Initial Thoughts: Redskins 17, Giants 16

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Here’s what I’m thinking immediately after the Redskins’ 17-16 victory over the Giants on Monday night:

What an incredible turnaround. Stunning, really. A month ago, the Redskins were tired, mistake prone and decimated by injuries. They were freefalling toward last place. Now they’re tracking toward first place. Has a bye week ever been more perfectly timed?

“You think about it, we didn’t get our bye week until the 10th week of the season,” ILB London Fletcher said. “We played nine games and then finally got a bye week. Had a lot of close games. That kind of wears on you a little bit. We just got a chance to get away for a little bit, refresh mentally, refocus.

“We understood that, yeah, at that point in time we were 3-6, but we looked at our situation and knew, hey, we win a couple ballgames it can be totally different for us. And that’s what we did. We really focused in on getting that win against the Eagles. That was a big one. Then you think about going down to Dallas on a short week, coming away with a victory and setting the stage for tonight. Just a great feeling, but we still got a lot of work to do.”

For me, three elements are at the heart of the Redskins’ resurgence:

1. QB Robert Griffin III continues to improve his physical execution, field vision and decision making. The difference between training camp and now? “Night and day,” he said after the game.

2. WR Pierre Garcon is a major play-making presence who opens up the offense because of his speed and ability to catch anything. He had eight catches for 106 yards and the winning touchdown Monday night.

3. The defense has improved enough (tackling and coverage, in particular) to flip close games in the Redskins’ favor.

Those factors, in addition to the fact the first-string offensive line still is intact, mean the Redskins are playing their best ball at the right time. Suddenly, Washington is dangerous.

If the Redskins continue to play at this level – a HUGE ‘if’ – they could sweep the last four games. Right now, they’d be favored in every game except this Sunday’s home game against Baltimore, which opened Tuesday morning as an even line.

“6-6 with the whole world ahead of us,” LG Kory Lichtensteiger said.

***

The Redskins are now very well positioned to make a run in the division and wild card races.

They trail New York by a game in the division standings, but they have the tiebreaker advantage because of their superior divisional record (3-1 to 2-3). Washington would clinch that tiebreaker over the Giants by beating either Philadelphia or Dallas in the last two weeks of the season.

The Redskins still need help catching the Giants, but New York’s schedule is more difficult.

Washington is home vs. Baltimore, at Cleveland, at Philadelphia and home vs. Dallas.

New York is home vs. New Orleans, at Atlanta, at Baltimore and home vs. Philly.

In the wild card race, Monday’s win vaulted Washington to the seventh seed. The Redskins trail Seattle by a game for the sixth and final spot. But the Seahawks, who haven’t lost at home yet this season, play three of their last four in Seattle.

It’s important for the Redskins to sustain the one-game-at-a-time approach that helped them turn the season around. It would be easy to get away from that now that they have two games coming up against AFC opponents (which don’t affect tiebreakers as much as games against NFC opponents do). It’s apparent, though, that mindset is central to this resurgence.

“We still feel like underdogs,” NT Barry Cofield said. “We’ve got a good Baltimore team coming in, and I’m pretty sure we will be the underdogs. That’s a good thing. We want to have our backs against the wall. We don’t want anybody to pick us. We want to have an inner strength. And when guys come together over a thing like that, a me-against-the-world mentality is a beautiful thing.

Players after Monday’s win seemed determined not to look at the playoff picture.

“We’ve still got to have the Giants lose again, and we’ve got to pretty much win out to guarantee anything,” LG Kory Lichtensteiger said. “The old cliché: one game at a time. We’ve got Baltimore, and that’s going to be a big test for us.”

***

Speaking of Baltimore, Redskins RG Chris Chester played five seasons for the Ravens before joining the Redskins as a free agent in 2011. Baltimore made the playoffs in four of Chester’s five seasons there, including three seasons with at least 11 wins. He knows what an elite team is.

“We’re actually reaching our potential,” Chester said after the game. “I’ve been around some good teams and some great players. We have just as much ability and potential to be a team of that caliber.”

***

The Redskins won for the sixth time this season, which ensures an improvement on last year’s 5-11 record. With four games remaining, no players or coaches are willing to settle for that, of course, but it’s the most important evidence of progress in Year 3 of coach Mike Shanahan’s program.

***

If you had told me before the game that New York would gain 390 total yards, convert 9 of 15 third downs and not turn the ball over, I’d have said there’s no way the Redskins would win.

They did, though, because the defense kept the Giants out of the end zone. We talk all the time about the offense finishing drives. Well, Washington’s defense finished drives Monday night.

The Giants drove into Washington territory on five of their eight possessions, yet they scored a touchdown on only one of them. Penalties killed some of New York’s drives, as did some incompletions on first down followed by incompletions third-and-long.

“It’s about who wins the most matchups,” CB DeAngelo Hall said. “I felt like our guys won the most.”

***

Credit defensive coordinator Jim Haslett for some halftime adjustments without which the Redskins would not have won. A couple players described them:

“We tried to play a little bit of combo coverage in the first half,” CB DeAngelo Hall said. “Second half, we was just pretty much in man. Tried to rush a little bit more guys than they had to block. The front got home. Anytime the front end works, the back end works, too. It works well together when both sides are doing what they’ve got to do.”

Added NT Barry Cofield: “Coaches did a great job of dialing up some great blitzes, and up front I think we just kind of turned it loose. Honestly, I think we were a little bit too under control in the first half. There’s some things that Eli [Manning, Giants quarterback] has done well, and we were really focusing on stopping those things, as opposed to just playing our game and just rushing them and cutting loose. I feel like when we did that, things got better for us.

“First half was too many yards,” Cofield said of New York’s 273-yard total before halftime. “It wasn’t a ton of points, but we definitely weren’t happy coming in at halftime. It was not a happy locker room. We felt like we could do better. Any time a team can run the ball like that on us, we’re very unhappy. We tightened it up a lot in the second half.”

The Giants gained only 117 yards in the second half. They were 1 of 5 on third downs after converting 8 of 10 in the first half. They punted on three of their four second-half possessions after not punting at all before halftime. That’s quite a turnaround.

***

Another halftime adjustment involved using OLB Rob Jackson as a pass rusher on third downs.

Jackson has started in place of OLB Brian Orakpo since Orakpo tore his left pectoral muscle in Week 2. Even though Jackson gained a foothold in the league as a defensive end, the Redskins rotated him out of their nickel package all season until Monday night. He practiced in the nickel last week, and at halftime he lobbied Haslett to let him rush the passer on third downs.

“They had [Lorenzo Alexander] in there for coverage purposes,” Jackson said. “He can cover a lot more than me. I told him to put me in on third downs and just let me rush. Don’t put me in coverage or anything like that. Let me rush. It felt good. He believed in me, and I showed up.”

Jackson proceeded to make several plays to help the Redskins protect their 17-16 lead in the fourth quarter. He sacked QB Eli Manning on third-and-4 from the Giants’ 14 yard-line. On the next drive, he drew a holding penalty rushing off the edge on third-and-10 from the Giants’ 43, and he made the tackle on the screen pass on the ensuing third-and-20.

Haslett “believed in me, so I felt like I had to show up,” Jackson said. “If I’m asking for an opportunity, I’ve got to go out there and make something happen.”

***

RB Alfred Morris was mentally tough after losing a fumble at the Giants’ 9-yard line in the third quarter. The turnover could have cost the Redskins the game, but he responded by blocking it out of his mind, something he learned to do in college.

He averaged 8 yards on five carries on the ensuing drive, which culminated in the decisive touchdown. He finished those runs physically, as usual.

“I could have hung my head after that fumble, but I didn’t,” he said. “I picked myself up, and I kept on trucking. We had a game to go win.”

Morris (124 yards on 22 carries) now has 1,106 rushing yards this season. He broke the Redskins’ rookie record of 1,063 set by Reggie Brooks in 1993.

***

What an accomplishment for the offense to run the last 3:51 off the clock and finish the game by kneeling down.

QB Robert Griffin III kept the clock moving on the first play of the drive by staying in bounds and absorbing a hit near the sideline instead of taking the safe path out of bounds. Griffin said he thought about offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan telling him to get out of bounds, but he realized the game situation required him to stay in, even if it meant taking a shot.

Griffin’s 17-yard completion to WR Pierre Garcon on second-and-8 was easy. The Giants stacked the box and sold out against the run fake, leaving the middle of the field open. And CB Prince Amukamara played outside leverage, letting Garcon run free to the middle of the field.

That set up three straight power runs. No outside zone or option concepts; just smash-mouth, straight-ahead blocking, something Washington’s offensive line isn’t built to do. But RB Alfred Morris gained 13 yards, including six on third-and-3, to seal the victory.

“That’s kind of becoming our finish-the-game, drag-out-the-clock kind-of play,” LG Kory Lichtensteiger said. “If you can run power and get two first downs in a row and really kill the clock, I think it says a lot about which way the line of scrimmage is moving and about the tone of the night. We got a good push all night, and it carried over to the last series.”

***

LT Trent Williams and ILB London Fletcher deserve high marks for toughness.

Williams used an obscenity to describe how his bruised left thigh felt. He gauged his health at about 60 percent, yet he and the Redskins’ offensive line did not allow a sack against that fierce Giants front. Williams believes he’ll be able to play against the Ravens next Sunday despite the short week.

Fletcher after the game wore a walking boot to immobilize his sprained left ankle. This wasn’t his best game, especially in coverage against TE Martellus Bennett, but his presence on the field is important.

***

The Redskins didn’t complete the long touchdown passes they did in the previous two games. The Giants took that away by playing a single safety extremely deep. QB Robert Griffin said the Giants’ high safety was so deep that he was out of the pre-snap photos they analyze on the sideline.

That opened up shorter passes and the running game, which the Redskins took advantage of.

***

The Redskins were fortunate that QB Robert Griffin’s fumble in the first half went right to WR Joshua Morgan, but it wasn’t all luck. Morgan was where he was coached to be.

As he and Griffin ran the option, Morgan continued running alongside Griffin down the field.

“That’s what we practice all the time,” Morgan said. “He’ll be up the field 15 or 20 yards, and he’ll still pitch it if he sees you right there. I was screaming ‘Pitch it!’ the whole time, anyway.”

***

Mike Shanahan won for the 171st time as an NFL head coach. That ties him with Joe Gibbs for 12th all-time. Gibbs was at the game Monday.

***

I’m still trying to wrap my head around this turnaround. Maybe some sleep will help.

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