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Initial Thoughts: Redskins 38, Browns 21

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CLEVELAND | Here’s what I’m thinking immediately after the Redskins’ 38-21 road victory over the Cleveland Browns on Sunday:

Well, the Redskins are in a three-way tie for first place in the NFC East, just like everyone expected six weeks ago after they fell to 3-6 by losing at home to a 1-win Carolina Panthers team.

Seriously, regardless of whether the Redskins finish the season as division champs or out of the playoffs, this five-game winning streak is one for the ages. They have overcome significant injuries on both sides of the ball, including on Sunday, when they scored 38 points and gained 430 yards without star QB Robert Griffin III. Everything is working right now, and I don’t think there’s a team in the league the Redskins can’t beat.

This team’s perseverance is beyond impressive. It’s a great indication of the high character in the locker room. Credit coach Mike Shanahan for assembling the roster with that as a priority. The finger-pointing at 3-6 was minimal; instead, there was determination.

As a result, the Redskins control their destiny in the NFC East race. If the Redskins win at Philadelphia and at home vs. Dallas, they’d win the East for the first time since 1999 and host a playoff game.

The Dec. 30 home game against Dallas probably will decide the division champion. What a spectacle that will be. (There’s a strong possibility the game will be flexed to Sunday night.) The Redskins and Cowboys are a combined 9-1 in the last five weeks, with the only loss coming in Washington’s head-to-head victory on Thanksgiving.

The Redskins cannot clinch the division next Sunday. In fact, they must beat Dallas on Dec. 30 in order to win the division because Dallas would otherwise win the third two-team tiebreaker step, which is winning percentage against common opponent.

Remember that when breaking ties between two teams in the same division the steps are 1. head-to-head, 2. record against divisional opponents, 3. winning percentage against common opponent, 4. conference record. Common opponent comes BEFORE conference record.

Washington, however, could clinch a wild card berth next Sunday by beating Philadelphia and getting help in the form of losses by other 8-6 teams. The NFL will release the official playoff qualification scenarios later this week. They’re a bit complicated for me to calculate, and I don’t want to get it wrong.

Bottom line: The Redskins are extremely well-positioned to make the playoffs.

“A home playoff game? I mean, come on, man,” veteran SS Reed Doughty said. “D.C. needs that. It’s exciting. We’ve got to take care of business the next two weeks.”

***

Sunday’s victory might be offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s greatest moment with the Redskins. Without Griffin at his disposal, Shanahan reshaped the offense to exclude the zone-read quarterback option and pistol formation (except for two plays in the fourth quarter). He reverted to the offense the Redskins ran last season with QB Rex Grossman. They pounded outside zone runs and then shredded Cleveland’s defense with play-action passes and misdirection behind the line of scrimmage in the form of keepers.

Washington’s 38-point, 430-yard outburst against Cleveland just shows you what that scheme is capable of with playmakers as talented as WR Pierre Garcon and RB Alfred Morris. No offense to Jabar Gaffney and Donte Stallworth, but this season’s talent upgrades made a great impact against the Browns.

Garcon had six catches for 65 yards, both team highs. He was targeted 12 times, while Washington’s other receivers were targeted a total of 13 times.

Morris, meanwhile, had a grown man’s 87 yards and two touchdowns on 27 tough carries. His longest run was 11 yards. The Redskins needed him to take that pounding, especially early in the game when the Browns were stacking the box, because the threat of the run opened up the play-action passing game.

Cousins on play-action passes completed 15 of 19 attempts for 229 yards and two touchdowns, according to ESPN Stats and Info.

 “They made it their job to stop our run, and they did a great job,” Morris said. “They slowed us down a lot in the first half. We started using that against them. They were stacking the box, so we was, like, play-action.

“We couldn’t really get it done with our option stuff that we’ve been doing with Robert, so we went back to the basics we’ve been running since before I came to the Skins. That’s just faking our [outside zone runs]. They were all sucking up just really hard. They really were biting hard on the fake, and we was able to get it over the top a lot of times. As far as spreading out, it was able to get our run game going again.”

***

My game story for the newspaper centered on QB Kirk Cousins’ performance. (You can read that here.) He threw an interception before he threw a completion, and he started the game 1-for-6.

“I’d be lying to you if I told you my stomach wasn’t churning,” Cousins said. “That’s part of it because I care about how I do and I’m going to get nervous about what I care about.”

The 54-yard touchdown to WR Leonard Hankerson settled him. Browns SS T.J. Ward came up hard on play-action, and Cousins, on the run, threaded a deep throw between three defenders. If I recall correctly, that was the first time Kyle Shanahan moved Cousins outside the pocket.

“He made a perfect throw, and that kind of gets you started,” coach Mike Shanahan said. “We needed that play at that time.”

Cousins was very good after that. He did underthrow open receivers a couple times, and that prevented either a completion or a greater gain after the catch. Overall, though, he was quite sharp.

Consider his production on third down in the second half: 6-for-6 for 49 yards, which doesn’t include the automatic first down he helped generate on a double-move on which WR Pierre Garcon drew an illegal contact penalty and an automatic first down.

Cousins overcame the rough start Sunday because he was mentally tough and prepared. He watched film and drew plays and studied the game plan tirelessly all week.

“He’s a very hard worker,” Cousins’ father, Don, said after the game. “He has always prepared hard. The mental side of his game is a strong side of his game. He’s strong mentally.”

***

Cousins’ confidence-inspiring performance was so important for the Redskins’ organization because Sunday’s scenario probably won’t be an anomaly. QB Robert Griffin III is vulnerable to injuries because of his running style.

Griffin scrambles when he’s pressured instead of throwing the ball away. That usually helps the Redskins, but it also exposes him to dangerous contact. His concussion against Atlanta and his sprained knee against Baltimore both occurred on scrambles, not designed runs. Griffin is 6-2, 217 pounds; not 6-5, 245 like Cam Newton.

If he gets hurt, the Redskins now know they have a proven backup who can win a must-win road game. That’s important for the team’s psyche and their roster planning.

***

QB Robert Griffin III emphasized during his postgame news conference his unhappiness with team doctors’ decision to hold him out. That actually started Saturday night when he tweeted the decision to start QB Kirk Cousins was not his.

“I was not happy with the decision, but at the end of the day, that’s the decision they went with. I respect that,” he said Sunday. “That doesn’t mean I have to necessarily like it.”

And later: “Although I was not happy with the decision, I got healthier by not playing.”

And also: “Once they told me, I was upset, but you take it and look at it as you’re a team player and this is the team that I play for. I play for those guys in there, and if I can’t help them on the field, I can certainly help them on the sidelines.”

Griffin, in my opinion, didn’t come off as petulant or self-absorbed. To me, his unhappiness was an extension of his competitive drive, which we know is extreme.

He still was complimentary of Cousins and his teammates, saying, “He did a good job staying poised and staying confident,” and, “I couldn’t be any more happy for this team or for Kirk.”

Before the game, Griffin tested his mildly sprained LCL. In front of some team medical staffers and general manager Bruce Allen, Griffin tried some of the explosive cutting movements that must be sound in order for him to return to game action.

“They said I looked impressive,” Griffin said. “I take that and move on to next week.”

Coach Mike Shanahan said Griffin will be evaluated on a daily basis leading up to Sunday’s game at Philadelphia.

***

While we’re on the topic of quarterbacks, which team’s set would you rather have right now? Griffin and Cousins or rookie Brandon Weeden and Colt McCoy? That’s a no-brainer.

Weeden is enduring typical rookie struggles this season. That was evident Sunday in how he didn’t see ILB Rob Jackson on the first interception deep in Browns’ territory, his underthrow that ILB London Fletcher intercepted later in the third quarter, and how he missed some open receivers.

No one at this point is questioning whether the Redskins gave up too many draft picks for the chance to acquire Griffin. But after seeing the dropoff between Griffin and Weeden, whom the Browns drafted in the first round after the Redskins outbid them for the chance to draft Griffin, Washington’s trade looks even better. One team is tracking toward the playoffs, the other is staring at a regime change and possibly more quarterback turnover.

***

The Redskins’ defense for the third straight game played a fantastic second half. Washington pulled away after halftime by scoring touchdowns on four of its first five drives. How did they get possession for the first four series? Interception, punt, turnover on downs, interception.

Washington disguised coverages against rookie QB Brandon Weeden and did a good job until the fourth quarter of preventing the big play. They made Weeden drive the field, which the Browns did successfully only once.

“I think we were just able to try not to give him clean looks, as far as, oh, it’s straight man,” SS Reed Doughty said. “We were just trying to muddy the look a little bit and get pressure on him and just give him different looks and not give up big plays.

“Different disguises,” Doughty continued, when asked how the Redskins muddy a look. “Knowing what you’ve showed in the past and just playing off that. Just not rolling to coverages. Not give them an easy, quick where right when he looks at the look, he knows where he’s going with the ball.”

The Redskins did well to force the Browns away from their ground game, which was effective at times in the first half. Cleveland finished with only 58 yards rushing on 15 carries. That’s a winning formula against a rookie quarterback.

***

K Kai Forbath made another field goal, this time from 44 yards. 15-for-15. Nothing to see here. Moving on…

***

Collective good health along the offensive line is a major element of the Redskins’ offensive success this season. That’s in greater jeopardy now than it has been at any previous time this season.

C Will Montgomery suffered what the Redskins believe is a medial collateral ligament injury. Montgomery expressed optimism that it isn’t serious. He walked out of the locker room slowly but without limping. RT Tyler Polumbus did not play the second half because of a concussion.

The Redskins finished Sunday’s game with three line positions filled by backups.

After Montgomery got hurt, Maurice Hurt came in at left guard, and LG Kory Lichtensteiger slid to center. Jordan Black replaced Polumbus.

I don’t think the importance of this development can be overstated this week. We saw last season how devastating widespread offensive line shuffling can be to this offense. Obviously the Redskins’ first-string quarterback this season is more mobile, but offensive line breakdowns are extremely disruptive and problematic regardless of whether Robert Griffin or Rex Grossman is back there.

***

I’ll end on a positive note. I alluded to this earlier, but Sunday’s victory is an auspicious indication of the quality of the supporting cast with which coach Mike Shanahan has surrounded QB Robert Griffin III. In other words, the Redskins are not a one-man show. No successful team is because injuries are too prevalent. Sure, the Browns aren’t the toughest opponent in the league, but if the Redskins can overcome playing without their star quarterback, it’s a sign the talent on the roster is trending the right way.

“Robert has been a huge part of our success; there’s no denying that,” SS Reed Doughty said. “But you hope that you’re not building around one person. Obviously there’s an emphasis, but if that’s the case, that’s all your relying on.”

…that’s it for now.

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