Here’s what I’m thinking immediately after the Redskins’ season-opening 28-14 victory over the New York Giants:
For weeks now, we writers who spend our days around the team have heard players talk about this sense of belief, some sort of special-but-indescribable feeling, that there is in the locker room this season.
On Friday, two days before Sunday’s stirring victory, TE Chris Cooley lounged on a couch outside the Redskins Park locker room and tried to explain it. It’s worth sharing here because it came from one of the team’s longest-tenured and most articulate players.
“Even back to Joe [Gibbs], I remember the first Redskins Luncheon I was at,” Cooley said. “Joe got up and towards the end said, ‘Hey, I don’t know what’s going to happen this week. No one knows. We’re going to go see what’s going to happen.’ I’ve kind of always felt like, ‘Well, it’s the first game. Let’s go see what’s going to happen.’
“I fully expect this team to play well and I fully expect to win. I don’t think we’re going to ‘step out and see what’s going to happen this week.’ I think guys around here know what’s going to happen.”
Now, it’s one thing to talk about it. Preseason optimism is typical, so it’s difficult to know what to think when players bring up the subject. But it’s another thing for the Redskins to overcome a slow start and two first-half deficits against a Giants team that’s beaten them six straight times.
In other words, Sunday’s victory at the very least makes you think: Hmm, things might really be different.
There was evidence on Sunday: OLB Ryan Kerrigan’s interception return changed the game in the third quarter. K Graham Gano’s missed field goal didn’t come back to haunt the Redskins, nor did QB Rex Grossman’s fumble in the fourth quarter. The defense pitched a shutout in the second half. The offense finished the game with a knockout punch – WR Jabar Gaffney’s touchdown on third-and-goal from the 4.
This team is better than last year’s, and it was obvious Sunday. Now they have to build on it because, as the cliché goes, this is only one game.
Grossman, at least for one day, validated coach Mike Shanahan’s decision to start him over John Beck. He struggled at first because the Giants brought pressure and played more man-to-man that the Redskins were expecting. On the second drive, New York tipped a pass at the line and then blitzed from the side to which Grossman was running a keeper. The failed plays added up early.
But then the offense adjusted. Several players I spoke to refused to share details about the adjustments for strategic purposes. Hopefully they’ll come to light after re-watching the TV broadcast of the game. It appeared that the Giants didn’t blitz as many players, and that seemed odd considering Grossman’s history of struggling against pressure. But suffice to say the line starting protecting Rex better, and he got comfortable. He threw three straight high passes, but his accuracy eventually sharpened.
His 110.5 passer rating was the fourth best of his 42-game NFL career. If he can manage the offense like that all season, the Redskins have a lot to look forward to.
The Redskins scored touchdowns on three of their four trips inside the red zone. What a difference that makes. It was a combination of execution and scheme.
The first touchdown was set up by WR Anthony Armstrong’s sensational diving catch on third-and-2 from the 19. Grossman had time to throw, and he put the ball where only Armstrong could catch it. RB Tim Hightower got good blocks from FB Darrel Young, TE Logan Paulsen and LT Trent Williams on his 1-yard touchdown run.
On the fade to Armstrong, the timing and touch of Grossman’s throw was perfect. It helped that Giants CB Aaron Ross turned his head the wrong way, but when was the last time the Redskins completed a fade for a touchdown? I can’t remember.
On Gaffney’s touchdown catch, he released freely to the inside and then used TE Fred Davis as a pick to separate from the defender. Grossman did well to look left after the snap, knowing Gaffney would be open in the middle. Easy pitch and catch for the nail in the Giants’ coffin.
Perhaps Sunday’s red zone efficiency is the leading indicator that this team has turned a corner. Then again, it’s only one game.
Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan deserves credit for sticking with the running game even though the yards were tough to come by against a banged up Giants defensive front that played well. The Redskins run-to-pass ratio was 26-to-38, or 41 percent. That’s a bit more balanced than the 37/63 ratio Washington finished with last season.
“I can’t really explain right now why those [runs] weren’t hitting,” guard Kory Lichtensteiger said. “It boils down to everybody across the line. I’m sure it was a guy here, a guy there. It’s not like the whole scheme was messing up. It was just a guy falling off a block, a guy not finishing. That’s going to be something we’re going to have to stress throughout the year.”
If you’re a glass half-full type, consider that the Redskins’ offense scored 21 points despite averaging only 2.8 yards per carry. If the preseason is any indication, Hightower will have better days, and the passing game will benefit.
LT Trent Williams looked terrible on DE Jason Pierre-Paul’s sack-fumble in the fourth quarter. Reviewing the game footage will give me a better idea about how he played over 60 minutes, but Williams’ inconsistency was problematic last season, too. Rushers have had success against him when they change up their approach – such as going to a bull rush after going speed-speed-speed.
That sack was the worst of four in the game. Lichtensteiger attributed the breakdowns to the Redskins unfamiliarity with some of the Giants’ alignments and rushes.
“It wasn’t really anybody getting beat technique-wise,” Lichtensteiger said. “I think it was more a communication thing. It was something that we hadn’t really seen that look. That’s not really an excuse but, but it’s hard to pick stuff up on the fly. I feel like overall it was pretty good protection.”
Rookie LOLB Ryan Kerrigan’s interception and 9-yard return for a touchdown was a superbly athletic play. I’m sure the Giants’ offensive line coach won’t be happy with the quality of RT Kareem McKenzie’s cut block, but Kerrigan did an outstanding job of reading it and using his hands to keep his balance. And how about the athleticism to jump up and bat the ball? What a play. Certainly worthy of a first-round pick.
NT Barry Cofield helped the Redskins get off the field on fourth-and-1 from the Redskins’ 31 in the third quarter because he got off the ball so quickly and disrupted the offensive line. He said after the game that knowing QB Eli Manning’s cadence from his five seasons in New York did not help him on the play.
“It’s not about that,” Cofield said. “That’s what the defense called for. It’s a blitz that was a great play call, something we hadn’t ran during the week. He threw it in there because he had a feeling. That’s what great coaches do. I was just able to make a play.”
Rookie NT Chris Neild surprised me. I don’t recall seeing such quickness in the preseason, especially with his hands. He said one of his two sacks resulted from him missing his assignment on the blitz, and hey, when a missed assignment turns into a sack in a victory, you can chuckle about it afterwards.
S Reed Doughty was involved in too many negative plays. He bit on a shorter route in the first quarter and allowed WR Hakeem Nicks to get behind him for a 68-yard play. In the second half, he was late helping ILB London Fletcher cover the tight end down the middle.
It’s one thing for Doughty to give up plays in coverage because that’s not his strength, but he also had a couple negative running plays on the Giants’ second touchdown drive. He was blocked on the second level on RB Brandon Jacobs’ 14-yard gain, and he was faked out on RB Ahmad Bradshaw’s 6-yard touchdown on the next play.
This is another one for you optimists, though: Consider the Redskins shut out the Giants in the second half and limited them to 14 points with one of their top playmakers (SS LaRon Landry) on the sideline.
TE Fred Davis’ career high 105 yards came on six targets. He bailed Grossman out on some inaccurate throws with acrobatic catches. What a weapon he can be if Kyle Shanahan decides to use him in the passing game.
“Fred stretches the field vertically as well as any tight end in the league,” Grossman said. “To have, in my opinion, two of the best route-running, pass-catching all-around good tight ends with Cooley and Fred, you’ll see us in a lot of two tight end situations for the rest of the year.”
And you thought K Graham Gano’s problems were in the past, huh? The missed 38-yarder makes the preseason meaningless. He got away with it Sunday because of the offense and defense, but he’s living dangerously.