The Washington Times - October 1, 2012, 08:25AM

TAMPA, Fla. | Here’s what I’m thinking immediately after the Redskins’ 24-22 victory over Tampa Bay on Sunday:

It’s not a stretch to consider this a season-saving win, even though players downplayed that notion after the game. Consider the alternative: A loss would have dropped the Redskins to 1-3 with upcoming home games against Atlanta and Minnesota, followed by road trips to New York and Pittsburgh. To me, that looks like a freefall to 1-7 or 2-6. Instead, the Redskins kept pace with first-place Philadelphia while generating a bit of momentum. They also ascended to the .500 mark that in January would qualify as a successful season.

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Sunday’s win doesn’t necessarily alter the Redskins’ chances in the aforementioned games during the second quarter of the season, but they started to put it together against the Bucs. The defense was better in the first half, playing tighter coverage and generally tackling better. QB Robert Griffin III continues to efficiently move the offense. Those are signs the Redskins can continue to stay competitive despite their injury woes and problems on defense.

If there ever was a must-win game in September, this was it. That was evident inside the postgame locker room. Players were ecstatic. They joked and laughed and talked about the huge difference between 2-2 and 1-3. Some of the guys have been down the losers’ path so many times before that the collective sigh of relief was significant.

“We was confident about ourselves, but you have that funk on you,” WR Santana Moss said. “When you have that funk, there’s nothing you can do to get it off you but win. Until you win the game, that’s when you get that funk off you.”

***

Griffin is a winner, plain and simple. He makes winning plays, winning decisions over and over.

His helmet radio headset that connects him with offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan went out during the final drive. He stayed poised, though, and didn’t panic. He either ran to the sideline to get the playcall or called the play himself. The Redskins had practiced the situation before, and he knew what to do. 

Afterward, he called the whole thing “cool” and “neat.” Uh, yeah. Very impressive.

***

Griffin’s running ability continues to be a major weapon in the red zone. He now has four rushing touchdowns, and he’d have another if he hadn’t fumbled at the goal line in the first quarter. (Credit WR Pierre Garcon for being alert and in position to recover the loose ball for a touchdown. That’s another winning play.)

Teams are going to start defending the quarterback draw as their top priority inside the red zone. How can they afford not to? The Buccaneers play that Tampa-2 style of Cover-2, in which the middle linebacker is responsible for the deep middle. Griffin took advantage of that on several plays by running.

Griffin’s speed is electric. He picks up yards so quickly that when a defense comes out of coverage to close on him, it’s often too late.

Consider this: He’s on pace for 1,008 rushing yards and 4,280 passing yards. That’s other-worldly, some real next-level stuff.

And he now has accounted for eight touchdowns (four passing, four rushing) and two turnovers (one interception, one fumble). So we’re talking about a 4-to-1 touchdowns-to-turnovers ratio. How about that for an upgrade?

***

Speaking of Griffin’s rushing, he absorbed less physical punishment against Tampa Bay than in any of the previous three games. He went to ground with contact only 10 times, by my colleague Nathan Fenno’s count. Check out Nathan’s story on the subject.

Compare those 10 times to the 28 times he went to ground with contact against Cincinnati last week. He repeatedly and demonstrably showed the defense he did not have ball on inside handoffs. How that affected the quality of the deception on fakes, we’ll have to examine that in more detail this week.

Griffin ran fewer zone reads this week because he didn’t have to. The Redskins built an early lead on the strength of Griffin’s passing and RB Alfred Morris’ physical running. Ultimately, that’s the key to preserving Griffin’s health: get into situations in which he doesn’t need to move the ball using designed runs.

***

Members of the secondary were happy with the first half and displeased with the second, as you would expect.

“I thought we played really solid on defense, but we gave up a few,” SS Reed Doughty said. “We can’t give them up. We had an opportunity to score points and we didn’t get them, but at the end of the day we’re 2-2 whether it’s 40-0 or as close as it was.”

Coverage simply was tighter in the first half, CB Josh Wilson said. It helped that Tampa Bay QB Josh Freeman was inaccurate and missed some open receivers in the first half. He sharpened as the game progressed. Take the 54-yard completion to WR Vincent Jackson that began a fourth-quarter drive. CB DeAngelo Hall was in good deep coverage, but, as has been the case for much of this season, he was a couple inches on the wrong side of making a play.

“He was making smart throws,” Doughty said. “They didn’t have a lot of little dink and dunk completions. He was making smart throws and hitting people. They weren’t doing big play-action where we had an opportunity to get to the quarterback. It was a lot of 5-step, just get the ball out. We’ve just got to be able to stand up and cover. I think we’ll get there.”

I’ll have to check on this when I re-watch the game, but it seemed as though the pass rush was not as effective in the second half. We saw in the second quarter how the pass rush helps the secondary when OLB Ryan Kerrigan’s pressure forced Freeman to hold the ball longer than he wanted to, which allowed Hall to position himself for an interception on a throw intended for Jackson. That set up a touchdown.

***

Oh boy, Billy Cundiff. He made the field goal that counted, so he has that going for him. It’s a testament to his mental toughness.

“I think being a kicker is so difficult because it’s so easy to quantify how you’re playing during the course of a game, during the course of a season and during the course of a career,” said TE Logan Paulsen, a member of the special teams. “The fact that he was able to kind of leave that once he missed it, move on and make it when he had to make it, it was really special.”

Another thing Cundiff has going for him: 64 percent of his kickoffs have been touchbacks, compared to Washington’s 43.84 percent last season. Cundiff is tied for third in the NFL this year.

OK, all that said, Cundiff’s 1-for-4 performance Sunday did nothing to validate coach Mike Shanahan’s decision to choose him over Graham Gano. Cundiff had made all five of his previous field goals from inside 62 yards, but consistency is so important. Gano finished last season by making 15 of his last 16 field-goal attempts, and the one miss was blocked. That is consistency.

Cundiff afterward acknowledged kickers who miss four field goals in a game usually aren’t employed the next week, so he knew everything that was at stake on the final kick. Check out my colleague Steve Whyno’s story on Cundiff’s redemption.

***

LT Trent Williams gets a ton of credit for playing through a bone bruise in his right knee that kept him from fully practicing all week. I was surprised he played, given how hobbled he was walking around team headquarters all week. But being on the field means a lot to Williams. He equates that to leadership, which he seems determined to show after last year’s drug suspension.

“I feel like I owe it to this team, owe it to this city to get out there and battle through the pain,” Williams said. Despite his major screwup last season, that’s why he wears the captain’s C.

***

The pre-game collision between SS Brandon Meriweather and WR Aldrick Robinson was really scary. The way Meriweather’s left knee bent underneath him as he fell was nasty. He’ll have an MRI Monday. Listening to him Friday discuss making his Redskins’ debut, it was clear how much Meriweather enjoys playing the game. To have that taken away by such a freak accident would be a shame, not to mention a huge blow to the defense.

As for Robinson, he was knocked out cold. Medics hovered over him while he lay prone in the end zone. Just really scary stuff.

It’s a bit of a wonder such collisions don’t happen more often. There’s so much action on the field during pre-game warm-ups, with guys running around different parts of the field doing different things.

***

RB Alfred Morris, upon first glance, demonstrated one of the traits coaches like most about him: the first defender often does not bring him down. He was physical again Sunday, running through tacklers and, on his 39-yard touchdown, around them.

“Every play he runs incredibly hard,” Logan Paulsen said. “He’s just such a natural runner.

Morris doesn’t have game-breaking speed, but he plays fast because of his explosive cuts. The long touchdown run proves what can happen when everyone is on their blocks. Linemen created the hole. Paulsen, who motioned to H-back before the snap, led Morris through it with a physical block. WR Josh Morgan sealed a defender inside, and WR Leonard Hankerson extended the gain with a block in the secondary. Morris could have run for miles.

“He just made magic happen,” Paulsen said.

Through a quarter of the season, Morris is on pace of 1,504 yards and 328 carries. That’s a heck of a workload.

***

TE Fred Davis had four catches for 70 yards, including a 20-yard catch-and-run into Tampa Bay territory on the final drive. QB Robert Griffin III got rid of the ball quickly to a wide open Davis against a 7-man blitz. Good read, and probably an easy one, too, against that rush.

After a quiet first two games, Davis has 160 receiving yards the last two weeks. His ability to make defenders miss and gain yards after the catch is a welcomed addition. Mike and Kyle Shanahan mention how the offense doesn’t target certain receivers. The amount of players’ targets depend on what the defense gives them. Griffin and Davis have capitalized on that the last two weeks.

…that’s it for now. Let me know what I missed. @Rich_Campbell.