Five Keys for the Redskins to Beat the Rams

Converted TE Niles Paul could have a bigger role in the Washington offense in week 2 agains the Rams. Zuma Press/Icon SMI

The talk in DC this week has been about how the Redskins "should win" this weekend's game against the St. Louis Rams. Such talk makes me nervous -- for the past several seasons, the pre-game talk in most cities has been about how their team "should win" against the Redskins. Coming off 3 consecutive sub-.500 seasons (4 straight years with a negative scoring differential -- a more meaningful measure of team strength than record), the Skins (and their fans) have no business talking about any game as a "should win" proposition.

That's not to say that Washington shouldn't be favored. They appear to be the better team, and they'll kickoff as 3.5-point favorites Sunday afternoon. But, anyone can beat anyone in the NFL, especially a team like the Redskins, which hasn't shown the ability in the past few seasons to follow up a strong performance one week with a strong performance the next.

So, here are five keys to Washington beating the St. Louis Rams and running their record to 2-0:

  1. Control Chris Long -- Long took a couple years to hit his stride after being picked 2nd overall in the 2008 draft, but the defensive end has emerged as a pass-rushing force. He has increased his sack total each year of his career -- last season he had 13. The job of stopping him from crushing rookie QB Robert Griffin III falls primarily to Tyler Polumbus, the street free agent Washington picked up in mid-season last year. Polumbus struggled in both run and pass protection last week, so I'd anticipate seeing the coaching staff giving him some help -- at minimum with some chip blocks from tight ends and/or running backs.
  2. Find the Tight Ends Early and Often -- Last season, the Rams allowed just 33 receiving yards per game to opposing tight ends. In week one, the Lions torched them for 126. The Redskins tight ends were fairly quiet against the Saints, but Fred Davis and Niles Paul are potentially dangerous weapons. Paul, in particular, has a unique combination of size and speed that makes him a tough matchup for opposing linebackers and safeties. I anticipate seeing the Skins finding ways to target him Sunday against the Rams.
  3. Shut Down the St. Louis Receivers -- On defense, Washington has a good line and first-rate linebackers. Their secondary: sucks. The Rams lack playmakers in their receiving corps, but the Redskins lackluster defensive backs still must play well to shut them down. A good pass rush will help, but they're still going to need to cover better than they did in the preseason and against the Saints.
  4. Beat Up Sam Bradford -- A good way to limit the Rams' passing attack will be to knock the quarterback down with regularity. The St. Louis offensive line was iffy even before injuries to a couple starters. Outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan was virtually unstoppable against New Orleans, and Brian Orakpo was nearly as good. If the Redskins can get to Bradford consistently, the St. Louis passing game will grind to a halt.
  5. Solid Play from RG3 -- Griffin was terrific against the Saints -- arguably the best rookie debut performance in league history. He probably won't be that good against St. Louis, but then he really doesn't need to be. If he can make good decisions, throw the ball with accuracy and use his feet to stay out of trouble, there's enough on film to make this offense score regularly.
There are a few things I'd like to see this week from the Skins. Chief among them, a better ground attack. Last week, they ground out yardage, but it took a TON of carries. Rookie Alfred Morris carried much of the load, but admitted in post-game interviews that he didn't gain as many yards as he could have because he too often took the wrong path when carrying the ball. Morris is a sturdy physical runner, but if he can't correct that issue, the Skins will need to turn back to Evan Royster and Roy Helu.

On the defensive side, I'm hoping to see better play from Jarvis Jenkins. Jenkins showed great promise in the team's 2011 training camp before wrecking his knee in a preseason game. He's working his way back, but hasn't returned to that "immovable force" style of play yet.

Perhaps my biggest worry for Sunday is returner Brandon Banks. He's an exciting player, but fumbles way too much for my taste. Last week, he laid the ball on the ground twice, which has to be cause for concern. If he can't hang on to the ball, Washington will need to find someone else to return kicks.

Prediction

Washington Redskins 27
St. Louis Rams 18

Redskins Put A Bow On Losing Season

Mike Shanahan will preside over a critical offseason for the rebuilding Washington Redskins. Joe Rogate/Icon SMI

The season's final game was a microcosm of the Redskins season. They stayed close to the Eagles on the strength of their defense, made enough offensive mistakes to make sure they couldn't score points, and then blundered about in the 4th quarter to lose a game that had been winnable.

The Skins enter the offseason with an array of personnel needs that must be addressed if the team is to compete for the playoffs in the near future. Most of those needs are on the offensive side of the ball, where they are bereft of playmakers. On defense, the front seven is fairly solid, but the secondary needs an overhaul.

I'll be looking at the team position by position in the coming weeks. For now, let's take a big picture look at what needs to happen in the offseason.

One thing Mike Shanahan and Bruce Allen have done well is position the Skins for rapid improvement. They ended up giving up little by beating the Giants in December -- they might have ended up picking 5th instead of 6th if they'd lost that game. More importantly, Washington has 8 picks (they have an extra 4th rounder from the Jason Campbell trade), and oodles of cap room. They can carve out even more cap space by cutting high-paid veterans who weren't productive this season -- guys like Jammal Brown and DeAngelo Hall. In addition, the 2011 draft class was solid, and young players from previous drafts emerged.

Here's my list of prioritized team needs this offseason:

  1. Offensive Line -- I know most would put quarterback at the top of the list, and I agree that a new QB is vital. But, whoever they have under center is going to need some protection. At a minimum, Washington will need a new right tackle and a center. I think they also need a left guard, even if Kory Lichtensteiger can make it back from a wrecked knee.
  2. Quarterback -- Rex Grossman and John Beck couldn't do the job this season. After 9 seasons, Grossman still hasn't figured out how to stop giving the ball to the other team. Don't be shocked if the Skins have 3 new QBs on the roster next year.
  3. Wide Receiver -- Santana Moss had his worst season as a Redskin and (at age 32) should not be expected to regain his previous form. Jabar Gafney had the best season of his career, but really should be a 3rd or 4th receiver -- not a #2. Especially if the #1 is Moss. Rookie Leonard Hankerson showed promise before hurting his hip, and will hopefully return to form. Even if Hankerson comes back all that Washington hopes he'll be, the Skins still need a couple more play-makers at WR.
  4. Cornerback -- Josh Wilson was okay, but DeAngelo Hall can't cover. Behind those two: not much. Hall has likely played his last game for the Skins. The team will need to add 2-3 good cover cornerbacks.
  5. Safety -- Oshiomogho Atogwe performed at an acceptable level when he was healthy. Laron Landry was never healthy or productive this year. I don't think Washington can afford to take a chance on Landry regaining his health, and I don't think they should rely on DeJon Gomes or Reed Doughty as a starter next season. Which means they'll need 1-2 safeties.
  6. Kick Returner -- I know Brandon Banks has big play ability. Unfortunately, he's an all-or-nothing proposition. If he can't find space and break a big one, he often ends up gaining nothing -- or worse. Part of that is his size. He's so tiny that he cannot simply put his head down and pick up a few yards that can improve the team's field position just a bit. Big play capability is important in a returner, but so is good judgement, the ability to make routine plays, and the ability to hang onto the football. It's time to replace Banks.

The team may also need an inside linebacker or two, depending on what they do with London Fletcher. At 36, Fletcher led the NFL in tackles. He's a free agent, and the Skins will need to make a decision about whether to re-sign him -- and for how much. Perry Riley took the other inside linebacker position from Rocky McIntosh in mid-season and should hang onto the job next season.

Within those 6 needs, I think the Skins will need at least 15 new players -- perhaps more. They may also need another running back, and a tight end or two. Those potential needs depend on what happens with Chris Cooley and Fred Davis at TE, and Tim Hightower at RB. Other needs could emerge if the team loses any free agents they'd like to keep.

It looks to be a busy offseason at Redskins Park. Shanahan and Allen need to make the right moves for Washington to become competitive again.

49ers Deal Redskins Another Blow

Punter Sav Rocca may be Washingtons most valuable offensive player this season. Zumapress/Icon SMI

The defense wasn't bad this week, but the offense was its usual putrid self, and the Redskins lost their 4th in a row to fall to 3-5. The competitive portion of the season is rapidly drawing to a close for Washington. Nothing about this team suggests it's about to figure things out and go on the multi-game winning streak it would take to make a playoff run.

Below are a hodgepodge of observations from yesterday's game:

  • Those who thought John Beck couldn't possibly be as bad as Rex Grossman -- have you reconsidered? I thought Washington needed to change QBs because I figured the team could get by with a good defense and with fewer mistakes from the offense. Whoops. Beck has been awful -- an epic fail of quarterback play. While Grossman's play was getting progressively worse, Beck's has been bad from the moment he entered the lineup. Consider: Advanced NFL Stats has rankings for 37 QBs this season. On a per play basis, Beck ranks 35th. Grossman: 30th. Jason Campbell, the QB they tossed aside before last season: 14th. Donovan McNabb, who they jettisoned to hand the reins over to Grossman and Beck: 26th.
  • Add find a new return man to the team's offseason shopping list. Brandon Banks has been terrible this year. He remains a big-play threat -- at least in theory -- but his gaffes continue. He still dances around too much in search of the big opening instead of getting upfield quickly. He too frequently runs the ball out from deep in the end zone only to get brought down before reaching the 20. He still loses track of where he is and attempts to field punts inside the 10. And, he continues to make basic mistakes -- muffing two punts (including one at three yard line) against San Francisco. Given the team's current needs, it might make sense to use that roster spot for someone who can contribute in other phases of the game.
  • One personnel move that appears headed in the right direction: kicker. Washington chose to keep Graham Gano despite a subpar performance last year. This year he's been solid. Against the 49ers, he was spectacular nailing a 59-yarder.
  • Another good personnel move: signing punter Sav Rocca. Rocca has arguably been the league's best punter this season. He's probably been among the team's more valuable players. I know that's faint praise, but still.
  • I listened to a fair amount of the radio broadcast for the first time this season, and while I love and admire Sam Huff, it's time for him to leave the booth. He used to be funny and insightful, but that time has passed. The amiable personality is still there, but the memory isn't. Out of respect for the Hall of Famer, Huff should be replaced before next season.
  • It was good to see Roy Helu get the start and so much playing time. He set a franchise record for receptions in a game (14), which is nice. But, the main reason he caught so many balls was because the Redskins were unable to throw downfield. Helu also ran 10 times for 41 yards and showcased his outstanding speed. He also committed a critical fumble, which cost Washington 7 points.
  • Washington needs to do something about their tackling. While the defensive performance was better overall, they're still giving up too many big plays because of an inability to bring the ball carrier to the ground. Rocky McIntosh continues to be a prime offender in over-running or simply whiffing on tackle opportunities.
  • The reshuffled yet again offensive line actually did a creditable job against an excellent Niners defense. Trent Williams returned from a high ankle sprain and was okay. More importantly, Washington put rookie Maurice Hurt at left guard, which allowed Will Montgomery to move back to center. Pass protection was much improved from the previous week -- no doubt helped along by Beck getting rid of the ball more quickly.
  • Leonard Hankerson looked like an actual professional receiver, which is a welcome development for Washington's poor receiving corps. His day wasn't spectacular, but he had 4 catches on 6 targets. According to Advanced NFL Stats, he was the team's ONLY offensive skill player with a positive contribution. He also had a nice post-up catch on the 2pt conversion.
  • With Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan, Washington's outside linebacking appears settled for the next several seasons. Both players are productive and at times explosive. This is good considering the team's exhaustive list of needs.
  • I'm not saying Washington's offensive woes are related to scheme, but...with so little working, their game plan looks staid and conventional. San Francisco confused Washington's defense at times with an array of sets and motion packages that allow them to attack defenses in different ways. I don't know if anything they're doing would work for the Skins, but I do know that little they're doing lately has been effective.
  • Washington's (and Beck's) overall offensive numbers were inflated by the late-game drive when the 49ers were playing prevent defense. It's nice the Skins actually found the endzone (hint: it's located at the end of the field in every stadium, pinky promise), but it means little.

Week 7: Redskins at Panthers

John Becks first starting opportunity since 2007 is a wildcard for the Skins against Carolina Sunday. Zuma Press/Icon SMI

A 3-2 team travels a short distance to take on a squad that's 1-5, and somehow the 1-5 team is installed as the Vegas favorite. They're not the only ones: Brian Burke (proprietor of Advanced NFL Stats), contributing to the New York Times NFL blog agreed with oddsmakers, giving Carolina a 53% chance of beating the 3-2 Redskins.

The matchup boils down to this: Washington's bad offense against Carolina's bad defense, and Washington's good defense against Carolina's good offense.

Here are 5 keys I'll be watching Sunday:

  1. The Wildcard -- The one factor that cannot be accounted for by Burke's numbers or the Vegas oddsmakers is Washington's switch at quarterback. Simple reality is that no one has seen enough of John Beck to know if he'll be an improvement over Rex Grossman. While I favored benching Grossman, I'm not one of those who thinks Beck can't be worse. That said, I do think it possible Beck will be an upgrade. In preseason, Beck showed flashes of making good, quick decisions. And, he can run a bit, which is a dimension Grossman can't provide. Best case: the Redskins have Trent Green 2.0.
  2. Offensive Line Performance -- Left guard Kory Lichtensteiger is lost for the season. Left tackle Trent Williams is out for the next couple weeks. Washington's solution: Sean Locklear will take over at LT, center Will Montgomery shifts to LG, and Erik Cook replaces Montgomery at C. The Skins had their best success running the ball to the left, but the left and middle are now brand new. Two rookies will be first off the bench. This is a major test of the team's offensive line depth, and their ability to protect Beck and create running room will be critical to getting better performance from what's been a below average offense.
  3. The Running Game -- The Skins figured to need a robust ground attack this season to compensate for average (or worse) QB play. Unfortunately, that rushing offense has largely been missing. Ryan Torain was terrific against the Rams, but found no room to run against Philly. Really, each of these first three items are related, and I think they largely go back to the offensive line. Torain and Helu can't block for themselves. Beck can't complete passes if he's running for his life or getting knocked down regularly. The line isn't going to be perfect, but when they do create an opportunity to make a play, the "skill" players need to come through.
  4. The Defense -- I think Washington's defense is excellent. The numbers surely look good. But still...I don't like how easily Philadelphia ran the ball on them last week. They were helped tremendously by Rams receivers dropping several passes. They couldn't get critical stops against the Cowboys when Tony Romo was playing hurt and the Dallas offense couldn't even line up properly. Against Carolina, the Skins will need to control Cam Newton and find someone to cover Steve Smith. It's not going to be DeAngelo Hall, who has not been a good coverage CB.
  5. The Return Game -- Washington's kick returns were supposed to be a strength because of the explosive Brandon Banks. That hasn't been the case beyond a flash here and there. Some of it is surely blocking, but I have become frustrated with Banks' penchant for dancing and juking instead of getting upfield. He's not a power returner like a Brian Mitchell, but his desire for making big plays is costing the team valuable yards and field position. The team's offense needs all the help it can get -- especially with a depleted line. Washington needs more production from its returner.

Cowboys Gut Punch Redskins, 18-16

Cowboys upend Tim Hightower and Redskins, 18-16. Ray Carlin/Icon SMI

This is one that could come back and haunt Washington at the end of the season. Facing an injury-depleted Cowboys team -- a squad that couldn't line up properly, had repeated bad snaps in shotgun, was down to using no-names in the secondary, and had a quarterback playing at maybe 50% health -- the Redskins managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, and suffered their first loss of the season.

Responsibility for the loss is rightfully spread across every offensive and defensive unit. Everyone made good plays at times; everyone made bad plays as well. On offense, Rex Grossman continued the pattern of his career. He made good throws with regularity -- some better than good. But he also made two critical mistakes that resulted in turnovers -- one a horribly thrown interception that set Dallas up for a field goal -- the other a Grossman-esque fumble that ended the team's final drive.

Now in his 9th NFL season, Grossman still has not learned the basics of ball security. Both of his runs last night showcased the same problem. The first, coming with a minute left in the first half, came when Dallas' Anthony Spencer flushed Grossman from the pocket and gave chase. Grossman picked up 6 yards before stepping out of bounds, but what happened at the end of the play foreshadowed Washington's final offensive possession: Spencer swiped at the ball, which Grossman was carrying with one hand as if to be ready to throw. Which would have been a penalty since he was past the line of scrimmage. Grossman lost control of the ball, although it didn't count as a fumble since he was already out of bounds.

The final play was an exact echo. Spencer beat Jammal Brown and flushed Grossman from the pocket. This time, Spencer caught Grossman more quickly, and when he hacked the ball loose it was a true fumble. The Cowboys recovered, and the game was over.

While Grossman's penchant for turnovers hurt Washington, the rest of the squad shares responsibility for the loss. The offensive line -- facing a quality front seven -- had a bad game. The team managed just 65 rushing yards and gave up 3 sacks. Both Spencer and Demarcus Ware regularly pressured Grossman. The Skins were lucky to avoid holding calls -- on at least two occassions, Trent Williams was beaten by Ware and dove from behind to grab Ware around the legs. Inexplicably, the refs called neither penalty.

It was nice that the Redskins defense kept Dallas out of the end zone, but they allowed 375 yards of total offense to a team that couldn't line up properly, couldn't run the correct routes, and couldn't snap the ball properly. They allowed 115 rushing yards to a running back playing with a bum shoulder -- 125 rushing yards to a team with a makeshift offensive line featuring two undrafted free agents. They allowed 255 passing yards to a quarterback playing with a broken rib, who was throwing to receivers who literally didn't know what to do out there.

The defense's biggest failure was on the critical 3rd & 21 from the Dallas 30 with just over two minutes left in the game. The Win Probability graph at Advanced NFL Stats is illustrative. When the play started, Washington had an 0.87 Win Probability (WP). In other words, a typical NFL team would be expected to win about 87% of the time from that situation. After the Redskins called their third consecutive all-out blitz, and DeAngelo Hall was beaten by Dez Bryant for 30 yards and a first down, AND Hall was flagged for a face mask, the Skins' WP had shifted to 0.24.

Let that sink in. On a single play they went from an 87% chance of winning to 24%, a swing of 63 percentage points. They didn't need a sack or a turnover in that situation. They were leading by a point with the ball solidly in Dallas territory. All they had to do was prevent the Cowboys from gaining 21 yards on the next two plays. The reckless play call from defensive coordinator coupled with a good play from Romo and poor execution from Hall and the Redskins cost Washington the game.

Of course, special teams played a role too. Graham Gano and Sav Rocca both had great kicking games. But, Rocca dropped a well-snapped ball that hit him square in the hands, which cost the Redskins 3 points. And, the return game stunk in part because Brandon Banks apparently was auditioning for "So You Think You Can Dance" instead of getting up field. His incessant juking and jittering cost the Redskins field position throughout the game.

All morning, I've been hearing the "it's only one game" refrain. The problem with that mindset is that the NFL has a short season. Every game is important -- a single NFL game is the equivalent of slightly more than 5 NBA games or 10 games in Major League Baseball. Would the Yankees be worried if they were on a 10-game losing streak? You bet.

This was a game Washington should have won. That they didn't is something they're likely to regret when the season is over.

The only bright side is that the NFL is a week-to-week league. What happened last night should have no carryover into next week's contest against the Rams. One loss to the Cowboys -- even a game they should have won -- doesn't decimate the season. Washington can get back on track by playing well and winning. That's what they'll need to do banish the sour taste from this one.

The Good & Bad from Preseason Game #3

Second year WR Terrence Austin has likely won a spot on the team with a good training camp and strong performances in preseason games. Photo by Keith Allison from Wikimedia Commons. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

My preseason refrain remains the same -- it's only preseason. There are no definitive answers, just indicators. Let's take a look at the good and bad from last night's 34-31 preseason loss to the Baltimore Ravens.

The Good

  • The Redskins offense consistently moved the ball and scored against a Ravens defense that has been among the league's best units for years. They ran the ball effectively, they made plays in the passing game. Tim Hightower found gaps created by excellent play from the line, then gashed the Baltimore defense for short and long gains. This is two games in a row featuring a long run from Hightower.
  • Terrence Austin was outstanding as a pass catcher and likely secured his spot on the roster. That makes 5 solid WRs, meaning that Donte Stallworth and Niles Paul are probably fighting for the remaining slot. Unless, of course, Brandon Banks recovers.
  • Trent Williams bounced back from a bad outing against the Colts with a solid performance against the Ravens. Best thing I can say about his play last night: I didn't notice him. That's good for a tackle, who typically draws attention by giving up a sack.
  • Both Rex Grossman and John Beck were efficient and effective at quarterback. Both made good decisions and throws. Both moved the chains, engineered lengthy drives, and led the team to scores. Many feared the Skins would be hamstrung by QB play this season. The preseason performances from these two suggests the team may be okay there.
The Bad
  • Jarvis Jenkins tore his ACL. Jenkins was having a great rookie training camp and impressing coaches and teammates with his strength. On the verge of winning the starting job from Adam Carriker, Jenkins tried to plant his foot while battling a Baltimore lineman, and blew out his knee instead. He'll undergo surgery and have to miss the season. That's a big blow to the Skins' defensive line depth.
  • Both Grossman and Beck were good. The ONLY reason I list this under "bad" is because the game provided no clear answer to who the opening day QB should be. The coaches were hoping one of these guys would begin to distinguish himself, but it hasn't happened yet. If I had to decide right now, I'd pick Beck because I think there's upside that I don't see with Grossman (based on Grossman's past performance). Plus, Beck can run, which is a dimension Grossman doesn't have.
  • The defense was inconsistent. They'd stuff the Ravens on one play, then give up a first down on the next. They'd rattle Joe Flacco with creative blitzes, then blow a coverage. Cornerback DeAngelo Hall made a nice interception and ran it back for a score, then gave up a long touchdown. If the Skins have playoff aspirations, they need the defense to reliably stop the opponent and force turnovers.

Preseason Game #2: Skins at Colts

Brandon Banks is an electrifying return man, when healthy. Will his bad knee keep him off the final roster?

While keeping in mind that NFL preseason games mean almost nothing, they're still worth watching for signs of the team's development. Tonight, the Skins are in Indianapolis to take on the Colts. Few NFL teams pay less attention to preseason games than do the Colts. Like the Steelers, the Colts are a playoff-tested veteran team with a well-defined depth chart. Their starters figure to play little, while the Skins starters are likely to play the entire first half -- if not more.

The Redskins will not come out of this game with any definitive answers, but I'll be looking for indicators about these five questions:

  1. Quarterback -- It's the most important position on the field, and the Skins have chosen to hope that John Beck or Rex Grossman can do the job this season. Grossman looked good last week against the Steelers, but has several seasons worth of evidence that he's significantly below average. Back from a groin injury, Beck will get his chance tonight. The Shanahans have praised him and say they think he can play. But no one has seen him perform outside of practice since 2007. Can he play? Can he play better than Rex Grossman? The Skins hope so -- we've seen the regular season Grossman show, and it wasn't pretty.
  2. Offensive Line -- The revamped starting line was productive against the Steelers. They need to come out and do the same against the Colts to begin demonstrating the consistency the team will need this season. Top priority is protecting Beck against Dwight Freeney. They'll also need to continue opening holes for Tim Hightower and company.
  3. Tim Hightower -- Against Pittsburgh, Hightower found the holes, ran hard, and finished his runs with physicality. He did that in Arizona too, but lost playing time and became expendable in large part because of his propensity for fumbling. Hightower needs to continue producing and show that his fumble woes are behind him to cement his role as the team's featured runner.
  4. The Kicking Game -- The Skins cut the third most accurate kicker in NFL history, which left them with the least accurate kicker in the league last season as The Guy. For now. Graham Gano has the potential to become a good kicker, but will likely miss tonight's game after the birth of his child. Tonight it looks like newly-signed Clint Stitser will get a shot to impress coaches.
  5. The Return Game -- Diminutive return specialist Brandon Banks is out with a chronically sore knee -- the same knee that was surgically repaired last season. While Banks is an electrifying performer and a threat to score on every touch, someone else will get an opportunity to impress tonight. First crack at impressing will go to WR Terrence Austin, who needs to do something to distinguish from a crowded competition at receiver. If Austin can show some sizzle, he could solidify a roster spot for himself and force out Banks, who does little in the team's offense.
What will you be looking for tonight?