- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 29, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION:
 
A review of the best and worst performances by the Washington Redskins‘ offense and some observations after rewatching the TV broadcast of their 23-17 win over the Seattle Seahawks.

GAME BALLS
 
RB ROY HELU: It’s difficult to say which is more encouraging for the Redskins — that Helu played so well in his second start or that there remains significant room for improvement. Let’s start with Helu playing well.
 
Helu took advantage of many opportunities the offensive line gave him, and he ran tenaciously. He gained 65 yards after contact on 23 carries, including 26 yards on his 28-yard touchdown run, and 13 yards after contact on seven catches. His quick feet helped him gain extra yards on several plays, most notably his 9-yard catch on the first play from scrimmage. When Seattle LBs K.J. Wright and David Hawthorne converged on him in the open field after failed blocks by FB Darrel Young and C Will Montgomery,Helu evaded them by darting to his left and gained an additional eight yards. It was as if someone hit the ‘L1’ button controlling him in Madden.

Helu’s 28-yard touchdown obviously was sick. It has to be one of the plays of the year in the entire league. CB Roy Lewis met him in the hole after LT Trent Williams didn’t clear DE Chris Clemons in time to sprint out and lead the way. Hurdling Lewis was jaw-dropping in itself, but then he bulled through SS Kam Chancellor as soon as he hit the ground. It was an unreal display of athleticism and power.

Also on the plus side, Helu picked up three second-half blitzes with aplomb. He stopped FS Earl Thomas twice and OLB Leroy Hill once. Protection is a major part of Helu’s role as a passing-down back, and he has been inconsistent this season.

Now, the room for improvement. Helu wasn’t perfect in protection. He incurred a 15-yard penalty for a chop block when he cut DE Red Bryant, who already was engaged with RG Chris Chester. It appeared that Helu dove to block Wright’s blitz, but Bryant was nearby and his legs also were taken out.

Helu’s 11-yard run around the left edge in the second quarter would have gone for more if he hadn’t tripped over WR Donté Stallworth. Stallworth sealed a defensive back on the perimeter, but Helu didn’t leave himself enough space to get by. Helu did well setting up his blocks on some screens and could’ve been more patient on others.

To me there appeared three runs on which Helu missed cutback lanes, though it’s difficult to say for sure. One was Helu’s loss of 2 yards on second-and-1 in the first quarter. On a stretch play left, he tried to get around the left edge even though Wright pushed TE Fred Davis back three yards on that side. Had Helu cut back behind Montgomery, he would have gotten the first down. Montgomery rode DT Brandon Mebane to the left, Chester got to Hill on the second level and RT Jammal Brown slowed DE Pep Levingston on the backside with a cut block. Instead, Helu couldn’t get around Wright, and Bryant made the stop after penetrating in front of LG Maurice Hurt.Helu was flagged for the chop block on the next play, and a drive that advanced to the Seahawks‘ 28-yard line ended in a punt.

Some who have been involved with this running scheme for a long time believe a back’s ability to read cutback lanes is innate, that it’s not something he can learn over time. Helu is the Redskins‘ most promising healthy back, so he should have the chance to at least test that theory.

QB REX GROSSMAN:Grossman was erratic at times and easily could have finished this game with four or five interceptions, but he’s on this list because he played his best with the outcome at stake in the fourth quarter.

His game-winning 50-yard touchdown to WR Anthony Armstrong might be his best play as a Redskin. He looked off the single-high safety to the right, stepped up in the pocket as the rush formed around him, reset and threw a beautiful, high-arcing spiral to the outside where Armstrong could go up and get it over a cornerback with a 5-inch height advantage.

Play-action significantly helped Grossman by providing him with simple reads. Grossman’s proficiency picking apart Seattle on play-action passes reminded me of this recent quote from former Denver and Washington offensive lineman Mark Schlereth: “The beauty of this is when you’re running efficiently, you get Fake-18 or Fake-19 QB keep pass right or left, and you get out on the edge and you’ll get 10 completions that you or I could complete. That’s how simplistic that becomes.”

That’s exactly what happened Sunday. I don’t think we’ve seen a defense this season as lost against Washington’s play-action as the Seahawks were. Their linebackers and safeties constantly dropped coverage, especially on bootlegs and keepers. It was reminiscent of how the Redskins‘ defense looked in 2010 training camp in when it had never seen Mike Shanahan’s scheme. Grossman often had receivers running wide open because linebackers or defensive backs flowed to the run fake or froze against play-action.

For the record, the Redskins used play-action on 17 of 36 dropbacks. On those, Grossman was 14-of-17 for 188 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions; a passer rating of 92.8.

On the other 19 dropbacks, he was 12-of-18 for 126 yards, a touchdown and a sack; a passer rating of 105.3.

Two other fine throws are worth mentioning. Rex converted second-and-5 on the Redskins‘ second touchdown drive by waiting for LB K.J. Wright to clear the middle so he could hit WR Santana Moss.Wright was in conflict when RB Roy Helu ran to the flat, and Grossman took the opening when Wright vacated the middle to chase after Helu. Grossman also applied perfect touch to get a fourth-quarter pass over the linebacker and into FB Mike Sellers’ arms near the left sideline for a 15-yard gain.

The downside was that Grossman was off target on a few throws and forced others. On his first pass of the second half, he tried to hit Moss deep against double coverage. The Redskins used only two receivers on the route against a four-man rush. With only two options and seven defenders in coverage, almost any throw is in danger of getting picked off. On his first-half interception, he threw high and behind WR Jabar Gaffney. CB Brandon Browner contacted Gaffney at the top of the route, but it was a good no-call because Browner is entitled to his vertical space.

Grossman got away with a couple of other bad throws. He threw a softie off his back foot trying to hit WR Donté Stallworth over the middle, and Browner was a half step away from another pick. SS Kam Chancellor narrowly missed a diving interception when Grossman overthrew Moss deep over the middle in the second half.

Overall, though, Grossman had the poise and resolve to win it in the end. That’s what matters most.

WR ANTHONY ARMSTRONG: Armstrong showed the value of a playmaker. He didn’t separate from CB Brandon Browner on his 50-yard touchdown, but he got himself open at the end with a well-timed jump. It’s been a rough season for Armstrong; he suffered a hamstring injury in Week 3 and then fell out of favor with the coaching staff. Credit him for maintaining a strong work ethic during hard times. Oh, and I’ll give his touchdown dance, The Dougie, a solid B.

RG CHRIS CHESTER: This was, by a million miles, the offensive line’s best game in weeks. Each guy had some negative plays, but collectively it was why the Redskins had more than 100 yards rushing for the first time since Week 4 against St. Louis and why they gave up just one sack for only the second time since the Rams game.

Chester was effective in space on a couple of screen passes, got to the second level on several runs, pulled effectively and generally held his ground the point of attack much better than in recent weeks. His finest moment was picking up DE Chris Clemons when Clemons looped underneath from the right edge on the game-winning 50-yard touchdown. Chester began the play by engaging DT Clinton McDonald. When Clemons came around, he passed McDonald off to C Will Montgomery on his left and kicked back out to ride Clemons way from QB Rex Grossman. The seamless switch allowed the play to evolve.

C WILL MONTGOMERY: Seattle’s interior defensive linemen, Clinton McDonald and Brandon Mebane, aren’t as formidable as, say, last week’s matchup against Dallas’ Jay Ratliff, and Montgomery played accordingly. He did well steering McDonald and Mebane in the run game and occasionally created running room for RB Roy Helu by blocking MLB David Hawthorne on the second level. The Redskins‘ line appeared well-organized in pass protection in one of the NFL’s most hostile environments.

GASSERS

RGs CHRIS NEILD and ERIK COOK: There aren’t many gassers to give out after the Redskins scored at least 23 points for the second straight week. Several players’ inconsistency was offset by enough positive plays to win the game. However, the right guard position on the kick protection unit was a glaring weakness on two blocked kicks.

Seattle DE Red Bryant blocked a field goal and a PAT and got his hand on another field goal. The two blocks resulted from technique breakdowns at right guard. Neild, who plays nose tackle on defense, was there on the blocked 23-yard field goal in the second quarter. Cook was at left guard in place of Trent Williams, who sprained the MCL in his left knee last Sunday against Dallas while protecting a field goal.

DT Clinton McDonald lined up over Neild but slid toward LS Nick Sundberg immediately after the snap. Neild lunged forward to block McDonald but got nothing but air. He fell forward, creating a gap for Bryant to surge through. Will Mongomery, who plays right tackle on that unit, was overwhelmed by Bryant and DE Raheem Brock.

The Redskins changed up the unit after that. Williams returned to left guard and Cook moved to right guard. That worked on point after the second touchdown, but a breakdown similar to the first occurred on the point after the third.

Cook blocked down when the lineman over him slid toward Sundberg. Bryant against surged through Montgomery as part of an overload on that side.

The Redskins have now had five field-goal attempts or PATs blocked this season. It’s a major problem.

OBSERVATIONS

TE Fred Davis made enough quality run blocks to stay off the gassers list, but it’s shocking how inconsistent he is. We should be used to it by now, but it’s just crazy to see him execute some plays and break down so badly on others.

Davis was a major factor on RB Roy Helu‘s 28-yard touchdown run. He motioned to the left side of the formation and was standing at the snap. He turned inside and sealed DE Chris Clemons, then released further inside to block DT Anthony Hargrove. So Helu had to bounce off only one tackler — yeah, only one — after hurdling CB Roy Lewis. (While we’re at it, WRs Santana Moss and Donté Stallworth and RG Chris Chester also had key blocks play-side. Helu made an incredible individual play, but he didn’t do it alone.)

On the second play of Washington’s second drive, Davis helped Helu gain 8 yards around the right edge with a combination block. He started with RT Jammal Brown on DE Red Bryant, then released to OLB Leroy Hill and sealed him to the sideline.

Davis countered those successful blocks, however, with a handful of ineffective ones. He had bad leverage on several blocks on which he was pushed back on the edge, including one on first-and-goal on the opening drive.

His 31-yard catch on the opening drive resulted from a blown coverage. FS Earl Thomas blitzed and vacated the left half of the field. Thomas didn’t get home because he played the end-around fake, which exposed an undermanned secondary. That set up Davis‘ 2-yard touchdown, which resulted from play action and some linebackers in conflict because of play design — three tight ends crossing, all at different levels.

In keeping with the theme of inconsistency, Davis committed a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty (taunting) that offset a 20-yard reception on the opening drive.

• This was LG Maurice Hurt‘s best game, which is to say he showed some slight progress after sitting out the Dallas game with a left knee injury. He seemed to win a greater percentage of individual blocks but also was beaten on plenty. Seattle penetrated through him on its first-and-goal stop on the opening drive. DT Anthony Hargrove used a rip move to get past Hurt to the outside on the Seahawks‘ only sack. He also surrendered pressure that led to the intentional grounding penalty in the fourth quarter.

But Hurt locked onto DT Pep Livingston to help Helu’s 12-yard gain in the first quarter. He also cut down DT Brandon Mebane with an assist from C Will Montgomery‘s strong left-handed punch on a third-quarter run. RB Roy Helu didn’t take the cutback lane that created, though, and gained only 1 yard.

QB Rex Grossman dropped back to pass 36 times. The Seahawks rushed four or fewer defenders 21 times; five defenders 13 times; and six or more defenders twice.

Against four or fewer rushers, Grossman was 15-of-21 for 142 yards and two interceptions; a passer rating of 50.2.

Against five rushers, Grossman was 9-of-12 for 153 yards, two touchdowns and a sack; a passer rating of 156.3.

Against six or more rushers, Grossman was 2-for-2 for 19 yards.

RB Evan Royster’s feet appeared slow and choppy on his only carry, not the explosive, decisive, one-cut technique coaches require. In fairness, it was his first NFL carry.

FB Darrel Young suffered a head injury while making the tackle on the second half kickoff. Mike Sellers replaced him.

The Redskins averaged 3.22 yards per carry on the nine rushes for which Young blocked.

They averaged 2.75 ypc on the four rushes for which Sellers blocked. Three of those rushes were in obvious running situations near the end of the fourth quarter.

More notable than the Young/Sellers split is the difference in the Redskins‘ rushing success with and without a fullback.

With a fullback blocking, they averaged 3.08 ypc on 13 rushes. Without a fullback blocking, they averaged 6.64 ypc on 11 rushes.

• Here’s another example of how play-action helped the Redskins‘ passing attack. Second-and-11 from Washington’s 3-yard line in the second quarter. The Redskins were in the I-formation with a tight end on the left side and two receivers split. Seattle countered with eight in the box; their strong-side linebacker was on the line of scrimmage, creating a five-man front; SS Kam Chancellor positioned himself as a linebacker on the strong side.

QB Rex Grossman faked a handoff to RB Roy Helu, which completely froze Chancellor. He was a statue. Meanwhile, WR Jabar Gaffney ran an intermediate cross from Chancellor’s side. Because Chancellor had no depth on the play, Gaffney was wide open against man-to-man coverage. The easy 16-yard pitch-and-catch got the Redskins out of trouble.