- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 23, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

A review of the best and worst performances by the Washington Redskins‘ offense and some observations after re-watching the TV broadcast of their 27-24 overtime loss to the Dallas Cowboys.

GAME BALLS

WR JABAR GAFFNEY: Gaffney powered the offense’s resurgence by running quality routes and consistently getting open. Five of his season-high seven receptions resulted in first downs or a touchdown, and he also earned an additional third-down conversion on the game-tying drive in the fourth quarter by drawing a holding penalty.

His 16-yard touchdown reception at the end of the first half was his finest work. He got open to the post inside FS Gerald Sensabaugh with an excellent fake of a corner route. Gaffney sold it by turning his shoulders and head toward the outside. Sensabaugh, who was head-up on him, stepped toward the sideline, giving Gaffney the room he needed to separate back to the inside. Gaffney also made a sweet 12-yard catch at the left sideline during overtime. He fully extended to catch QB Rex Grossman’s pass, and he dragged his feet to ensure the completion.

Gaffney wasn’t perfect. Most notably, he missed a couple blocks in the run game, including on the end-around to WR Donté Stallworth on the second play of the game. Still, there’s no question he and Rex have a high comfort level with each other. He’s on pace for 65 catches and a career-high 949 receiving yards. I’d say the Redskins‘ trade of DL Jeremy Jarmon for him has worked out pretty nicely for them.

QB REX GROSSMAN: This game is at the top of the list of Grossman’s best performances as a Redskin, along with the season-opener against the New York Giants. His 65.8 completion percentage was his best since he completed 71.4 percent in Super Bowl XLI 24 games ago. And still he left a handful of completions out there.

Grossman generally threw on time and anticipated well. Because his arm isn’t especially strong, timing and anticipation are essential. He doesn’t always have the luxury of waiting until he sees a receiver break open.

“He does a great job anticipating,” WR Jabar Gaffney said Monday. “It gets him in trouble sometimes, but a lot of times it works out because as soon as you come out of your break the ball is right there.”

That’s what happened on his 16-yard touchdown pass to Gaffney at the end of the first half. After Gaffney separated from CB Gerald Sensabaugh by faking a corner route, the ball arrived before Sensabaugh could recover. We in the press box had an excellent view of that throw, one of the few times we can say that from our vantage point in the corner of the end zone near the tunnel to the Redskins‘ locker room. The window was tight, and Grossman deftly fit the throw in over LB Sean Lee.

A few other positive throws stand out. His 23-yard completion to WR David Anderson on a wheel route down the left sideline lit the match that got the offense burning. It was a perfect pass out in front of Anderson with CB Orlando Scandrick in close coverage. He hit Gaffney for 28 yards in the third quarter by sliding to his right to avoid the pass rush, keeping his eyes downfield and resetting.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t give Rex props for his touchdown run. His top speed is only second gear for some quarterbacks thanks to a reconstructed ACL in his right knee and other leg/ankle injuries in his past, but that was the beauty of the play call there. Grossman ran to daylight off of C Will Montgomery’s back and sold out diving for the goal line.

As always, there were some negatives. Dallas didn’t turn his fourth-quarter interception into points, but it could have put the game out of reach. Without knowing for sure what WR Anthony Armstrong was supposed to do on the play, he got off the ball to the inside of Scandrick. Grossman threw the pass to the inside, possibly to take advantage of that release, but Armstrong ran a double move and relinquished that inside position. Perhaps Grossman meant to throw it outside and LB Bradie James’ hit took something off the throw.

Grossman missed Gaffney open twice near the right sideline, including a low throw on the run that would have converted third-and-7 with the game tied 17-17 in the fourth quarter. He also missed TE Fred Davis wide open over the middle for what would have been an easy 11-yard touchdown against Dallas’ 7-man blitz in the fourth quarter. He threw hot to Anderson instead, and it was incomplete.

Also, the timing was awkward on two incomplete screen passes to RB Ryan Torain. And finally, Grossman got away with the type of throw into coverage that defenses have capitalized on all season. CB Terence Newman drove on a pass over the middle to Anderson and was a half-step shy of picking it off.

Overall, though, Rex managed to rejuvenate the offense and restore some of its confidence. Let’s see if it carries over to Seattle.

PR BRANDON BANKS: This was the game fans — and coaches — have been waiting for from Banks. For at least one afternoon, he recaptured the explosiveness that made him one of the Redskins‘ biggest weapons last season. The difference? According to Banks, it was the blocking in front of him and a favorable lack of hang time by Dallas P Mat McBriar.

Banks likes to run laterally to set up his blocks immediately after fielding a punt, and that worked on his 55-yard return in the second half. By moving to his right, it was almost as if he were a running back in Mike Shanahan’s stretch zone. When WR Terrence Austin and LB Rob Jackson sealed WR Akwasi Owusu-Ansah, Banks put his foot in the ground and exploded up the field behind them into open space. TE Logan Paulsen also made a key block on that one.

Austin and WR Anthony Armstrong had key blocks on his 32-yarder that set up Washington’s go-ahead touchdown at the end of the first half. FB Darrel Young peeled back and lined up a block to de-cleat a Cowboys player, but the guy saw it coming and bailed.

Dallas runs an unbalanced punt protection formation, but that wasn’t a major factor in Banks’ successful returns, players said.

WR DONTE STALLWORTH: All four of Stallworth’s catches for 51 yards occurred on the game-tying drive or in overtime. He ran clean routes and made himself available to QB Rex Grossman in the middle of the field.

He ran an exceptional fade route on the game-tying touchdown. He stayed wide of the cornerback off the line and maintained enough space to catch Grossman’s well-thrown pass. He did well to drag his back foot to establish possession in bounds. Not bad for someone who was released 11 days earlier. It will be interesting to see if his role is expanded against Seattle this week.

LT TRENT WILLIAMS: I debated this one for a bit. Truth is, the offensive line’s run blocking was a mess — again — and Williams contributed to the problem with some failed blocks on which he was driven back and failed to capture the edge.

However, he blocked Cowboys OLB DeMarcus Ware one-on-one on 14 of the 34 dropbacks on which Ware rushed, and he did not surrender a sack. That was crucial, especially considering how much the Redskins relied on the pass. Although Williams was flagged once for holding Ware, he generally did a good job moving his feet and staying square against him. Williams had a good base in keeping his chest in front of Ware when Ware went to his spin move on a second-quarter rush, and that allowed for a 23-yard completion.

I’d have to go back and compare past games, but the fact that Ware rushed on RT Jammal Brown’s side 12 times might be one of the better compliments Williams has received.

GASSERS

K GRAHAM GANO: Two missed field-goals in an overtime loss, including one in overtime, will land him on this list every time. That Gano is fighting another bout of inconsistency has to trouble Mike Shanahan. It seemed that Gano was past this during the first half of the season.

Shanahan understands patience is required to develop a young kicker, but it’s fair to ask whether Shanahan would stick with Gano if he were missing kicks and the Redskins were, say, 6-4 in the thick of the playoff race. Gano hyper-analyzes his misses, and that can be counterproductive from a mental standpoint. If he has a good game against Seattle, maybe we’ll look back at these last two games as a minor slump. But the weather is expected to be rainy out there — not exactly ideal for kicking. How Gano meets the challenge might teach us something about him.

LG TYLER POLUMBUS: I’ve said it about Will Montgomery and Maurice Hurt, and I’ll say it again now: It’s not Polumbus’ fault he is the Redskins‘ best option at left guard. When you sign a free agent off the street on Nov. 9 and he’s starting for you 11 days later, it indicates extremely bad luck with injuries and, more importantly, poor roster planning. So credit Polumbus for scrapping and fighting in his Redskins debut, especially because at 6-foot-8 he’s more of a natural tackle.

Much of the pressure QB Rex Grossman faced came from defenders who beat Polumbus. DE Jason Hatcher got around him and stripped Grossman in the second quarter. The Cowboys rushed only three on that play; protection never should be an issue in that situation. Polumbus also was penalized once for holding. His struggles in the run game included a whiff on a pull block on the game-tying drive in the fourth quarter. He missed OLB Anthony Spencer, and RB Ryan Torain was stopped for a loss of 1.

TE FRED DAVIS: The Cowboys turned Davis’ fumble on the third play of the game into seven points, and you don’t need a math degree to realize how that affected the outcome of an overtime game. Davis never tucked the ball away to protect it, maybe because he wanted to reach it across the line-to-gain. Ultimately, it was careless. Personally, I don’t think it was a fumble, but I do agree that whatever was called on the field should not have been overturned by the replay. The video evidence wasn’t sufficient either way; that’s how close it was.

Beyond that costly miscue, Davis’ run blocking was problematic again this week. He was pushed back too frequently. Because he’s on the edge, that limits the running back’s options on stretch plays. Davis got up banging his chest after a 24-yard reception in the third quarter, and on the next play RB Ryan Torain lost two yards partly because Davis got pushed back two yards by OLB Anthony Spencer, who made the tackle. That inconsistency is really hurting the Redskins‘ offense. He makes TE Chris Cooley seem more irreplaceable every week.

WR ANTHONY ARMSTRONG: For the second time in four games, Armstrong started but didn’t have a catch. Anytime a receiver is shut out, it’s due to a combination of reasons. Ultimately, though, what matters is that Armstrong is not producing.

I’m not sure what he could have done to prevent the fourth-quarter interception. He had inside position on CB Orlando Scandrick off the ball, and QB Rex Grossman threw it accordingly. If Armstrong’s route called for a move back to the outside — which he ran — so be it.

There was a play in the preseason against Baltimore on which QB John Beck threw an interception on a deep pass intended for WR Donté Stallworth. After the game, both players said Stallworth should have at least committed pass interference to save possession of the ball, and I wonder if Armstrong could have done that in this instance.

Don’t blame Armstrong for dropping a potential touchdown early in the third quarter. CB Alan Ball got a hand on it and changed the ball’s path.

Armstrong’s stats tell the main story, so let’s look at three positives. He had a key block on PR Brandon Banks‘ 32-yard punt return in the second quarter. His vertical route in the third quarter cleared two defenders from the left side of the field, allowing space for WR Jabar Gaffney’s 28-yard completion near the left sideline. And he dove for a badly overthrow pass down the right sideline — an indication that he’s fighting hard to break out of this slump.

RB RYAN TORAIN: Torain has 57 yards on 36 carries (1.6 yards per carry) since he rushed for 135 yards on 19 attempts in Week 4. The blocking in front of him consistently has been poor, but there are holes that he’s not capitalizing on. You hear players and coaches talk about the importance of a runner’s feel for the zone running scheme, and Torain seems out of sync right now for whatever reason.

OBSERVATIONS

RB Roy Helu played 38 of 65 snaps, more than any of the other backs, despite beginning the game on the sideline. Mike Shanahan on Monday explained Helu’s role by saying: “I don’t want to put too much pressure on him too early. He’s not ready for that, but he’s gaining experience.”

In fact, Shanahan broke down Helu’s game pretty well for us. Here’s what he said:

“He had a couple of nice runs in that two-minute — it was perfect runs, perfect opportunities. They were in a two-minute type defense — they were rushing the pass and we had a couple of trap plays.

“We had a chance late in the game on the last drive. He almost broke that run — the handoff to the left. It should have went probably 20-25 [yards] and we missed a block and had to turn it to the inside, but he hit that hole nice. I like Helu. He’s doing some great things.”

For the record, CB Orlando Scandrick beat WR David Anderson’s block attempt out of the left slot on Helu’s 4-yard run to the left in overtime.

• The Redskins scored touchdowns on all three of their red zone possessions, their best performance of the season. The improvement resulted from good play-calling and better execution.

QB Rex Grossman completed a 16-yard touchdown to WR Jabar Gaffney despite the Cowboys dropping eight defenders into coverage. The Redskins usually have trouble finding open receivers when teams drop seven or eight in that compressed area of the field, but Gaffney ran a great route. The quarterback draw on which Grossman scored was an unexpected play call executed to perfection. And the successful fade on which Grossman connected with WR Donté Stallworth in the final seconds of regulation was a perfect throw, route and catch.

• Washington benefited from keeping the score close and, by extension, having the option to run the ball. In some of the Redskins‘ recent lopsided losses, they abandoned the run in the second half. But with the lead early in the third quarter, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan had the entire game plan at his disposal. So when the Redskins faked a run to the left, the Cowboys had to respect it. That allowed TE Fred Davis to feign cutting the backside end and slip into the flat for an easy completion that netted 24 yards. Apparently, that’s how this offense is supposed to work. I’d forgotten.

QB Rex Grossman dropped back to pass 42 times. The Cowboys rushed four or fewer defenders 26 times; five defenders 11 times; and six or more defenders five times.

Against four or fewer rushers, Grossman was 15-of-23 for 178 yards, a touchdown and was sacked three times; a passer rating of 103.2.

Against five rushers, Grossman was 8-of-10 for 97 yards, a touchdown and a rush for six yards; a passer rating of 140.4

Against six or more rushers, Grossman was 2-of-5 for 14 yards and an interception; a passer rating of 8.3.

Cowboys OLB DeMarcus Ware rushed the passer on 34 of 42 dropbacks.

He went one-on-one against LT Trent Williams on 14 dropbacks; one-on-one against RT Jammal Brown on 11 dropbacks. He beat Brown with a speed rush around the edge for his second-half sack.

TE Logan Paulsen blocked Ware one-on-one twice, although Williams was waiting to help out on those plays.

Paulsen helped Williams and Brown double-team Ware on one dropback each.

On QB Rex Grossman‘s interception, RB Ryan Torain and RG Chris Chester blocked Ware as part of a run fake.

C Will Montgomery successfully blocked Ware one-on-one once.

Chester and Brown double-teamed Ware once, and Montgomery and LG Tyler Polumbus doubled him once.

FB Darrel Young initially planned on running over CB Orlando Scandrick in the left flat on his reception during the game-tying touchdown drive. But when Young saw Scandrick about to dive for his legs, he figured he’d just juke around him. That read helped him gain 27 yards.

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