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Initial Thoughts: Patriots 34, Redskins 27

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Here’s what I’m thinking after the Redskins’ 34-27 loss to New England on Sunday:

Not in a million years would I have thought the Redskins’ offense could post season-highs in points (27) and yards (463) without TE Fred Davis and LT Trent Williams. I also didn’t realize New England’s defense was so bad – their corners and safeties struggled in coverage at times, their defensive line consistently lost blocks in run defense and their pass rush lagged after the first-quarter sack-fumble-touchdown.

But the Redskins adjusted well to being without Williams and Davis, two blockers critical to the success of their running game. On first glance, they seemed to utilize FB Darrel Young more as a lead blocker. They also used receivers as blockers on inside runs more often than in past weeks.

“I’d say it worked,” QB Rex Grossman said. Don’t take his word for it, though. Just look at RB Roy Helu’s 126 yards on 27 carries.

Helu credited the line. Young and TE Logan Paulsen won a healthy share of blocks, too.

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It’s no coincidence that the offense’s resurgence over the last three weeks has coincided with Helu’s success on the ground. I’m still not convinced Helu’s patience/vision/decision-making meet Mike and Kyle Shanahan’s standard for their system, but he’s a tenacious physical runner who can make something out of nothing. If they can bring in another back who’s talented enough to make Helu the No. 2, that would mean big things for the entire offense.

The question is whether Helu’s success late this season lowers the priority of adding another running back in the offseason. If Tim Hightower were healthy, I’d say maybe. But seeing over the last three weeks how the running game is the lifeblood of this offense, I’ll say no. Then again, Helu would be even better if the linemen in front of him won blocks more consistently. Obviously, they could stand to upgrade many areas, and they’re not mutually exclusive.

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QB Rex Grossman picked apart New England’s zone, and the offensive line gave him time to do so. The Patriots dropped eight in coverage on several passes, and they had mixed success. They got the game-clinching interception on a three-man rush, as well as a coverage sack late in the second quarter. But Grossman frequently found holes in the zone, too.

“Whenever we play a team with a lot of zone, we just got to find the open spots,” WR Jabar Gaffney said. “They played a lot of zone coverage today, and it was just about trying to get open in their zones.”

Play-action had a lot to do with his success, too. Ultimately, the Redskins ran 34 times and threw 33.

“Unless you have just a one-dimensional offense, you have to have balance,” Grossman said. “The runs have to put you in good positions to throw the ball, put you in third-and-manageable. Getting first downs on second down to keep you out of third down, getting big chunks, it opens up the play-action pass. It’s everything to this type of offense. It was pretty special today.”

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Big picture, though, the Redskins still don’t make enough winning plays. Whether it’s WR Santana Moss’ drop that resulted in the final interception, or the sack-fumble-touchdown LT Willie Smith surrendered in the first quarter or any one of several drive-killing penalties, the negatives have outweighed the positives all season. Some of it is youth and some of it is just lousy football. More talented players would help, but when your most reliable receiver is turning completions into interceptions - which Moss did in the St. Louis game, too - what are you gonna do? It’s a hallmark of a bad team.

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LT Willie Smith didn’t stand out for many negative plays after he gave up the sack-fumble-touchdown in the first quarter. On that play, DE Andre Carter caught him leaning forward and was able to go around him.

RT Tyler Polumbus also flew under the radar in a spot start, which is a positive. I’m interested to go back and watch the game to compare Polumbus to Jammal Brown. I’m wondering if there’s much of a difference.

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It seems WR Santana Moss has had more negative plays than usual since returning from his broken hand. He adjusted to catch the reverse-pass from RS Brandon Banks and run it in for a touchdown, but his biggest impact on this game was the dropped pass that resulted in the final interception.

I thought the offensive pass interference called against him two plays before the interception was a ticky-tack call. But Moss can’t drop the ball on the last interception and then come out and say: “We got to play against a team and the refs.”

Bad calls, specifically ones involving hits on the quarterbacks, went against both teams in this game. The referees didn’t cost the Redskins the victory, of course. Moss knows better than that, and here’s thinking the league will have something to say about it.

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Speaking of that reverse-pass that Banks threw, props to the coaching staff for putting that in this week. It was the type of play that can spark an underdog in a lopsided matchup like this. That’s exactly what happened, according to S Reed Doughty.

“Oh man, a quick score like that against a team like that, it’s like, ‘OK, we can win this game. We’re in this game. Let’s put something together,’” he said.

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The Redskins’ linebackers were beaten in coverage a few times. On TE Rob Gronkowski’s 50-yarder with less than 2 minutes to go in the first half, he separated from ILB Perry Riley when Riley took a step at WR Wes Welker, who was crossing nearby but ostensibly not his responsibility. That’s not the first or second time Riley has been shaky with a coverage assignment. Maybe this is part of his learning process. Teams will continue testing him until he proves he can cover. Coverage by linebackers is a big part of this defense and many others, so it’s imperative that he improve.

OLB Ryan Kerrigan was beaten by Gronkowski on a Zero blitz for the 37-yard touchdown in the third quarter. That seemed to be more of a physical loss than a mental breakdown. Kerrigan started the play by rushing the passer, then had to turn and run with Gronkowski when it was clear Gronk was going out for a pass. He could have tackled him for a short gain, but the Redskins had problems tackling him all day.

Overall, I’m a bit surprised that more teams haven’t challenged the Redskins’ linebackers in coverage. The Patriots showed how successful that can be. I thought the Redskins would play with three safeties or four corners more, but they were mostly in nickel with two linebackers.

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It’s dangerous to question a player’s effort, and, to me, it’s the most serious critique one can a make about a player. That said, I think it’s fair to ask why CB DeAngelo Hall didn’t get in on the tackle of TE Rob Gronkowski that safeties DeJon Gomes and Reed Doughty missed near the right sideline in the first quarter. Hall told reporters after the game that he thought Gronkowski had stepped out of bounds. But the referee obviously didn’t blow the whistle, and Hall stopped on the play before Gronkowski got close enough to the sideline to make out-of-bounds a possibility. Hall did chase the play down after Gronkowski ran past him, but it didn’t look good. He certainly didn’t seem interested in gang tackling. Watch the play for yourself.

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