- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 13, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION

My observations, analysis and conclusions about the Redskins’ offense after rewatching the TV broadcast of Washington’s 16-7 preseason victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers:

QB Rex Grossman made the biggest impression on me at the stadium Friday with how efficiently he operated the offense, but RB Tim Hightower‘s performance was the most resounding offensive element upon review. After seeing him for two quarters, it’s clear he has the tools to be highly productive in coach Mike Shanahan’s outside zone scheme. If Hightower consistently plays as he did Friday, the Redskins’ trade for him is an absolute steal.

Hightower was fast to the edge, properly diagnosed cutback lanes, pressed them effectively and exploded upfield. He was physical in finishing his runs and protected the ball. He also made a few tacklers miss on occasion. Ryan Torain is the only other back who has done anything remotely similar in a Redskins’ uniform in Shanahan’s scheme. It helped that the offensive line’s run blocking was much improved from last season, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

Hightower was excellent in pass protection, too. I noted four quality pass blocks, including a blitz pick-up on the 4th-and-1 pass that Grossman converted early in the second quarter. Hightower recognized blitzers, squared them up and initiated contact. At the risk of overreacting to one half of a preseason football game for which there was minimal game planning, I’m sold.

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Back to Rex. His timing and rhythm are what stood out. He repeatedly dropped back, planted his feet and got rid of the ball on time. It was fluid and smooth. That comes with knowing the offense and being comfortable with your receivers.

Grossman’s efficiency limited the Steelers‘ pass rush because they often didn’t have sufficient time to get to the quarterback. Note that Washington never threw any deep passes from a straight dropback. Anything long came on rollouts. Grossman’s sharp timing also helped cover for offensive line mistakes. Even when linemen were beaten, he consistently got the ball out before it led to further damage.

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One thing I noticed about Grossmanthat has carried over from last season: He doesn’t seem comfortable stepping up in the pocket when pressured. He likes to drift away from pressure and the line of scrimmage, which sometimes leads to throws off his back foot or otherwise off-balance passes. Even on the touchdown pass to WR Santana Moss, Grossman sensed heat after catching the low shotgun snap. He threw it over the middle while falling away. Moss was wide open, so it didn’t make a difference, but that can lead to interceptions. Keep an eye out for that.

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It’s important to keep this in perspective, but the first-string offensive line was so much better run blocking than what we saw last season. I’m speaking generally because every player stumbled on a few plays.

Their collective cut blocking is miles ahead of where it was at this point a year ago. That’s very important because it’s a key element of this running scheme, and it takes timing and precision to execute. RT Jammal Brown cut down his man on the backside of Hightower‘s 16-yard run around the left edge in the first quarter. LG Kory Lichtensteiger cut NT Casey Hampton to help spring Hightower’s 11-yard run on the next play.

A couple of early runs reminded me of last season’s Tampa Bay game, when the offensive line was perfectly in sync. Take Hightower’s 6-yard run on 2nd-and-10 from the Pittsburgh 14 (against the Steelers‘ second-string defense):

The offensive line moved left off the snap. LT Trent Williams got to a linebacker several yards from the line of scrimmage. TE Fred Davis turned a linebacker out on the left edge, creating a lane. C Will Montgomery blocked an inside linebacker in the defensive backfield. Newly-signed RG Chris Chester cut down a lineman who was pursuing from the back side. Brown pushed his lineman to the ground despite running laterally and not being in a position to generate much power.

Hightower pressed his cutback lane and then took it. He might have scored, but Williams did not sustain his block. Still, the play was a reminder of what the Redskins can accomplish when their line is operating as designed.

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LT Trent Williams played with an edge or a mean streak that I don’t recall from his rookie season. He finished many of his blocks — the play above notwithstanding — several yards downfield. On Washington’s second offensive play he drove DE Brett Keisel about 10 yards off the line of scrimmage. Later on that drive when Keisel jumped to break up a screen pass, Williams pancaked him out of the air.

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Will Montgomery anchored at center well enough to suggest he’ll be a significant improvement over Casey Rabach. He also got to the second level on a few runs and blocked linebackers. Strength is Montgomery’s greatest asset, and it showed.

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TE Fred Davis run blocked as well as I can ever remember. He didn’t lock onto his man and eat him up, but he was able to create running lanes by shoving his defender back and occasionally squaring his shoulders to the sideline. He did that to Pittsburgh LB Jason Worilds on Tim Hightower‘s 16-yard run on the first drive.

Davis’ blocking is a major issue with TE Chris Cooley (left knee) sidelined for a couple of weeks, but he passed the first test on Friday.

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Speaking of Cooley’s injury, that might be the opening TE Mike Sellers needs to convince coaches to keep him around. It was a bit awkward seeing Sellers playing the final minutes of Friday’s game, an unfamiliar position for the 10-year veteran. However, he did play on the first-string kickoff return unit, so he hasn’t lost that position in addition to his fullback spot.

Sellers had an effective backside block on a running play but also committed a false start.

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And how about the man who has taken Sellers’ fullback spot, Darrel Young? Young’s 16-yard reception began with a sharp change of direction in the backfield. He sold the run left and then broke his strides down to release into the right flat. Rex Grossman sensed the backside rush and got rid of the ball in time for Young to get into space and make two tacklers miss.

Young’s failure to sustain his block contributed to 3-yard loss on 1st-and-goal on Washington’s opening drive. However, his lead block was excellent on the play-action pass that got the drive started from the 1-yard line. Young also earholed a defender on PR/KR Brandon Banks’ 19-yard punt return.

Overall, his performance should encourage coaches that he’s capable of handling the starting role. Now, Young must repeat that over three more games.

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Several receivers made positive impressions. Santana Moss is so crisp getting in and out of his breaks. What else is new? He helped get the Redskins off their 1-yard line on their first play by escaping press coverage. His 16-yard reception in the second quarter resulted from a sharp pivot to the sideline.

Anthony Armstrong made an excellent adjustment to Rex Grossman‘s throw to convert 4th-and-1 in the second quarter. Grossman put it low to Armstrong’s outside, and he made a terrific sliding catch. Second-year receiver Terrence Austin is so shifty that he consistently gets free on crossing routes. He might force coaches to find a roster spot for him this year.

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Rookies Leonard Hankerson and Aldrick Robinson are among the receivers who didn’t have a good night. Hankerson botched a potential big gain when he dropped a pass over the middle. He let the ball get into his body instead of catching it with his hands. Robinson muffed two punts, one of which he shouldn’t have attempted to field because he was too close to his end zone.

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My grade of rookie RB Evan Royster’s play is a bit lower after having re-watched the game. He wasn’t nearly as aggressive hitting cutback lanes as Tim Hightower was. Royster, however, seemed to get a better feel for the fluidity required as the game progressed, and he wasn’t as tentative. He also didn’t have as much space to attack behind Washington’s second-string offensive line.

Royster wasn’t perfect in pass protection, lunging and missing one blitzer late. However, he was better than fellow rookie RB Roy Helu, who showed a tendency to duck his head and lead with one shoulder.

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Helu’s quick feet were evident when he juked a defensive back on an 18-yard 4th-quarter run. His burst is more explosive than Royster’s, and it will be interesting to see what Helu does behind the second-string line. He ran behind the third-string unit Friday, with Erik Cook at right guard instead of center and seventh-round rookie Maurice Hurt at left tackle instead of left guard. Cook and Hurt were better at center and guard, respectively.

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QB Rex Grossman overthrew a possible long touchdown to WR Donte’ Stallworth in the second quarter when the ball came out of his hands “funky.” That’s how he described it in the locker room after the game. Grossman rolled to his left and had to throw against his body, and he said he didn’t get his back hip through properly. He vowed to practice that throw 25 times on Sunday to get it right.

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Give FB Keiland Williams and LB Lorenzo Alexander credit for key blocks on PR/KR Brandon Banks’ 58-yard kickoff return. Oh, and credit Banks’ excellent speed, too.

Banks’ long return was a highlight, but he also cost the Redskins 13 yards when he let a punt bounce instead of fielding it.

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LS Nick Sundberg’s snaps on K Shayne Graham’s two missed field goals appeared to be of high quality. Graham just missed them.