Here’s what I’m thinking immediately after the Redskins’ 38-26 victory over the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday:
The Redskins finally put all the pieces together against Minnesota. This was a complete win with contributions from all three phases. It shows you what Washington can accomplish at its best: beating a balanced first-place team that entered the game with a 4-1 record. The Redskins are capable of hanging with—maybe even beating—just about any team.
In past weeks, we saw flashes of promise in certain areas, but deficiencies in others undermined any progress. Against Cincinnati, the offense thrived using the triple option, but the secondary gave up too many big plays. Against Atlanta, the secondary covered better for much of the game, but the offense couldn’t convert third downs.
On Sunday, though, it all came together. On offense, the Redskins averaged 5.7 yards per rush against a Minnesota defense that ranked second in the NFL at 3.2 yards per carry. Sure, QB Robert Griffin III’s 76-yard run skewed the average (without it, the Redskins averaged 3.4 yards per attempt) but that one counts as much as Washington’s other 31 carries.
Defensively, the Redskins limited the Vikings to 3.9 yards per carry; they were averaging 4.3 coming in. The secondary gave up only one reception longer than 20 yards, and it accounted for a touchdown on S Madieu Williams’ 24-yard interception return.
On special teams, rookie Kai Forbath sparked the first-half comeback by connecting on a 50-yard field goal.
Now the question entering divisional play against the Giants next week is whether the Redskins can establish consistency in all three phases. This win over Minnesota sets the bar. Can they repeat this week after week? When that happens, the Redskins will contend.
The eight-game home losing streak was such an albatross. The Redskins obviously have to win their home games to transition from NFL doormat to contender. That’s one of the basic requirements. Players genuinely were relieved after taking the first step toward turning around their FedEx Field record. They hadn’t won here since beating Arizona on Sept. 18, 2011.
“You could just feel the tension in the air in the stadium,” LG Kory Lichtensteiger said. “To win is big for us. To win for the town is even bigger.”
Griffin’s 76-yard touchdown is the stuff of legends. (Read Griffin’s description of how he experienced the play.) Such game-changing, explosive plays are why you trade three first-round picks and a second-rounder to move up to draft him. It was special for so many reasons.
First, the speed. Griffin planted his back foot at the Redskins’ 15-yard line. He reached the end zone 10.8 seconds later. That’s a 40-yard dash pace of 4.89 seconds, and he ran laterally to the sideline after breaking the line of scrimmage and then slowed down in the final five yards. But even with the slowdown at the end of the run, he ran the last 60 yards in a straight line in 6.1 seconds and the last 40 yards in 4.0. That is unreal. “Speed kills” is a cliché because it’s true. With the Redskins teetering on the brink of collapse, Griffin’s speed put the Vikings to the sword.
Second, Griffin’s instincts and smarts. He read Minnesota’s double A-gap blitz and knew how to attack it.
“I was thinking I’m either going to throw hot, or if they miss this blitz and don’t hit it the right way, then I’m going to run for the first,” he said. “I saw that they missed it, took off running and got to the sideline.”
Credit RB Evan Royster for picking up blitzing LB Jasper Brinkley and giving Griffin time to see the running lane open. And credit WR Joshua Morgan for his downfield block of CB Chris Cook.
Third, how Griffin ascended to match the moment. He did it on the final drive against Tampa Bay, and he did it again Sunday.
It was third-and-6 from Washington’s 24 with 2:56 to play. Minnesota had cut the Redskins’ 19-point lead to 5. We all saw where the game was headed. We’ve seen it so many times before. And on this weekend of D.C. sports agony, this had tragic ending written all over it, especially considering the Redskins’ third-down woes this season. When the Redskins needed a play, though, Griffin made it happen. That’s special.
Even before Griffin’s long run at the end, we saw how extensively the offense benefits from him running the ball. The offense accounted for 31 points after scoring only 10 last week when Griffin had no designed runs in two and a half quarters. Things opened up when Washington went to the triple option on the third series. TE Fred Davis caught two slants off of fake zone read runs in the first four plays, and the offense came to life.
“When we started doing our option, they didn’t know what to do,” RB Alfred Morris said. “They didn’t really have an answer for it because you have to account for three different people. It definitely opened up a lot of lanes, and you just kind of chipped away and got them kind of biting on it. It opened up the pass.”
It is a dilemma, isn’t it? Griffin has to run for this offense to be successful, but he is at risk every time he carries it. He was judicious in his decision-making Sunday, which was fair to expect after the concussion last week.
For example, with the Redskins up 21-12 late in the third quarter, he stepped out of bounds at the Minnesota 46, three yards short of the first down instead of cutting it back and trying to extend the drive. If the score were closer, he probably would have stayed in bounds, but he was aware of the safe, smart play there.
Griffin said he also considered giving himself up on the 76-yard run. “Thought about running out of bounds because everyone has been telling me that lately,” he said. “You know in certain situations, and I felt like I had the guy outflanked. I just took off running. The rest is history.”
The play ended well, so we can say it was the smart choice.
Credit defensive coordinator Jim Haslett and Redskins coaches for being creative with their linebacker personnel. Backup ILBs Lorenzo Alexander and Keenan Robinson played in sub packages – I don’t recall seeing much of OLB Chris Wilson on defense – and it confused the Vikings’ offense.
Sometimes the Redskins had three inside linebackers on the field. ILB Perry Riley occasionally rushed off the edge. He helped create a turnover by pushing RB Adrian Peterson into QB Christian Ponder on the second-quarter fumble that Alexander recovered deep in Minnesota territory.
“We needed to get more pressure on the quarterback,” Riley said. “I think Coach Haz and the defensive staff did a great job coming up with a scheme that caused a lot of confusion. A lot of different people was going at a lot of different times. They didn’t know who was blitzing, who was dropping back. We was able to cause a lot of confusion and get a lot of pressure.
“Sometimes they called the wrong person, and you knew you had their protection,” Riley continued. “Other times they’d just let people go free because they didn’t really know. They either had their eyes here and he bailed out and it’s too late to turn back around. It was a great scheme.”
Ponder at times was hasty in escaping the pocket instead of stepping up. That forced him into several throws on the run, many of which involved disrupted timing. Ponder, overall, failed to consistently fit throws into tight windows like Atlanta’s Matt Ryan and Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton did against Washington. That helps the coverage succeed.
Ponder wasn’t even pressured on the interception that FS Madieu Williams returned 24 yards for a score. He threw flat-footed and his front shoulder flew open, and the ball sailed.
The Redskins surrendered only one reception longer than 20 yards. That is progress.
“It’s not just always the scheme, but knowing what the emphasis is,” S Reed Doughty said. “If you can’t get beat deep in coverage, don’t get beat deep. If you’re supposed to be underneath, be underneath. We were just trying to talk about: do our job. Do your individual job on the play.”
Much of the postgame conversation with defensive players centered around how they successfully finished the game. CB DeAngelo Hall’s interception in the end zone in the final minute was the type of play the Redskins needed against Atlanta last week or the week prior in Tampa Bay.
Consider that the Redskins are 3-3 despite having led in the fourth quarter of five games and being tied in fourth quarter of the other. It’s up to the defense to protect leads at the end of the game but rushing the passer effectively and capitalizing on ambitious throws. Minnesota scored 14 points to cut the Redskins’ lead to 5, but Hall ultimately made a play.
The Redskins’ offense was 6 for 12 on third downs. Their previous best single-game conversion rate was 4 for 13 (30.8 percent) against St. Louis.
Washington entered the week ranked last in the league on third downs, so it was a big emphasis in practice last week. The difference Sunday was execution.
One of the game’s biggest plays was a third-down conversion on the Redskins’ fourth series. Washington was 0 for 4 on third down to that point. An offensive pass interference call against TE Fred Davis on second down put the Redskins in second-and-13 from their 7-yard line. Overall, the Redskins haven’t been good enough to overcome such negative plays.
However, on this series, a screen pass to RB Alfred Morris got them into third-and-4, which they converted with a 5-yard completion to WR Santana Moss. That extended a drive that ultimately went 90 yards in 11 plays and culminated with RB Alfred Morris’ 1-yard touchdown. It gave the Redskins a 10-9 lead they never relinquished.
“I think we matured as an offense was when we got backed up all the way to the 7-yard line on a penalty and we still got a first down,” LG Kory Lichtensteiger said. “I think the crowd appreciated it too. Everyone was going pretty wild for that.”
Rookie K Kai Forbath sparked the first half comeback with a 50-yard field goal that would have been good from much longer. He was confident and steady on his first regular-season field goal attempt. Hitting from distance has been part of his game since college, and that was a huge boost Sunday.
Kickoffs were an area of intrigue considering he didn’t kick off in college. He had four touchbacks, although KR Percy Harvin muffed the catch in the end zone on one and knelt on it. Harvin returned three for a total of 100 yards. The Redskins might be able to get away with shorter kickoffs because its coverage team is quality, but that will be an area in which Forbath can improve. Overall, it was a positive debut.
It has taken six games, but the Redskins finally enter NFC East play next week when they visit the New York Giants. What could have been a must-win game to prevent the season from unraveling now would put the winner in, at worst, a tie for first in the division.
The Giants are coming off a convincing road win against NFC power San Francisco. The Redskins, though, beat the eventual Super Bowl champs twice last season. These games are so much more fun when they’re meaningful in the standings.
Robert Griffin on Sunday proved he can succeed against a top defense—Minnesota ranked second in yards per play. Looking ahead, New York entered Week 6 ranked 31st in that category. He has had six games to learn before these division tests begin, and how he applies those lessons against New York, Dallas and Philly will go a long way toward determining the Redskins’ fate this season. Right now they’re a .500 team, which is where many expected them to finish. On Sunday, the Redskins showed the potential to be even better than that.