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Initial Thoughts & Observations: Redskins 40, Saints 32

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ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Here’s what I’m thinking immediately after the Redskins beat the New Orleans Saints, 40-32, in Sunday’s season-opener:

Mike and Kyle Shanahan’s vision for the Redskins’ offense became reality Sunday, at least for one game.

Consider the contributions from new players on offense: QB Robert Griffin III (19-of-26 passing, 320 yards, 2 TDs), WR Pierre Garcon (four catches, 109 yards, 1 TD), WR Aldrick Robinson (four catches, 52 yards, 1 TD) and RB Alfred Morris (96 yards, 2 TDs). From the first three, specifically, we saw a level of explosive playmaking ability this offense suffered without during Shanahan’s first two seasons. Those guys are fast, athletic and skilled. What a concept.

“This is a good start,” Mike Shanahan said. “By no means did we play perfect, but I like the direction we’re going. We added some new pieces, some skill that give us a chance to get some big plays. Robert not only executed the offense well, he had two or three plays that were off balance that only a great athlete can make. Hopefully we can keep on getting better and better.”

Garcon’s 88-yard touchdown catch-and-run was a revelation. It took the Redskins until the season finale last year for a player to catch the ball and run it into the end zone (a screen to RB Roy Helu Jr.). The Redskins did it this season on the second drive. Washington acquired Garcon for $20.5 million guaranteed to make big plays after the catch, and he immediately delivered. Who cares that the Saints’ safety was out of position over the top; that’s what Garcon is paid to exploit.

Garcon, by the way, said his injured right foot won’t keep him out next week against St. Louis.

***

The happiest guys inside the visitor’s locker room were defensive players. Seeing the offense put up 40 points, albeit against a New Orleans defense no one would rank among the league’s best, gave them a sense of relief. Their margin for error was so small – non-existent, even – in past seasons. Suddenly, this defense might be able to give up plays and still stay in a game. What a massive development.

ILB London Fletcher has experienced the frustration of playing on some of those exceptional defenses that haven’t been supported by a thriving offense.

“When you saw the way our offense was moving the ball, eating up clock, getting big plays – Garcon, the big touchdown pass; Fred Davis big gain plays; even the pass interference in the end zone, those are big-chunk-yardage plays – from our standpoint, defensively, that was a sight for sore eyes,” Fletcher said.

***

The Redskins limited Drew Brees to a meager 46.2 completion percentage. That’s his worst completion percentage in 88 games dating from Christmas Eve of 2006. Remember that he set the NFL single-season record last year with a 71.2-percent mark. That’s an incredible accomplishment for a secondary that struggled in coverage at times during the preseason.

Brees made some fantastic throws into coverage (think TE Jimmy Graham covered by ILB London Fletcher) but he was off today. Credit the Redskins’ secondary for its solid coverage. There were breakdowns – FS Madieu Williams didn’t locate the ball on the Saints’ final touchdown, for example – but defensive backs, including maligned CB Cedric Griffin, made plays on the ball and often stayed close to their man.

DC Jim Haslett said the Redskins did not play zone coverage for a single snap; they played exclusively man-to-man.

“They did a great job covering the back end,” DE Stephen Bowen said. “They gave us a lot of time, and we were able to create some pressure, make [Brees] make some mistakes. Just the way our offense played, putting up points, I think he felt like he had to make the extra play, and it caused him to make some mistakes.”

***

For as well as the Redskins’ played, the Saints left here believing they beat themselves – and they’re right to some extent. They committed 12 penalties for 107 yards, including some undisciplined mistakes, such as 12 men on the field for a punt.

The penalties put the Saints in too many third-and-long situations, and New Orleans converted only 2 of 11 third downs.

“What it comes down to is doing all the things that prevent you from winning football games,” Saints QB Drew Brees said. “It’s turnovers. It’s penalties that cost you drives and keep your defense out there entirely too long. You add all those things up, and you gave them way too many opportunities.”

It’s up to the Redskins to take advantage of those, though, and they did.

***

Speaking of penalties, the game’s biggest was pass interference in the end zone against S Roman Harper, who was covering WR Aldrick Robinson on fourth-and-1 from the Saints’ 33-yard line in the third quarter. For me, this was the play of the game.

QB Robert Griffin III’s primary read was the fullback, but he was impeded by a rushing defensive end. Griffin extended the play by rolling right and threw up a jump ball. Robinson recognized the secondary was in Cover-2, and he did what he was taught in that situation.

“It was a ‘cloud’ look, but I seen the safety so far in there,” Robinson said. “When I saw him scrambling a little bit, I just kept running.”

Said Griffin: “You’ve just got to trust your guys, and I trusted him in that situation, and it paid off.”

Robinson believed the pass interference call was correct.

“I tried to come back to the ball,” Robinson said. “He was kind of holding me back. He held my left arm, and I could only reach with one arm. I’m glad the ref seen that and called a penalty.”

***

For as well as the Redskins’ offense played (40 points, OMG!), there’s still significant room for improvement.

There were miscues, such as QB Robert Griffin III tripping over RB Alfred Morris’ feet in the backfield. Griffin also fumbled from the Saints’ 19 yard-line on the opening drive and was tackled for a 5-yard loss; he said he had a receiver open on the play and it would have been a touchdown. LG Kory Lichtensteiger was flagged twice for holding. Eliminate those mistakes, and the numbers could be even more crooked in the coming weeks.

***

Back to Griffin, those six screen passes on the opening drive weren’t scripted. Although they helped to get him in a rhythm, some were designed run plays that Griffin checked out of at the line of scrimmage because of the look the Saints’ defense showed him.

“I think it’s great to get a couple easy, easy passes in the beginning of a game so you can get in rhythm rather than open it up and chucking it deep every time,” Griffin said. “It was another ‘rinky-dink’ off of the offense we had. It worked the first couple plays. Then they started playing it, and it opened up a lot of our other stuff.”

***

That leads me to the next point: OC Kyle Shanahan – and all play-callers, really – thrive when they have options with which to make adjustments that play off of certain concepts. The early screens are a good example. When the Saints adjusted to the screens, the Redskins could run the ball. That’s the beauty of having playmakers such as Griffin who challenge the defense in different ways.

Afterward, several offensive players talked about how they seemed a step ahead of the Saints’ adjustments all game.

TE Logan Paulsen, who was with the Redskins for each of Mike and Kyle Shanahan’s first two seasons, spoke of the team meeting Saturday night in which Kyle predicted a series of adjustments the Saints would make and how the Redskins would stay ahead of them.

“That’s almost exactly how the game fell,” Paulsen said of Kyle. “He’s on his stuff.”

“With Griff, once we started doing that stuff [keepers], they had to play a certain coverage and certain front,” Paulsen said. “Once they play that front, that’s good for other concepts we have in our offense. Usually, as a generic solution they’ll blitz or zone read. So when they blitz, we have all these other concepts. It gets them out of what they like to do, which is that 8-man front, bringing that safety down and playing the zone run game. It kind of made them a little unconformable I think, and they had to evolve.”

No wonder Kyle was so stoked after the game. He finally has the players to effectively make the adjustments he wants.

***

Add K Billy Cundiff to the list of Redskins who played great in their Redskins debut. He had six touchbacks on nine kickoffs. More importantly, he was 4-for-4 on field goals (37, 41, 37 and 45 yards). After missing a field goal in his only preseason game, he helped the Redskins salvage points from stalled drives and he helped neutralize Darren Sproles in the return game.

***

LS Nick Sundberg snapped the ball NINE(!) times in the game after he BROKE HIS LEFT ARM on the blocked punt. That is unreal. Sundberg had to pull his t-shirt over his head after the game with only one hand. He was in a lot of pain, and that was with the painkillers they gave him during the game. What an impressive display of toughness. Sundberg has been reliable with his snaps over the last two seasons, so he’ll be missed if he’s out for an extended period.

Sundberg broke his arm when DE Martez Wilson looped underneath on a punt rush and breached the Redskins’ line to Sundberg’s left. Sundberg reached out his left hand to impede Wilson right as Wilson dipped his head to turn the corner. Wilson dipped his head, and the crown of his helmet cracked Sundberg’s forearm. Wilson blocked the punt, as you undoubtedly recall.

…That’s it for tonight. I’m sure you’ll keep this win in the same perspective Mike Shanahan did after the game:

“I think our football, hopefully, is mature enough and smart enough to know this is one football game,” Shanahan said.

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