The Washington Times - October 29, 2012, 09:42AM

PITTSBURGH | Here’s what I’m thinking immediately after the Redskins’ 27-12 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday:

The Redskins’ defense broke down in too many areas, but ultimately it surrendered fewer points than its per-game average of 28.6. I look to the offense’s failure to hold up its end of the formula that has kept the Redskins competitive through the first half of the season.

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Playing from behind affected the offense, but when we look at that side of the ball, we must start with the drops. Drops, just like penalties and missed tackles, are losing football plays. They’re what losing teams do. Coach Mike Shanahan counted 10 of them. They result from a player’s lack of concentration, and when the problem is as widespread as it was Sunday, it seems greater than a coincidence.

My story for our Redskins special section of game coverage centered on the drops epidemic, and you can read that here.

Redskins receivers didn’t help QB Robert Griffin III, and Griffin didn’t help his receivers.

Some drops occurred on perfect throws, like WR Leonard Hankerson’s at the Steelers’ 2-yard line in the first quarter. That pass hit Hankerson’s hands perfectly in stride and should have been a walk-in touchdown, but he turned upfield before securing the catch. It’s the type of play that drives a coach or fan insane.

Griffin will review some of the drops, though, and be critical about where he placed the ball. Or at least he should be. WR Santana Moss dropped a crossing pass he had to stop and slide for. FB Darrel Young dropped a shallow cross Griffin placed on his back hip instead of out in front of him. WR Joshua Morgan dropped a slant he had to leap for.

The refrain inside the locker room after the game was that receivers have to catch anything they get their hands on. I agree with that. Professional receivers have to catch the ball, period.

Griffin, however, didn’t always make it easy for them. I was a bit amused after the game by how Shanahan refused to include Griffin in his criticism for the drops.

“I don’t care where the placement is,” Shanahan said when asked what role Griffin’s ball placement played in the drops. “As long as it hits your hands, you’d better catch it or else you won’t be in the National Football League for very long.”

Again, I agree with that. But when you credit quarterbacks for placing throws in positions that enable a receiver to gain yards after the catch, the flip side of that is scrutiny for ball placement that makes catching the ball more difficult than it has to be.

To frame it another way, the drops were a collective breakdown. The Redskins will review the game film and identify that many different players contributed. The receivers deserve most of the blame, but the quarterback shouldn’t be exempt.

***

Defensively, we had seen the first-half horror show before. Receivers running open. Insufficient pressure on the quarterback. Ballcarriers running through tackles. It’s a weekly nightmare at this point.

The Redskins mixed zone and press man coverages, and QB Ben Roethlisberger beat both, CB DeAngelo Hall said. And the Redskins did run some games up front, as they always do, yet still failed to get to get Roethlisberger on the ground more than once. Answers remains elusive.

Pittsburgh effectively exploited the Redskins’ lack of speed with a diagonal passing game. The Redskins defended the deep pass, but forcing them to chase receivers to the perimeter, and at times over the middle, created advantageous matchups against Washington’s secondary and linebacking corps.

***

I understand fans’ frustration with defensive coordinator Jim Haslett. The defense doesn’t have answers, and ultimately the coach is accountable. But the defense’s personnel problems are obvious, and considering the injuries to some key difference-makers, Haslett can do only so much.

What I don’t get is the notion that defensive backs coach Raheem Morris would somehow fix their problems with the current personnel deficiencies. You think Morris has a secret box of answers he’s keeping to himself these days? Haslett values input from his assistants, and if they were producing effective changes to the scheme, we’d see them. And Morris’ secondary is the greatest weakness on this defense. Considering that, and considering this is his first season coaching a secondary behind a 3-4 front, I’m not sure why anyone would look to him as a savior at this point.

***

Let’s step back and look at the big picture. The Redskins reached the halfway point of the season at 3-5, the same record they had at this point last year en route to a 5-11 finish. They’re three games behind NFC East-leading New York and two games out of a wild card spot. It seems to me a successful second-half finish would be five wins and a .500 record. I picked them to go 7-9, but even splitting their last eight games in spite of all the injuries might be too much to ask.

The irony, of course, is that the Redskins this season are better on offense and worse on defense, which is not exactly the narrative many expected with a rookie quarterback. Clearly, they aren’t a contender in their current form. They need some personnel changes on defense to get there.

***

Don’t let CB DeAngelo Hall’s meltdown at the end distract you from what’s really wrong with the defense from an execution standpoint. It didn’t decide the game.

That said, it’s fair to wonder whether it’s proof of a deeper problem with Hall, such as a lack of focus, lack of composure, misplaced frustration, etc.

Most importantly, the incident will work against Hall when the Redskins decide in the offseason whether to bring him back.

He’s scheduled to make a $7.5 million base salary in 2013, which is almost twice as much as Josh Wilson will earn. And remember the Redskins were penalized $36 million in salary cap space in March partly because of how they maneuvered Hall’s contract to take advantage of the uncapped year.

They structured it so his $15 million signing bonus was contained in 2010 instead of prorated. That would make it easier from a salary cap standpoint for the Redskins to part with Hall this offseason, a move that wouldn’t be too surprising given some coverage breakdowns and some of the unnecessary headaches he has caused with incidents similar to his fourth-quarter meltdown Sunday.

I’d be surprised if Hall was suspended for Sunday’s meltdown because he never contacted the official. The NFL reviews all of these incidents.

***

I don’t get the decision to take the ball out of QB Robert Griffin III’s hands on third-and-4 at the Washington 43 when you’re down 17-6 and clawing to stay in the game. And that’s to say nothing of exposing your star quarterback to a vicious head shot from a safety when his health has been a major issue.

Maybe run that play on first or second down, but the Redskins have enough problems converting on third down to take the ball from the NFL’s most accurate passer and put it in the hand of a wide receiver.

Mike Shanahan said the Redskins expected man coverage, and you’d expect Griffin to run past any defender who’s playing man, but the Steelers played zone. From a schematic standpoint, the Steelers won that play.

Ensuring Griffin’s health is a major issue with this play. SS Ryan Clark took a long run at Griffin and launched at him up high. To me, it didn’t appear to be helmet to helmet contact, but Griffin was exposed and at risk.

“We weren’t counting on that hit,” Shanahan said. …I’m still scratching my head about that sentence. The Redskins weren’t counting on a safety to hit their star quarterback running a pass route? What else would the safety do?

***

Griffin was accurate early, but overall my first impression was that this was his worst game passing the ball. As I mentioned in the first thought, he hit receivers but not always in the right place. That’s not nitpicking when you see how elite quarterbacks such as Tom Brady and Drew Brees put balls in perfect spots to throw receivers open or give them a chance to run after the catch.

The weather conditions were bad and Griffin is still a rookie, so perfection is a lot to ask for. And Griffin certainly isn’t the reason they lost. But consider, for example, his overthrow of TE Logan Paulsen deep down the left sideline on the Redskins’ leak play. It’s OK to acknowledge this wasn’t his sharpest throwing performance and that he is not perfect. Shanahan avoids publicly saying anything critical about him, and I understand his desire to protect his quarterback, but perfection was not reality.

***

QB Ben Roethlisberger has two Super Bowl rings because he’s among the best quarterbacks at extending plays and pump-faking to divert the defense. He killed the Redskins doing that in the first half.

On his 7-yard touchdown pass to TE Heath Miller in the second quarter, the Redskins dropped eight in coverage and still generated a pass rush when DE Stephen Bowen got into LT Max Starks’ chest and pushed him back. Roethlisberger, though, made the play by buying time.

He pump faked, then ran up toward the line of scrimmage. Meanwhile, ILB Lorenzo Alexander was covering Miller man-to-man in the end zone. As Roethlisberger stepped up, Miller ran away from Alexander and created enough separation to make himself an available target. It took 4.4 seconds from the snap until the throw, which is too long to have to cover. Credit Roethlisberger for extending that play. The Redskins are now on a long list of his victims.

Overall, the Redskins inability to hit Roethlisberger was a huge problem. They miss OLB Brian Orakpo’s and DE Adam Carriker’s pass-rushing contributions. 

***

The Redskins’ offense suddenly seemed slow. Losing TE Fred Davis is a huge factor. Without Davis and WR Pierre Garcon, and with WR Brandon Banks not playing a single offensive snap, the Redskins lost whatever speed advantage they had early in the year. When WRs Leonard Hankerson and Joshua Morgan and TE Logan Paulsen are your downfield threats in the passing game, defenses will be able to keep up.

WR Aldrick Robinson played 14 snaps on offense, according to the league. It will be interesting to see if the Redskins incorporate him into the game plan more next week to try to get more speed on the field. He has to prove he can master some of the mental aspects of his role.

***

K Kai Forbath had an extra point blocked. That appeared to result from a low kick, an assessment Mike Shanahan agreed with. However, Forbath connected on field goals from 48 and 45 yards in miserable conditions. And consider that Forbath’s 48-yarder was into the vaunted open end of Heinz Field.

“That’s a guy taking advantage of an opportunity,” Shanahan said. “For a guy to come in and do what he’s done and never been in the National Football League is pretty impressive to me.”

…that’s it for now. Stay safe in this storm, folks.