Initial Thoughts: Redskins 28, Cowboys 18

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Here’s what I’m thinking immediately after the Redskins’ 28-18 victory over the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday night:

The last eight weeks would cause even the greatest fiction writer to flinch. I wouldn’t believe the Redskins are NFC East division champions – those 3-6 Redskins – if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. But there they were late Sunday night circulating black Division Champions hats around the locker room. Incredible. Unbelievable. Stunning. Choose your preferred adjective.

There are many reasons for the turnaround, almost all of which involve players simply playing better. WR Pierre Garcon and NT Barry Cofield are two examples.

But for as cliché or superficial as it sounds, I believe coach Mike Shanahan accurately described Sunday night what’s at the core of their emergence: “For them to fight for seven weeks to put themselves in this position just says a lot about who they are and what level they’ve played at for about seven weeks,” he said. “That we accomplished our first goal [is] really a tribute to the character of the guys in that locker room.”

Shanahan’s notorious postgame comments after the Redskins lost to Carolina on Nov. 4 centered on discovering who would fight and continue to put forth great effort. That evaluation has yielded a long list of committed players. The quality of the locker room is a testament to the players and Shanahan’s priorities in building the roster. Their refusal to publicly assign blame and their willingness to continue working is why the Redskins will host Seattle next Sunday at 4:30 p.m. in FedEx Field’s first playoff game in 13 years.

***

The mood inside the locker room after the game was a bit more subdued than I anticipated. I suspect part of that stemmed from how the Redskins’ goals are greater than the division title, but it also results from raised expectations. Players expected to win this game and, at this point, every game.

The most emotional player I observed was one who actually didn’t play Sunday night. OLB Brian Orakpo, out for the season since Week 2 with a pectoral tear, shouted to no one in particular about the championship and how Washington was a horrific 4-12 during his rookie year in 2009. Orakpo takes losing hard because he never was on losing teams growing up. It’s a shame for him that he can’t play during this run, but that he has found a way to remain invested in the team’s play is proof of his commitment.

Don’t get me wrong, though. Players and coaches were thrilled. Take seven-year veteran SS Reed Doughty. He sprinted onto the field when the game was over. He jumped and pumped his fist and thrust his helmet in the air. He went to the playoffs with the 2007 wild card team, but he also has experienced a 4-win season, a 5-win season and two 6-win seasons. After seven years, mostly spent in last place, he experienced the top.

“To win and have a home playoff game is really special,” he said.

***

The Redskins’ once-maligned defense came through with a signature performance to help win the division title. (I wrote about that for our website, and you can read it here.) What an appropriate microcosm of the team’s turnaround.

“I think we played a pretty complete game,” NT Barry Cofield said. “They’re a potent offense. Especially when they’re behind, they have a tendency to get right back in it. For us to be able to shut the door, that’s what we didn’t do early in the season.”

In reviewing their 38-31 victory over Dallas on Thanksgiving, Redskins coaches saw how successful they were rushing at least five defenders in the first half of that game (Washington led, 28-3 at halftime). They stayed with that approach all game Sunday night. Players said they tried to pressure QB Tony Romo up the middle in order to keep him off balance and prevent him from stepping up in the pocket and seeing the field clearly. They emphasized containing Romo on the edges so he couldn’t extend plays by rolling out. And they played more man-to-man coverage than in the first game.

The result? The Redskins intercepted Romo three times and sacked him twice. CB Josh Wilson cracked one of Romo’s ribs with a first-half hit, Romo told reporters.

“They just kind of Rolodexed those blitzes through both in the regular and also in the third-down situations,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said.

The Cowboys didn’t have an answer. Their 18 points were their lowest total in nine games. The Redskins surrendered 6.1 yards per play against Dallas on Thanksgiving but only 4.9 Sunday night.

***

Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett and his staff deserve tons of credit for crafting such an effective game plan. Player after player echoed that sentiment.

“Haz is great,” said ILB Perry Riley, whose blitz up the middle helped force OLB Rob Jackson’s game-clinching interception with little more than 3 minutes remaining. “I love Haz. He’s a very confident coach. He’s not shy. He will send pressure, so he does a great job coming up with schemes, keeping people in what there strengths [are] and what they like to do. He don’t really put a lot of people in situations they’re not good in, so he does a great job.”

“It was just a great plan devised by Haz and his staff,” Cofield said. “It was unique. I spent a lot of time occupying blockers and occupying the center and spying backs. I did more of that than I’m accustomed to, but if it works you’re OK with it. Sometimes you’ve got to be selfless and buy into the plan. Every week they come up with something new. A different guy might be featured. You just have to play your role. When guys buy into it and it works, it’s a thing of beauty.”

Haslett isn’t perfect, but I believe he has done quite well this season with the personnel coach Mike Shanahan supplied him. It took a long while for the defense to get accustomed to playing without injured first-stringers OLB Brian Orakpo, DE Adam Carriker, SS Brandon Meriweather and suspended FS Tanard Jackson, but the unit appears to have finally adjusted.

Consider the Redskins gave up an average of 27.6 points per game during their 3-6 start, but they have surrendered only 20 points per game during their seven-game winning streak. That’s a huge improvement.

“We’ve definitely grown,” Cofield said. “It was a shock to our system when we lost Brandon and Brian and Adam and Tanard – guys that were in there, flashing playmaking ability all spring, all summer. It hit us hard. It wasn’t until the bye week that I think us and the coaches had a chance to get away from it and really think and devise a plan of how we were going to try and make up for the losses. Ever since then, the last seven weeks, they’ve just had a different plan every week. We’ll come in with a ton of blitzes on Wednesday, and we’ll sort through them and find out what works, and we go into the game on Sunday with a plan we all believe in. My hat is definitely off to our coaching staff.”

As Haslett walked to his car after midnight Monday morning, a fan shouted: “Thank you, Coach Haslett!” That would have been unimaginable nine weeks ago.

***

Sunday’s game might have been CB DeAngelo Hall’s best since joining the Redskins in 2008. It was right up there with his four-interception game against Chicago in 2010.

He shadowed WR Dez Bryant all over the field, playing physical man coverage. Bryant finished with four catches for 71 yards. Bryant failed to score a touchdown for the first time in eight games.

Hall said he believed prior to the game that the Redskins would either win or lose because of him because Bryant had been playing so well. It was the former. Hall played well with his hands, and he remained aware of ball location and where his help was.

***

QB Robert Griffin III isn’t healthy, and it’s obvious. The mildly sprained lateral collateral ligament in his right knee prevents him from running as explosively as he does when healthy. Coach Mike Shanahan after the game acknowledged Griffin isn’t playing at full capacity.

It’s not a dealbreaker, though, because Griffin still ran well enough keep the zone read option effective. He scored on a 10-yard run (thanks in part to a phenomenal block by WR Pierre Garcon) and finished with 63 yards on six carries.

Dallas’ defensive ends, especially DeMarcus Ware, got caught out of position on several zone-read keepers because they crashed down on RB Alfred Morris, an understandable approach given Griffin’s injury. As long as Griffin is healthy enough for the zone read to remain a threat, the Redskins’ offense can operate to its potential.

***

Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan on Thursday discussed the importance of his offense having answers for whatever a defense decides to try to stop. On Sunday night, Dallas tried to take away the Redskins’ play-action passing game by dropping a safety down into the middle of the field and by running linebackers into vacancies.

“They weren’t respecting the run,” WR Josh Morgan said. “They were doing everything possible to stop [the play-action pass].”

If I knew before the game that QB Robert Griffin III would finish 9-of-18 passing for 100 yards and no touchdowns, I’d have guessed the Redskins would lose. But Shanahan answered Dallas’ game plan by feeding RB Alfred Morris the ball. He had 200 yards on 33 carries, the most attempts by a Redskins back since Clinton Portis had 36 against the New York Jets in 2007.

The blocking in front of him by offensive linemen, tight ends, FB Darrel Young and wide receivers generally was excellent. He also created yardage with his vision, swift feet and cutback ability.

Morris finished the season with 1,613 rushing yards, the second-most in the NFL. How he’s only a second alternate to the Pro Bowl I’ll never understand. He’s among the NFL’s biggest snubs.

Morris’ season yardage total was the third greatest all-time among rookies. Only Eric Dickerson (1,808 in 1983) and George Rogers (1,674 in 1981) had more. Morris’ 4.8 yards per carry average is better than Dickerson’s (4.6) or Rogers’ (4.4) average.

He is well-deserving of the Redskins’ single-season rushing record. Morris broke Portis’ 7-year-old mark of 1,516.

***

The Redskins went 5-1 against NFC East opponents. They swept Dallas and Philadelphia. Even when the Redskins last won the division in 1999, the Cowboys swept them.

Washington’s only divisional loss this season was to New York on a 77-yard touchdown pass in the final 80 seconds. The Redskins’ core of young offensive players seems well positioned to make such dominance the new norm.

***

The Redskins did not turn the ball over against Dallas, the sixth time this season they haven’t given it up. They finished the season with only 14 turnovers, fewest in team history. The previous record was 16 in the nine-game 1982 season, so that’s an incredible improvement. That’s how you win the division.

***

OLB Rob Jackson has made as many big plays as anyone during the Redskins’ seven-game winning streak. His interception with little more than 3 minutes left clinched the win.

“I had the peel; I had the running back man-to-man,” he said. “He threw the ball right to me. I made the play on it. I think he just didn’t expect me to peel on the running back. He gave me an opportunity to make a play, and I did.”

“The kid made a good play,” Cowboys QB Tony Romo said. “I’m upset with throwing it to where he could catch it. It is disappointing.”

Jackson’s opportunism has been a major boon to the defense. He doesn’t dominate games, but he makes impact plays by seizing opportunities. He did so against Cleveland with his interception early in the third quarter. He had a sack in the fourth quarter against New York on Monday night.

The Redskins consider OLB Brian Orakpo more of a complete player, and rightfully so. However, it’s fair to wonder whether Orakpo could have made some of the catches Jackson has this season.

***

The Redskins are scheduled to get nickel CB Cedric Griffin back from suspension this week. That prompted some considerable optimism in the locker room after the game.

As for injuries, LG Kory Lichtensteiger departed in a left walking boot. His left ankle was rolled up on. He insisted he’ll play against Seattle after receiving a week’s worth of treatment. Third-round rookie Josh LeRibeus replaced Steiger with mixed results.

The Redskins missed SS DeJon Gomes on punt coverage. TE Chris Cooley replaced him, but Cooley served mainly as a protector. As an offensive player, Cooley represents a dropoff when it comes to tackling. Gomes’ status for the Seattle game is undetermined.

***

K Kai Forbath’s explanation of his missed 37-yard field goal, his first miss in 18 attempts this season: “I would never blame conditions,” he said, “but we’re not working with the best field here.”

I’m not going to point out Forbath did what he said he wouldn’t do, but Forbath did what he said he wouldn’t do.

In all seriousness, Forbath is right. The playing surface at FedEx Field is extremely poor.

***

Not that next season is worth looking ahead to at this point, but the Redskins’ 2013 opponents are set. Check them out here.

Time for sleep now after pulling an all-nighter. If you have feedback or any thoughts you want to share, hit me on Twitter @Rich_Campbell. Happy New Year to all!!!

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