The Washington Times - November 6, 2012, 06:52PM

ANALYSIS/OPINION

Observations, analysis and conclusions about the Washington Redskins’ offense after re-watching the FOX telecast and NFL.com coaches film of their 21-13 loss to the Carolina Panthers.

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IN SUMMARY

Washington scored only 13 points because of missed opportunities. Four of the Redskins’ first six possessions entered Carolina territory, including two inside the 10-yard line, but those produced only six points. Individual mistakes killed drives, whether it was a missed block or penalty or inaccurate throw. The Panthers, meanwhile, built a 21-6 lead. The deficit forced the Redskins away from the run, which, by extension, mitigated the play-action passing game on which they rely so heavily. And Carolina’s quality defensive linemen teed off on QB Robert Griffin III in the second half when they knew the Redskins had to throw.

THE POSITIVES

RB Alfred Morris averaged 5.8 yards on 13 carries, including a 7.0-yard average on the seven rushes before he injured his right shoulder. He continues to run with great vision and nimble feet.

Most noteworthy, perhaps, is that his success Sunday was not the product of teaming with QB Robert Griffin III in the zone-read option game. His three zone-read carries totaled only four yards.

Instead, Morris and the Redskins had great success running their classic outside/inside zone scheme out of the shotgun formation. Morris gained 67 of his 76 yards on seven of those stretch/cutback plays coach Mike Shanahan built his reputation on. The Redskins ran them out of the shotgun, though, instead of from under center. That didn’t appear to hold the linebackers for any extra amount of time, but it did allow Griffin to hand the ball to Morris a split-second faster, which helped Morris take advantageous tracks and read cutback lanes.

On his 18-yard gain, his longest rush of the day, he took the handoff five yards behind the line of scrimmage and took a path toward TE Logan Paulsen on the right edge of the line. He was wide enough that DE Charles Johnson got only one arm on him three yards behind the line after clubbing RT Tyler Polumbus to the ground.

Then Morris did what he’s done well so many times this season – he pressed the cutback lane. And when C Will Montgomery and RG Chris Chester blocked their defenders to the ground, Morris put his foot in the ground, accelerated up the field and into the secondary. He gained a total of 21 yards after Johnson contacted him, which is what the Redskins have come to expect. The first defender often doesn’t bring him down.

***

QB Robert Griffin III completed several long passes in the second half by anticipating receivers getting open and passing accurately into tight windows. On the first play of Washington’s fifth possession, he connected with WR Leonard Hankerson for 25 yards on a deep cross. Panthers MLB Luke Kuechly came toward the line of scrimmage when the Redskins faked a handoff. Griffin knew Kuechly wasn’t going to recover and drop into the deep middle in time to block the throwing lane to Hankerson, but he had to wait for WR Santana Moss to take CB Josh Norman with him on a vertical route from the left side. Griffin’s timing was perfect. He threw the pass before Hankerson ran past Kuechly, and he led Hankerson perfectly. The ball arrived before Norman could peel off of Moss and stop Hankerson.

Griffin did the same thing later that drive on a 22-yard completion to TE Niles Paul. He placed the throw just beyond Kuechly’s reach as Paul ran across the field behind the middle linebacker. Such anticipation and timing is a great measure of Griffin’s comfort with the offense and reading defenses. He knew where his receivers were going to be and that they were going to be open when they got there.

***

WR Josh Morgan continues to prove his toughness on those intermediate throws to the middle of the field. He took two shots, including a nasty one from FS Haruki Nakamura, who was penalized 15 yards for hitting a defenseless receiver. Morgan slid to his knees to try to make the catch, so it would have been difficult for Nakamura not to look like a headhunter on the play.

But credit Morgan for his willingness to take hits. He has done it throughout the season. Back in Week 1, I was surprised he got up after diving head-first into a New Orleans safety. Considering how often the Redskins use play-action zone-read runs to open up the middle of the field, Morgan has been invaluable beating cornerbacks to the inside and going after the ball fearlessly.

That’s not to say he always catches it. He dropped at least two passes against Carolina, and he got his hands on another that was broken up by a defender. He might have cost the Redskins a field goal in the third quarter with his drop on third-and-20 from the Carolina 46. Morgan ran a crossing route underneath. He had RB Evan Royster and WR Leonard Hankerson blocking two defenders on the right side of the field. At the very least, Morgan would have gained about 10 yards to set up a long field goal. QB Robert Griffin III’s throw was high; he didn’t step all the way into the throw because Carolina pushed the pocket inside, but Morgan could have caught it.

Morgan did make a difficult catch on a 13-yard reception in the second quarter. Griffin threw high and behind him near the left hashmarks, but Morgan caught it despite the location and despite CB Josh Norman hanging on him.

***

The Redskins offensive linemen and tight ends executed some terrific combination blocks, as they have all season. Defenses’ collective indecision against the Redskins’ misdirection helps offensive linemen get on their blocks, and their familiarity with each other after playing together last season also is a boon.

A perfect example is RT Tyler Polumbus’ cut block of DT Dwan Edwards on RB Evan Royster’s 1-yard touchdown in the final two minutes. The offensive line moved in unison to the left after the snap. RG Chris Chester shoved Edwards in the chest before moving on to block MLB Luke Kuechly. The shove slowed Edwards enough for Polumbus to get in front of him and in position for a legal cut block. Polumbus threw himself at Edwards’ thighs and took him down. That, and Chester’s block on the second level, created a hole that Royster surged through for the touchdown.

***

Speaking of Chester helping Polumbus, he spared Polumbus a sack in the third-quarter with a last-second double team. On first-and-20 from the Redskins’ 30, QB Robert Griffin III completed a 17-yard pass to WR Leonard Hankerson. DE Charles Johnson beat Polumbus with a two-handed move to the inside. Chester began the play by blocking down on DT Ron Edwards to form a double-team with C Will Montgomery. But Chester saw Johnson get inside Polumbus, and he kicked out to help push Johnson up the field.

Griffin, meanwhile, was fantastically poised. On similar plays this season, Griffin has brought the ball down, escaped the pocket and extended the play. But in this instance, he kept his eyes down the field and simply shuffled up one step to avoid Johnson. He had an open running lane in front of him, but instead he threw to Hankerson between three defenders.

For me, that was one of Griffin’s most impressive plays of the season. It showed significant growth. He wants to be a passer, not a runner, and this was evidence he is getting there at the NFL level. The poise, the vision, the accuracy, the arm strength – it was all there. And Chester made it possible.

***

Kai Forbath made another field goal from beyond 40 yards.There never was any doubt about his 47-yarder that opened the scoring. The rookie is one of only five NFL kickers who are perfect on at least five attempts from between 40 and 49 yards. He is 5-for-5.

THE NEGATIVES

The Redskins had first-and-goal from Carolina’s 7-yard line in the second quarter and did not score. That and the Panthers’ ensuing 98-yard touchdown drive probably comprised the decisive sequence in the game.

RB Alfred Morris’ 5-yard run on first down was a positive play. But the toss left to Morris on second down lost two yards when TE Logan Paulsen failed to set the edge against second-string DE Frank Alexander. If Paulsen had sealed Alexander inside, as he tried to do, FB Darrel Young would have led Morris around the corner and into the end zone. But Alexander got his right hand into Paulsen’s chest and pushed him back into Young’s path. Morris had to cut inside, where LB Thomas Davis plugged the hole.

WR Brandon Banks got those two yards back on a third-down screen pass, setting up QB Robert Griffin III’s ill-fated sweep right on fourth-and-goal from the 2.  

RB Evan Royster and RT Tyler Polumbus led around the right side, and they both went to block CB Josh Thomas. Royster got there first. Thomas stayed low and on his feet against Royster’s block. He stood Royster up and strung the block out to the sideline, preventing Griffin from getting around the edge. Other defenders in pursuit prevented Griffin from cutting up inside Royster.

So the Redskins had individual blocking breakdowns on two of those four goal-to-go plays. Sometimes that’s all it takes to turn a game.

***

Penalties repeatedly put the Redskins in difficult situations. Take their opening drive, for example. They moved 76 yards on nine plays to get into second-and-2 from Carolina’s 21. The Redskins had momentum after their defensive forced a punt on the game’s first series. And the offensive playbook is wide open from that field position with that down and distance.

But LT Trent Williams held DE Greg Hardy when Hardy used a rip move to get around him on an edge rush. That put the Redskins in second-and-12. They ran a zone-read run to RB Evan Royster for no gain, a screen pass for two yards on third-and-12 and settled for a field goal.

Those penalties are drive killers. And in this case, we’re talking about Williams, a former fourth-overall draft pick, not some backup who’s playing because of injuries. When your best players are committing these mistakes, you’re often going to lose.

***

Playing from behind created two major problems. First, it negated the Redskins’ play-action passing game, which they rely so heavily on. Second, it strained an offensive line that ranked 19th the NFL last season in sacks-per-pass-attempt and ranks 24th in that category this season.

The Redskins trailed 21-6 with 3:45 to play when they took a shot deep to WR Leonard Hankerson on first-and-10 from Carolina’s 43. The Panthers’ two deep safeties played 16 yards off the ball to prevent the deep pass, and their three linebackers dropped into coverage immediately after the snap. The situation dictated no threat of running the ball to draw the safeties or linebackers up. So when Hankerson faked a corner route and ran deep to the post, FS Sherrod Martin was in position to cover him.

The Panthers sacked Griffin twice after they took a 15-point lead. They played soft coverage, which limited where Griffin could throw the ball. And Carolina’s front four won some one-on-one blocks against Redskins linemen, even though Washington outnumbered Carolina five blockers to four rushers.

Each of Carolina’s four sacks occurred in obvious passing situations: third-and-10, second-and-15, third-and-12 and fourth-and-10. Griffin held the ball on those for 3.0 seconds, 3.6, 3.5 and 3.4, respectively. Carolina’s front four is good enough generate pressure while dropping seven into coverage. All four of the Panthers’ sacks came with four rushers against five Redskins’ linemen. It was a losing formula for Washington.

***

QB Robert Griffin III’s timing and accuracy were stellar on some passes, but he was off target on others. WR Josh Morgan dropped a crossing route Griffin threw high and a slant Griffin threw behind him. Griffin overthrew TE Chris Cooley in the right flat on the opening series. Those are the product of a mechanical breakdown, often either feet or front shoulder.

Griffin was inaccurate throwing while rolling to his left in training camp as he tried to hone the difficult mechanics of getting his front shoulder turned toward his target on that particular throw. He was inconsistent in that area again on Sunday. He hit TE Logan Paulsen with a perfect pass on a bootleg left for a 12-yard gain on the first series. But he bounced a similar throw to Paulsen on second-and-10 on the opening series of the second half. Instead of moving into Carolina territory with a second-down completion, Griffin was sacked on third down, and the Redskins punted.

***

WR Aldrick Robinson returned to the starting lineup only to drop a pass on the Redskins’ first play from scrimmage. He was open on a slant, but the ball went through his hands when he tried to backhand it.

Robinson also missed an opportunity for a touchdown in the second half. Credit offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan for a well-designed play. The Redskins ran a play-action keeper to the right on first-and-10 from Carolina’s 34. Robinson, from wide right, ran vertically and got behind the defense by breaking to the left corner of the end zone. The problem was that he broke before Griffin had escaped the pocket and was ready to throw. By the time Griffin could release the ball, the backside cornerback recognized Robinson and dropped off a shorter crossing route and into deep coverage. If Robinson had been more patient in breaking, if he had pushed his route up the field or away from his break, the timing could have resulted in a touchdown.

***

RB Evan Royster missed a blitz pickup that resulted in QB Robert Griffin III absorbing a hit to the ribs in the first half. FS Haruki Nakamura blitzed from the right side of the defense. Royster recognized it, but he didn’t square Nakamura up. Nakamura used a club move to get by and drive his helmet into Griffin’s ribs. Griffin received an injection of local anesthetic at halftime.

That missed block, coupled with a lost block on fourth-and-goal from the 2, made it a bad day for Royster.

***

The Redskins still are waiting on an explosive play from WR/KR/PR Brandon Banks. On the final play of the game, a screen pass designed for Banks, he incorrectly released to the right while his blockers ran to the left. It was more embarrassing than detrimental because an 83-yard touchdown was quite unlikely.

Banks also let a third-quarter punt bounce at the 36-yard line. He could have caught it out of the air there, but instead he fielded it on the bounce at the 28 and was tackled at the 23. That’s a loss of 13 yards in case you don’t have a calculator handy.