Initial Thoughts & Observations: Bengals 38, Redskins 31

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Here’s what I’m thinking immediately after the Redskins’ 38-31 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals:

There’s a lot of blame to go around on defense after the Redskins gave up 6.8 yards per play to a Bengals team that came in averaging only 5.32. You can’t put it all on one person, i.e. coordinator Jim Haslett or new defensive backs coach Raheem Morris. The problems are too complex.

Players deserve some of the blame. S DeJon Gomes and CB Richard Crawford accepted fault on WR A.J. Green’s 73-yard touchdown and WR Andrew Hawkins’ 59-yard touchdown, respectively. 

Gomes said he shouldn’t have played so closely to the line of scrimmage in man coverage against Green in the slot. That’s a mismatch Cincinnati exploited rather easily. The Redskins had not reviewed any film of the Bengals throwing out of the wildcat formation, so they expected run when WR Mohamed Sanu lined up at quarterback on the first play from scrimmage. Gomes was six yards off the line when the ball was snapped. Green ran past him.

“He’s definitely a fast guy, but it shouldn’t have happened,” Gomes said. “I probably should have backed off a little bit, but I, I don’t know. I can’t really explain it. It’s my fault.”

Props to Crawford for doing two rounds of interviews about giving up the decisive touchdown. That’s a level of class and professionalism beyond the rookie’s years. He hesitated while running with Hawkins out of the left slot, and he never turned to find the ball. Bengals QB Andy Dalton zipped it over his shoulder as Hawkins beat Crawford downfield and tucked in behind him.

“I can’t allow that to happen to my team,” Crawford said. “We’re [Cover]-0, double-move. I didn’t even use my strength; I didn’t even look back for the ball. I can’t believe that. I’ve got to be better. I’ve got to know my situations better. I’ll learn from it and it won’t happen again. …I apologize to my teammates. That game is kind of on me. It’s my fault.”

Beyond that, we can debate the merits of coaches’ adjustment or lack thereof. For example, the decisions to repeatedly play Cover-0 on Sunday and not give the cornerbacks safety help. Some of the current personnel in the secondary was beaten by Cover-0 blitzes last season (see: both Dallas losses), yet the coaches believed the risks were worth taking on Sunday.

The Redskins appeared to blitz seven on WR Armon Binns’ 48-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown in the first quarter. Is it the coaches’ fault that CB Josh Wilson slipped when Binns ran a speed out? Not exactly, but should they put Wilson in a position with no margin for error?

“Sometimes you have to take some chances,” coach Mike Shanahan said after the game. “Obviously, we wound up giving them a big play.”

And sticking with the coaches, defensive backs during the offseason and training camp lauded some of the technique changes Morris implemented upon his arrival, including allowing players to play with vision a bit more. Are those changes actually hurting the quality of coverage? I don’t know. But it’s worth considering.

***

The Redskins played more man coverage today than zone, said one defensive back who insisted on blaming players’ poor execution and poor technique instead of the scheme. It’s noteworthy considering the man-vs.-zone debate that followed last Sunday’s loss to St. Louis.

Haslett on Thursday said he believed man was more successful than zone against the Rams, so perhaps it’s no surprise Washington played more of it against Cincinnati. But no matter what coverage the Redskins play, it appears this secondary is going to struggle if there isn’t a significant pass rush.

Dalton was sacked twice. I remember him getting rid of the ball fairly quickly, as Rams QB Sam Bradford repeatedly did last week, but I’m eager to re-watch the game to see if I’m right about that. Teams are going to continue to throw quickly and use double moves against this defense because that’s been a successful formula so far.

***

QB Robert Griffin III took another pounding. I’ll tally up the hits and post it with the game review later this week, but if the total wasn’t more than 20 knockdowns, it was close. The Bengals’ approach to defending the zone read resulted in the beating. For much of the game, their ends pursued and hit Griffin while willing to let RB Alfred Morris or someone else beat them.

“They were trying to run at me and get quarterback hits on me,” Griffin said. “…They were being aggressive and coming after the quarterback rather than going for the running back.”

Griffin got hit on several zone-read runs on which he pitched the ball. In other words, he’s getting hit even when he’s not the one carrying the ball beyond the line of scrimmage. He lay on the turf for several seconds after some plays in order to collect himself. He probably won’t stay healthy for the whole the season if this keeps up, but how can the Redskins get away from it at this point? This is their greatest offensive weapon.

Griffin’s toughness has been extremely impressive.

“Some teams think if you hit the quarterback enough that they will stop coming after you,” Griffin said. “I just want to let everybody know that that will never happen.

“The one thing I won’t do personally is quit or play scared,” he continued. “I’ve never played scared in my life, so it doesn’t matter how many times I get hit. I’m going to continue to get back up. Even if they have to cart me off the field, I’m going to get off that cart and walk away.”

Redskins coaches mustn’t take that toughness for granted, though. How long before Griffin doesn’t get up.

***

The Bengals established a new blueprint for defending the zone read in the first half by having their ends target Griffin. And it makes sense. Who should a defense fear more, Griffin or RB Alfred Morris? Nothing against Morris, but that’s a no-brainer. Go after Griffin, make him give the ball to someone else, and, oh, pound Griffin in the process.

Credit the Redskins for adjusting in the second half by using WR Brandon Banks out of the backfield along with a running back, creating a triple threat. Banks’ speed was dangerous enough that the ends started hesitating. And Banks is fast enough to get to the edge ahead of a linebacker covering wide behind the defensive end.

“On that long drive where we used Brandon Banks a bunch [early in the third quarter], we got them a bunch of times by switching it up,” Griffin said. “Whatever they were going to do, they were wrong.”

***

The replacement officials’ colossally screwed up the end of the game. Good grief, this is just ridiculous. How the NFL can deem this acceptable – and preferable to meeting the NFL referee’s association’s demands – is beyond me. The game is being compromised.

At the very least, the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against the Redskins should have been offset by a 15-yarder against the Bengals’ bench. Most of their team came onto the field with 7 seconds left. They incorrectly believed the game was over because, as Mike Shanahan said, two referees said the game was over. The officials didn’t know the rules, that a 10-second runoff is enforced only if the clock-stopping infraction (in this case a false start) was committed while the clock was running. Griffin spiked the ball on the previous play to stop the clock, so the clock wasn’t running and there should not have been a 10-second runoff.

The referees eventually got that part right, but not before the Redskins went ballistic because they had been told the game was over when it shouldn’t have been. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan was seen screaming at an official, but the official game book does not list who the penalty was called against, and the referee did not announce it when making the call.

In addition to that mess, the Redskins were penalized 25 yards instead of 20 (15 for the unsportsmanlike conduct and 5 for the false start). What a debacle.

***

Game management was a problem. The Redskins used timeouts on back-to-back plays in the third quarter because the play clock was expiring, Griffin said.

And they burned their last timeout challenging an obvious touchback. CB Crezdon Butler tried to toss Sav Rocca’s bouncing punt back to LB Lorenzo Alexander in order to down it inside the 5, but the ball clearly hit the goal line, and there was a referee a few feet away staring right at it. Washington sure could have used those time outs on that final drive.

I disagreed at the time with Shanahan’s decision to punt on fourth-and-1 from the Bengals’ 44 with 13:41 remaining in a tie game, but I understand his rationale. In hindsight, the Redskins should have gone for it and not voluntarily given the ball back to Cincinnati.

After the Redskins wasted their last time out challenging the touchback, Cincinnati got out to Washington’s 44-yard line in only two plays. Two plays after that, the Bengals took a lead they did not relinquish. That’s the game right there.

Shanahan’s rationale for punting instead of going for it: “I was going to go for it,” he said “I thought they were really tired, and when they did call the timeout, I just said, ‘Hey, our defense is playing good.’ I thought we had the fans behind us with the crowd noise. I said, ‘Hey, let’s put them back.’ Sav has been so good at backing people up inside the 10-yardline he almost had them on the 1-yard line, or very close. Obviously, it didn’t work out that way. I just felt at that time I was going to go for it. Then they called a timeout. I thought to put our team in the position to back them up and let them earn it. Let’s not give them the ball at midfield in case we didn’t make it.”

When Shanahan said “our defense is playing good,” he was referring to the Bengals’ first three drives of the second half, on which they went three-and-out twice and fumbled on the second play of the other drive. I get his rationale; the defense was playing better at that point. I would have been way more interested to see an aggressive call there, though, especially with Griffin at his disposal in that situation.

***

The special teams were improved. No blocked punts is a low bar, but the Redskins hadn’t gotten over that until today. They fixed the breakdowns that plagued them in the first two games.

“I felt like we were back to the punt team that we normally are,” TE Niles Paul said. “We made plays, good tackles. We did what we were supposed to do. It was each and every individual man doing their assignment.”

The field goal block team also defended a fake field goal it had never seen on film. FS Madieu Williams dropped from the line of scrimmage, read well the holder’s decision to keep the ball and made a good tackle. OLB Rob Jackson praised special teams coach Danny Smith for having them ready for a fake.

“We prepare for the fake regardless of whether we’ve seen it on film or not,” Jackson said. “It was a surprise – really a surprise – from the position that they were in. But we stepped up. Danny is a great coach, and he’s not going to let anything get by him whether it’s on film or not. He’s been around for a long time, and he knows the different things guys can do.”

***

The Redskins’ offense suffered without injured LT Trent Williams (right knee) in the game. He’s so valuable to this offense because of his quality technique and supreme athleticism. It goes without saying for a No. 4-overall pick, but the dropoff behind him is great. It’s not worth blaming Jordan Black for that, though. You have to look at the plan that brought the Redskins into the season with a backup left tackle that was out of football last year, especially when injuries sidelined Williams during each of his first two seasons.

Perhaps this is more damage caused by the $18 million salary cap penalty. That, at least, is giving the Redskins the benefit of the doubt.

***

Upon first glance, OLB Rob Jackson and DL Jarvis Jenkins played well in their first games replacing OLB Brian Orakpo and DE Adam Carriker. Both players said they benefited from how extended playing time allowed them to read and adjust to opponents’ tendencies, such as how blockers set at the line of scrimmage and where they look.

For all of the uncertainty about Jackson’s ability to cover, he made a fantastic read on the pass he intercepted in Cincinnati’s end zone.

“I had a curl/flat drop, but I saw the running back flare instantly, so I squeezed it a little bit more because I knew the ball was coming out quick,” Jackson said. “That’s exactly what he did. It came out quick, and I made the play.”

Jenkins sees room for improvement after a solid game he can build on.

“Just recognizing the play faster,” he said. “I tend to play the run a little bit too aggressively at times. I’ve just got to work on shedding the blocks, recognizing the play again. That comes back to film study. As I go into more and more games, I’ll start to pick up on that. Today was my first start, and I think I was very productive.”

…that’s it for tonight. Let me know your thoughts. Leave a comment, email me at rcampbell@washingtontimes.com or hit me on Twitter @Rich_Campbell.

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