The Washington Times - October 28, 2013, 02:56AM

Analysis/Opinion

DENVER — For a brief time it looked like the Redskins might actually pull off one of the upsets of the season in the NFL. On the road against the 6-1 Denver Broncos, DeAngelo Hall returned a Peyton Manning interception 26 yards for a touchdown and with 11:25 left in the third quarter it was 21-7 Washington.

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The sellout crowd at Sports Authority Stadium at Mile High was stunned and quiet. A faint chorus of “Hail to the Redskins” could be heard if you listened closely. And yet, with Manning and the league’s best offense on the other side, it still didn’t feel like the game was close to over. It felt like Washington had only given itself a chance.

In the end, that proved too true. Denver reeled off a stunning five touchdowns and a field goal in just 20:51 to blow open a game that it looked like the Redskins might steal. Given Dallas’ loss to Detroit on Sunday, Washington could have pulled within a game of first place in the NFC East. It lost 45-21 after allowing 38 unanswered points. 

Instead, it’s time to start over again at 2-5. It’s not that the Redskins can’t win their next three games against San Diego (4-3), Minnesota (1-6) and Philadelphia (3-5). But it’s a tall order. They were all too aware of what a win vs. Denver would have done to alter their playoff hopes.

“The cliché in this league is that your record says who you are and I just don’t believe we’re a 2-5 football team,” Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III said. “We prove it at times when we can get big leads and play with good teams like the Broncos are. We just let it get out of hand…As a team we have to make sure we stay focused. Our division is still wide open. So we’ve got to dig ourselves out of this hole and that’s all we can do…There’s no secret formula. There’s no secret sauce you can put on it. We’ve just got to be better.”

***

Pretty honest assessment from Redskins wide receiver Pierre Garcon well after the game ended. It’s pretty clear he and Griffin haven’t always been on the same page this season. Even Garcon’s brilliant catch on a high throw in the first quarter near the left sideline held little appeal for him. He saved Griffin there, but fell a yard short of a first down with his one-handed grab in coverage. Garcon probably had the first down, to be honest, but it wasn’t worth a challenge and a possible loss of a timeout.

And so – of course – the Redskins fumbled on the next play and a promising drive down 7-0 ground to a halt.

“I think we’ve had trouble passing all year, to tell you the truth. What do you think?” Garcon asked when pressed about how Washington failed to take advantage of one of the NFL’s worst pass defenses. When the reporter agreed with that assessment?

“Alright then. Shoot – doesn’t matter if we’re playing the worst team or our defense,” Garcon said. “If you suck at passing, you suck at passing. Just got to figure it out.”

And how, exactly, do you do that halfway through a season? This isn’t exactly a light switch a team can just flip. The Redskins have been off, for the most part, for the better part of seven games now. They are 2-5 for a reason.

“There was a lot of plays where the receivers and tight ends didn’t make [plays] where the quarterback made great plays,” Garcon said. “And there was plays where we didn’t block as well on the receivers’ end and we didn’t play our best. So it was not one person or one thing. It was a complete team. We dropped balls, we didn’t make plays, we didn’t block well. That’s football. You see it and try and go change it and move forward.”

***

The Redskins were without starting strong safety Reed Doughty on Sunday. He was still suffering from the effects of a concussion sustained last weekend against the Chicago Bears and did not even make the trip to Denver.

The absence of Doughty meant both of Washington’s starting safeties were out. Brandon Meriweather was suspended one game by the NFL for two illegal hits against Chicago last week.

That left a host of inexperience at the position. The active safeties included Jose Gumbs, primarily a special teams player, rookie Bacarri Rambo, inactive the last three weeks, and Trenton Robinson, cut by Philadelphia on Oct. 8 and signed last week by Washington.

Jordan Pugh, who made the Redskins out of training camp, was cut to make room for Robinson. But he was brought back this week once it was clear Meriweather would be punished.He intercepted a pass in the fourth quarter. 

Gumbs started at strong safety with reserve corner E.J. Biggers starting at free safety.

“We all know their scheme, we all know the defense,” Biggers said. “Whatever we need to plug in, everybody’s going to be ready at all time.”

Rambo, a sixth-round draft choice this spring, was inactive the previous three games. He’d originally been listed as the starter before giving way to Biggers.

But Gumbs left the field late in the first quarter with Rambo taking over his spot. Gumbs appeared to favor his left leg. He remained in on special teams, however. Rambo later left with a right leg cramp. Pugh was hurt in the second half, too, but also returned to the field. None of the injuries appeared serious. They also didn’t help.

***

For a brief moment on Sunday afternoon, DeAngelo Hall had put the Washington Redskins in line for a stunning upset.

His 26-yard interception return for a touchdown early in the third quarter put the Redskins ahead 21-7 and stunned the crowd at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. But they were the last points Washington would score in a 45-21 loss.

It’s hard to pin too much of Denver’s explosive final 24 minutes on Hall and the defense. For much of the game, it had given their team a legitimate chance to win. Halls’ second interception of quarterback Peyton Manning came at 11:34 of the third quarter. He stepped in front of a Manning throw toward the right sideline and raced into the end zone.

It was Hall’s second career interception of Manning and his second defensive touchdown of the season. He later added a third interception late in the fourth quarter when the game was well out of reach. That’s the first time he’s had two defensive touchdowns in a season in an 11-year career. He also moved into the Top 10 in franchise history with 21 interceptions.

“Ultimately we play this game to get wins so when we aren’t getting wins it isn’t good for anyone in this locker room,” said Hall, who also posted his third multi-interception game. “It’s nice to say that I played a good game, but it still leaves that bad taste in my mouth when we don’t get that win.”

Washington forced a season-high four takeaways. It was the first time they’d done that since Hall’s four-interception game against Jay Cutler and the Bears on Oct. 24, 2010. They had six in that contest. Manning hadn’t thrown three picks in a game since Sept. 17, 2012 in Atlanta. Any defense given that total before the game would expect to win, let alone get blown out late.

“We always take pride in getting turnovers and getting our offense more opportunities. But still a loss,” linebacker Brian Orakpo said. “Guess we got to create more. I don’t know. It’s a weird game. A weird game because we had a lot of things that went our way and then they just caught fire for a little bit at the end.”

***

To beat Denver, the Redskins were going to have to find a way to put up points. The defense could only hold Manning and his crew in check for so long. Giving them short fields was a disaster waiting to happen. Even with a bad ankle, Manning just has a sense for how to avoid a rush, when to step into the pocket, when to fire the ball away just before a defender gets to him. It makes for a long, tiring day. The Redskins did a pretty good job. And yet Manning still finished with 354 passing yards on 30-for-44 completions. He threw three interceptions – bad – but had four touchdown passes – good. Washington sacked Manning twice. It gave up yards, but not points from after the first possession of the game to Denver’s second possession of the third quarter. That’s five in all with 104 yards allowed. Pretty good. And yet….

“Well, [Manning] made sure he didn’t really get hit. He did a good job,” Orakpo said. “We try to put as much pressure as we can. But he did a good job getting rid of the ball on timing routes. What can you do? It’s almost like 7-on-7 out there when it gets to that point. We just got to do a good job rallying to the ball and trying to make plays as much as we can.”

And remember, this was a pretty MEDIOCRE game for Peyton Manning. You just shake your head sometimes.  

***

Meanwhile, Redskins backup quarterback Kirk Cousins had to come on for the final two drives when Griffin went down with a knee injury. It wasn’t quite last year’s late appearance against Baltimore. Instead, Cousins was intercepted by Denver cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.

Cousins thought he had a window to hit Garcon with a throw, but didn’t realize he was being baited. Rodgers-Cromartie wasn’t back-peddling to give Garcon space. He was flat-footed and broke on the ball immediately. That 75-yard interception was the final score of the game.

Cousins was only responsible for two drives. But he had as good a seat as anyone in the house for what ailed the Washington offense.

“I feel like as much as you want to study your opponent, at the end of the day it comes down to what we do,” Cousins said. “And when you avoid negative plays, don’t beat yourself and simply do what your coached to do, good things tend to happen. I’d say there were probably too many times today where we didn’t do what we’re coached to do.”