first quarter, cornerback David Amerson batted away a deep pass in the corner of the end zone. Two plays later, Amerson recognized a screen pass and tackled Baltimore wide receiver Steve Smith after a one-yard gain.

Lately, defensive tackle Jarvis Jenkins finally has started to perform like a second-round pick. Baltimore failed for the second time when — on fourth and one in the closing seconds of the opening quarter — Jenkins stopped Baltimore running back Lorenzo Taliaferro for no gain at the Washington 11.

The takeaway

A straight shooter, Gruden acknowledged Washington’s offense has struggled. To get it going, Gruden must point Griffin in the right direction. With the regular season drawing near, the teacher and pupil must get back in the classroom.

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