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Initial Thoughts: Falcons 24, Redskins 17

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Here’s what I’m thinking immediately after the Redskins’ 24-17 loss to Atlanta on Sunday:

I’ll get to QB Robert Griffin III’s concussion in a moment. First, the bottom line: the Redskins let another winnable game get away. This was a missed opportunity for a team that needs to show more signs of progress in coach Mike Shanahan’s third season.

Losing Griffin hurt, no doubt, but this one had the feel of a 2010, 2011 game: competitive Redskins make enough mistakes to lose.

The secondary covered its collective butt off, but because the offense supplied only 10 points, there was no margin for error. Add in a momentum-shifting special teams breakdown and poor third-down play on both sides of the ball, and the Redskins extended the NFL’s longest home losing streak to eight.

A victory over undefeated Atlanta would have validated whatever progress the Redskins have made this season. It would have been a significant step forward, especially for the defense, not to mention it would have put them into a tie for first place in the division because Philadelphia lost.

That Washington covered quite well should give optimists hope the Redskins can overcome the problems in the secondary that held them back in the first quarter of the season. Ultimately, though, the Redskins can’t seem to put it all together at one time. We see flashes here and there, but the final product remains elusive.

***

It was only a matter of time before Griffin suffered a concussion, wasn’t it? Mike and Kyle Shanahan have preached the importance of Griffin sliding to avoid contact. Point taken.

Then again, can you blame Griffin for trying to gain every possible inch inside the 5-yard line in the second half of a tie game? He’s a competitor. It’s a fine line, but Griffin must be more cautious. Losing him for the final 21 minutes of the game, and maybe longer, hurts the team much worse than the 4-point difference between a field goal and touchdown there.

The best the Redskins can hope for is that Griffin doesn’t suffer any lingering effects from the concussion and that he learns from this.

“We talked about this from Day One: each game is going to be a learning experience, from Cincinnati to Tampa,” Mike Shanahan said. “We talked about protecting yourself. We talked about handing the ball off and option plays. Every game he goes in, he’s going to learn, and that’s why it takes you two to three years to really feel comfortable with [defenses] that can play in the NFL, to slow the game down a little bit.

“And Robert’s going to keep on learning, but we’ve got somebody very special. We’ve got a guy that competes, a guy that tries to make plays every game he goes in. Just like that last play in the red zone: When do you take a dive, when do you throw the ball away? That’s all part of the learning experience that he’s going to gain as time goes on.”

***

The irony of the concussion is that Griffin ran exactly zero designed runs through two and a half quarters. His only rushing attempt was a 7-yard scramble. RB Alfred Morris averaged 6.4 yards per carry on 18 attempts, so perhaps the Redskins wanted to spare Griffin the contact knowing Morris could do the damage on the ground.

Defenses have to respect Griffin’s ability to run regardless of whether he actually runs it. Is there a difference, though, between the effect of Griffin actually running and just the threat? I’m not sure. But if Griffin actually did run the ball out of the zone read or any option concept, maybe the Redskins would be more consistent in the running game and, by extension, better on third down.

Consider that 9 of Morris’ 18 carries gained 2 yards or fewer. That contributed to some third-and-long situations, and Washington was lousy on third down Sunday, just as it has been all season.

The Redskins converted only 1 of 9 third downs. Six of those required 7 yards or longer for a first down. Two sacks backed the Redskins up for a pair of third downs. Minimal gains on running plays also set up several third-and-long situations.

***

Griffin was more inaccurate than usual throwing the ball. I’m not sure if it was the cool, damp conditions or what. For example, on third-and-7 on the Redskins’ second drive, he double-clutched as he slid to the left and didn’t set his feet, resulting in an off-target throw. He threw behind WR Pierre Garcon and TE Fred Davis on a couple quick, short patterns. Both managed to still make the catch.

Griffin still completed two-thirds of his passes (10-for-15), but those netted only 91 yards. His longest completion was a catch-and-run by RB Alfred Morris. He didn’t meet with reporters after the game because NFL concussion protocol prohibits media from talking to him

***

Sunday’s game opens coach Mike Shanahan to second-guessing in two major areas.

1. His decision to make rookie Kirk Cousins the backup quarterback instead of veteran Rex Grossman.

2. His decision to sign K Billy Cundiff and get rid of Graham Gano and Neil Rackers late in the preseason.

Shanahan after Week 1 explained his decision to keep Cousins active on gameday instead of Grossman by saying Cousins earned the opportunity to be the backup. In other words, in Shanahan’s opinion, Cousins beat Grossman out. But Cousins’ inexperience was a major detriment in the decisive moments against the Falcons.

He forced throws, which resulted in two interceptions. He forced throws in the preseason, too. As the Washington Examiner’s John Keim reminded me after the game, Cousins against Chicago in the second preseason game completed a deep throw down the left sideline to Aldrick Robinson between two defenders. It was a perfectly-placed pass, but coaches told Cousins he shouldn’t have attempted it and that his read should have taken him elsewhere. (Keim’s memory hasn’t faded in his old age, in case you were wondering.)

By Cousins’ own admission, he tried to do too much on Sunday. It’s one thing to be beaten by the defense, but Cousins made mistakes because the moment was too big for him.

“I wanted so badly to take us down, and I’m trying to do too much,” Cousins said. “A couple of the throws got away from me. Obviously in hindsight I want to take the 3-, 4-yard gain and be patient and let it come to me, but instead I tried to do too much.”

Would that have been the case with Grossman? Doubtful. He’s a 10-year veteran who has played in those situations before. He has entered NFL games cold before without many practice reps during the week. Cousins might be the better quarterback overall, but in that situation, Cousins’ inexperience is a problem. He took only scout team reps in practice last week.

Why couldn’t Shanahan have kept Grossman as his in-game backup and had Cousins be the No. 2 if Griffin were out going into a game and Cousins could practice all week?

As for the Cundiff decision, not much needs to be said. NFL kickers can’t miss 31-yarders. His miss with 2:16 left in the second quarter play completely shifted the momentum to Atlanta and changed the game. Instead of going to halftime up 10-0, the Falcons drove the field and tied it, 7-7.

Cundiff’s inaccurate kicking has made Shanahan appear as though he made the wrong decision in waiving Gano.

***

I’m happy for WR Santana Moss following his 77-yard touchdown. He has accepted a reduced role this season with class, and for him to make a big play at that point in the game was a great reward for his professional approach. QB Kirk Cousins made a perfect throw over the safety.

***

What happens when you convert 11 percent of your third downs and your opponent converts 53 percent? The opponent has a 14-minute, 2-second advantage in time of possession.

“I thought in the first half we had some opportunities to get some momentum going and couldn’t make those third downs,” coach Mike Shanahan said. “That’s been pretty consistent for us. To be the football team we need to be, and be able to keep someone a little bit more off-balanced than we did, we’ve got to convert on those third downs. We were close, had a couple of hands that were very close to making those third downs, but you’ve got to make them, especially against a football team like Atlanta that does a great job of controlling the clock and making third downs themselves. They kind of controlled the tempo of the football game. Even we had a few good runs in there, we just couldn’t gain that momentum.”

***

The secondary has much to be pleased about. Overall, the Redskins mixed coverages, covered tightly and clogged passing lanes even as the lack of pressure on Falcons QB Matt Ryan – or Ryan’s ability to extend the play when pressured – forced them to cover for a long time. Tackling was sound on quick throws. TE Tony Gonzalez was a matchup problem for Washington’s linebackers.

Ryan threw for 345 yards, but they were on 52 attempts. The Redskins surrendered only 6.63 yards per pass, compared to their 8.47-yard average entering the game. The Redskins entered the game ranked 31st in that category, but Sunday’s 6.63-yard mark is less than the league average of 6.86.

The Redskins prevented the big passing plays that have plagued them in recent weeks. The problem? Third down. Atlanta converted 53-percent (9-of-17) of its third downs. Oakland, the worst third-down defense in the NFL entering Week 5, allows a 53-percent conversion rate third down.

Washington rushed only three defenders and dropped eight in coverage on the first few third downs of the game, but more rushers came on third downs later in the game. The pass rush has to be better, NT Barry Cofield said afterward. The Redskins miss OLB Brian Orakpo. Badly the last two weeks.

***  

Three defensive touchdowns in four games is a tremendous accomplishment for a defense that two seasons ago lamented a lack of big plays as it transitioned to a 3-4. Mike Shanahan was determined to play a 3-4 in order to generate plays such as OLB Ryan Kerrigan’s 28-yard interception return for a touchdown.

Kerrigan has been effective this season batting down passes coming off the edge. His timing is very good, as are his reads. When he saw the running back release to the right flat for a swing pass, he widened his rush and blocked QB Matt Ryan’s passing lane. The rest was tremendous athleticism…except for the, ahem, jump into the stands.

***

CB Josh Wilson was not happy with a teammate in the secondary after Julio Jones’ 18-yard touchdown catch. You’ll want to read Wilson’s reaction: here.

That’s it for now. It should be an interesting week monitoring Griffin’s status and the kicking situation.

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