When the Washington Redskins' maligned offense lost two of its best players to drug suspensions last week, it became fair to wonder how they would move the ball during the final four games of the season.
Tight end Fred Davis and left tackle Trent Williams are athletic blockers capable of securing the edge for outside runs. Davis also is the Redskins' leading receiver. Without them, an undermanned unit lost much of whatever punch it had left.
Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan promised adjustments, though, and his group came through with one of its best performances of the season in a 34-27 loss to New England.
"It was the best game we had for a while moving the football," coach Mike Shanahan said.
Washington's offense established season-highs with 27 points and 463 yards. Mike Shanahan agreed that the Patriots' defense, which ranks last in the league in yards allowed, had something to do with that. But so did the Redskins' game plan.
They debuted a group that involved two running backs and three wide receivers. They used it on 16 of their 69 offensive plays and averaged 5.88 yards per play — better than the NFL average of 5.43.
Washington averaged 4.92 yards on 12 rushes using that personnel group, which included a tailback and a fullback. It forced the Patriots to account for the slot receiver — Niles Paul on all 16 plays — with a linebacker or defensive back wide in the box.
"I think you're spreading them out more," said Darrel Young, who was the fullback in that formation. "We got them extended where we wanted them to be for the run game. In the pass game, [the linebacker] is not going to cover him. It was exactly what we wanted to see."
Mike Shanahan tried to use Davis and Williams' absence to the Redskins advantage by showing New England a formation Washington had not used. He was pleased by the results.
"You rotate your personnel around a little bit but try to catch them a little bit off-guard, and they try to catch you a little bit off-balance," he said. "It's a little bit more of a chess game than anything else."
The Redskins also used Young as a blocker to compensate for being without Davis. He said he played more than he had all season. Unofficially, he was on the field for 42 of 69 plays.
"They seen something and felt I could make plays," said Young, who was critical of his performance. "I didn't make the plays I needed to make, but we were productive on offense, which was good to see. We actually put up points on the board."
Young questioned aloud whether the three-receiver, two-back formation would be successful in the final three games because opponents now know to prepare for it, and some elements of game-planning are matchup-specific.
Still, players hope the offense can continue to be potent.
"II think everyone is pretty enthused about how good this offense can be and the capability of all the players on the field," said receiver David Anderson, who caught a touchdown Sunday. "Guys are filling in spots and playing well, which is obviously encouraging."
With the Redskins stuck at 4-9, though, and out of postseason contention, the significance of any short-term progress on offense is limited.
Several players who contributed on offense Sunday are backups, including Anderson, tight end Logan Paulsen, left tackle Willie Smith, left guard Maurice Hurt and right tackle Tyler Polumbus.
Does it matter if they play well during this final stretch if they aren't in significant roles next season? Mike Shanahan, at least, thinks so.
"Any time you have some backups come in and you have a little more cohesiveness, that means these guys are getting valuable experience," he said. "Come next year, these guys have more than one game; some of them many games."
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