The Washington Times - November 12, 2013, 05:23PM

Some thoughts and observations after reviewing the Washington Redskins’ 34-27 road loss to the Minnesota Vikings on Thursday:

* The Redskins, for the third consecutive season, have won only three of their first nine games. This turnout may be more crushing than it was the last two years, given the increased expectations entering September. The team had all but one starter back from a year ago, though the health of quarterback Robert Griffin III was a huge variable, and the other three teams in the division seemed to have regressed in some manner during the offseason.

Now, where do the Redskins go from here? I wrote earlier in the week that this year is much different than last year, where the only question seemed to be about the performance of the defense. There are too many problem areas for the Redskins to suddenly be able to fix what ails them and then march through the final seven weeks of the season. Only recently has the offense resembled last year’s model; the defense is still up-and-down, and the special teams are abysmal.

Winning seven consecutive games a year ago was improbable. Again, in addition to that team, only three others had started the season 3-6 since the playoffs were revamped in 1990 and still qualified for the postseason. The odds are long. One thing working for the Redskins is that they probably don’t have to win seven games to win the division; it’s entirely possible an 8-8 finish will give them their second consecutive crown because of the problems the Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants face.

It is tiring, though, to constantly hear questions about the strength of the division and how much the Redskins benefit from the other poor teams. It’s a blame-shifter, and I think defensive end Kedric Golston put it best in the locker room on Monday when asked one of those questions.

“To have an opportunity to still be in the conversation as far as the division is concerned is a bonus,” Golston said, “but at the end of the day, we have to take care of our own business and start winning football games around here and stop relying upon other peoples’ failures.”

* The loss to the Vikings was crushing in many regards. Many people think the offense played its two quarters of the season before halftime on Thursday, and I’m among them. The ease in which the Redskins moved the ball – albeit against a defense missing a significant number of starters – showed what that offense can do when each player is executing his assignment.

Going 7-for-8 on third down in the first half is not sustainable, but going 2-for-8 on third down in the second half is unacceptable. There was, again, also a desire to go away from the run in the second half, and though it didn’t appear that running back Alfred Morris wore down after carrying the ball 17 times in the first half – he averaged a consistent 5.2 yards per carry – that’s where Roy Helu, who had two carries for eight yards, needs to be more involved.

And, more importantly, the Redskins need another player to step up and help the passing game. Leonard Hankerson has quietly put together consecutive games with five receptions, but that’s not enough. Opponents have started to realize the ball is either going to wide receiver Pierre Garçon on the outside or tight end Jordan Reed on the inside. That’s why they paid particular attention to the two of them on the Redskins’ final play on offense – and that’s why Griffin was forced to throw off-balance to wide receiver Santana Moss, who didn’t make the grab.

* Not having a timeout for the final three plays hurt the Redskins, who undoubtedly would have run the ball three consecutive times from the 4-yard line if they had the opportunity. Instead, taking over with 38 seconds left – which in itself was a gift from the Vikings, who used a timeout to give the defense a break – forced the Redskins to throw the ball three consecutive times.

The first throw, on second down, was a quick toss to Reed, who could only get his left hand on the ball before it fell incomplete. He drew single coverage from middle linebacker Erin Henderson, who mugged Reed a bit but not enough, I thought, to draw a pass interference flag. On third down, the Redskins ran a nifty pick play with Garçon and Moss on the right side, and while the throw was a bit high, that’s a ball Garçon needs to be able to grab. Though he’s at the 1-yard line, it’s uncertain whether he’d be able to get into the end zone upon landing. At least the Redskins would have one yard to gain, and about 20 seconds to do it, on fourth down.

As for the fourth-down play, a lot of credit has to go to the Vikings’ defense. The Redskins trotted Helu out wide right with Hankerson in the right slot and Reed on the right side of the line, while Moss was in the left slot and Garçon was wide left. Griffin, in the shotgun, had to get rid of the ball quicker than he probably would have liked with left guard Kory Lichtensteiger backed into him. Garçon and Hankerson appeared to have a step on their defender on crossing routes, but a throw to each player would have been tight and difficult. Reed released downfield but was shielded briefly by umpire Richard Hall, and by the time he was open, Griffin had already made the throw. His only opportunity was to Moss, who ran a corner route and wasn’t able to pull in the ball because Griffin threw it too high off a hop-step with Lichtensteiger in his lap.

It’s poetic, really – the Redskins thought they saved their season with a goal-line stand against the San Diego Chargers on Nov. 3, then may have had it fall apart in the tight red zone against the Vikings.

* Griffin’s first-half numbers were very indicative of the way he played. The quarterback completed 16 of 21 passes for 179 yards and three touchdowns before the break. After a poor showing in Denver, he followed up a remarkably accurate performance against the Chargers with another on Thursday. There are still problems with his progressions – too often, it seems, he only reads his first or second option before throwing, which is a product of his system in college when that’s all that was required. (That’s where an offseason without an injury would have helped greatly.) Yet, on review, I don’t think it was that much of a problem against the Vikings.

On third-and-6 with 3:46 remaining in the first quarter, Griffin found Reed over the middle for a 7-yard gain, but Garçon and Hankerson were each open on crossing routes and he never looked their way. On that play, it didn’t matter. Later, on first-and-10 with 13:43 remaining in the third quarter, Griffin threw high to wide receiver Joshua Morgan on an out route that was uncatchable, and though it looked like Morgan was his second read on the play, he missed Moss and Reed open over the middle.

What I think is more concerning, especially as the season goes on, is how many hits Griffin has taken even after throwing the ball. The officials threw a quick flag on nose tackle Chris Baker for roughing the passer in the first quarter, but I think there were two or three occasions where officials could have called late hits on Griffin, too. That’s going to come with the way he plays and the offense he runs; sometimes, even when he’s not carrying out fakes, he’s going to get decked.

Vikings defensive end Jared Allen said early last week that the Redskins were going to hit Griffin early and often, especially after he ran for 138 yards, including a 76-yard touchdown run, on them last season. They did just that; Allen set the tone early by clobbering Griffin on a zone read handoff to Morris on his second play from scrimmage, and Griffin took a few other hits later on. The Denver Broncos played Griffin the same way, aggressively attacking the mesh point and hoping to knock him around when he could. The NFL credited the Vikings with eight quarterback hits, but I know it’s more; colleague Nathan Fenno counted 16 hits at one point during the game on Thursday. Remember that during the offseason, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said the Redskins wanted to keep Griffin running because he couldn’t sit in the pocket and take hits, which he felt was more dangerous. What happened on Thursday was a good indication of that.

* The unofficial running tally: The Redskins offered 20 zone-read looks on Sunday, which is the most they’ve done so in a single game this season. Griffin threw the ball four times and carried it six times, with two other runs called back because of a penalty. Morris carried it seven times, which ties a season-high. Fullback Darrel Young was handed the ball once. That’s 103 zone-read looks this season: Griffin has thrown the ball 43 times and run it 22 times, Morris has run it 32 times, Young has run it thrice and Helu has run it once.

* Some quick hits on offense, since we’re dragging out here;

- The touchdown pass to Garçon in the first quarter was cleverly designed, and I can’t recall the Redskins combining two of their most productive plays the way that they did. Griffin faked a zone-read handoff to Morris and threw it back to his left on play action, where Garçon was waiting for the screen pass. With the fake to Morris heading right, Lichtensteiger and left tackle Trent Williams were able to get downfield and set up blocks for Garçon, which he used to gain the eight yards needed for the touchdown.

- I’ve touched on the notion that the offensive line is built primarily for running on several occasions, and I think it was no better demonstrated that’s the case than on Thursday. Morris was able to run through enormous holes, especially early, because of the blocks set by his offensive linemen. I think right guard Chris Chester and right tackle Tyler Polumbus were very strong in this area. But, as the game wore on and Griffin had to throw the ball, the protection struggled. Vikings defensive tackle Kyle Williams hadn’t had two sacks in a game since 2009, and he had two on Griffin in the second half alone.

- The offense needs to figure out its communication, especially late in the game. On the last drive, the Redskins ran one play with 1:20 left, and 34 seconds went by before they ran their next play. Is there an issue with communication, either from Shanahan to Griffin, or is it from Griffin to his players? It’s tough to say, and again, it didn’t matter in the end, but precious seconds were wasted there.

* It’s funny to try to look at the numbers and make the case that the Redskins’ defense has regressed, because from that aspect, it doesn’t hold true. The 216 passing yards surrendered on Thursday were the fourth-fewest yards allowed this season, while the 307 total yards the Vikings gained were the third-fewest of the season. But, as coaches and players will say after a win, and the Redskins’ coaches and players often do, it’s not about the yards allowed but the points scored. The Vikings tied a season high with 34 points scored, which is the fourth-most the Redskins have allowed this season.

Exactly why that happened is a good question, and one I don’t have the answer to. The Redskins controlled running back Adrian Peterson, who seemed to have a heck of an impact on the game but had only 75 yards (and two touchdowns) on 20 carries. He gained only 20 yards after quarterback Christian Ponder dislocated his left shoulder late in the third quarter, but he was able to prolong drives and take the heat off backup Matt Cassel.

Ponder played his best game in some time, taking advantage of the cushion offered by the Redskins’ defensive backs to hit receivers on short routes. He also had the benefit of throwing to tight end John Carlson against zone coverage on several plays, which contributed to Carlson’s seven catches for 98 yards. The Redskins sacked Ponder only once – outside linebacker Brian Orakpo brought him down after a bull rush on left tackle Matt Kalil on the third play from scrimmage. (On consecutive plays in the third quarter, outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan was held by Carlson and tight end Chase Ford, and he may have gotten home on those plays.)

But the pass rush’s inability to get to Ponder is reflective of an issue the Redskins have experienced all season, whether it was Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers or Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford – the quarterback is throwing the ball too quickly, preventing the defense from getting there.

* The Vikings did a very good job of utilizing play action to set up some of their throws, including on the 28-yard touchdown reception by Carlson in the third quarter. Ponder rolled out to his left after a rather poor play-action fake to Peterson, and defensive end Stephen Bowen got into the backfield and chased him. But because the Redskins expected a run on first down, they stacked the box and left only cornerbacks DeAngelo Hall and Josh Wilson deep to handle a pass. Carlson chipped, and then had to fight through, Kerrigan, Golston and strong safety Reed Doughty to release downfield, where Ponder found him wide open. He shed a sideline tackle by Hall, then was hit by Wilson in the end zone.

* Coach Mike Shanahan said Friday that the 25-yard gain by Vikings wide receiver Jerome Simpson on third-and-9 early in the fourth quarter resulted from a “mistake” of having nickel personnel, and not dime personnel, in the game with the Vikings’ five-receiver set. I’ll buy that, noting that Hall was out of the game at the time and being examined for a concussion he did not have. Inside linebacker Perry Riley was forced to cover Simpson in the left slot, and Cassel noticed the mismatch from the snap, lobbing a ball to Simpson and expecting him to (rightly so) get separation on Riley. That play extended a drive that ended in a field goal.

* I thought there were a lot of missed tackles live, and indeed, there were – too many for me to count. I stopped midway through the third quarter, when I noticed the Redskins had missed six and the Vikings, and their crew of backups, had missed 10. It’s too simple, though, to chalk that up to the sloppiness of a Thursday night game, as much as it would help my narrative. It was just a case of two defenses struggling in many aspects.

* Briefly, the special teams/fake punt debacle, which has been touched on too many times: Doughty indeed offered the signal for the fake punt, and the amount of communication picked up by the television microphones leads me to believe that everybody was aware of it. Everybody, that is, except for tight end Niles Paul, the gunner on the right who was all alone. Rocca’s pass only went 35 yards in the air, and Paul had overrun it, but if he had heard the signal – indeed, he looked inward at the time of Doughty’s shouting, but it’s uncertain if he looked at Doughty – the Redskins would have had the ball at midfield.

Players said afterward that a fake punt should never be a possibility on a first attempt of the day, because the Redskins’ coverage unit needs to see how the return unit lines up, but given how wide open Paul was – and this is my speculation – I think Doughty called it himself. Paul had nobody near him; even more telling was that when Doughty made the call and cornerback Jerome Murphy, the other gunner, motioned inside, Vikings cornerback Josh Robinson looked at Paul and didn’t move. Alas, it was wiped out by Murphy’s false start, and we’re spared seeing Rocca’s name in the team’s passing stats for the rest of eternity.

…Or so we think.

* The snap counts (Includes plays run but negated by offensive penalties; zero plays means the player only appeared on special teams):

Offense (79 plays): Chris Chester 79, Tyler Polumbus 79, Trent Williams 79, Will Montgomery 79, Kory Lichtensteiger 79, Robert Griffin III 79, Pierre Garçon 66, Jordan Reed 62, Alfred Morris 49, Logan Paulsen 42, Leonard Hankerson 42, Santana Moss 37, Joshua Morgan 31, Roy Helu 30, Darrel Young 17, Aldrick Robinson 9, Niles Paul 8, Tom Compton 2, Evan Royster 0, Adam Gettis 0.

Defense (52 plays): Brandon Meriweather 52, Ryan Kerrigan 52, Josh Wilson 51, London Fletcher 49, Perry Riley 48, Brian Orakpo 46, DeAngelo Hall 45, Reed Doughty 36, Barry Cofield 33, Stephen Bowen 33, Jarvis Jenkins 32, Kedric Golston 24, Chris Baker 20, David Amerson 20, E.J. Biggers 15, Rob Jackson 6, Bacarri Rambo 6, Nick Barnett 4, Josh Hull 0, Jerome Murphy 0, Trenton Robinson 0, Darryl Tapp DNP.