- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 20, 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 22-21 win over the Arizona Cardinals.

GAME BALLS

TE Fred Davis: For my money, Davis was the best offensive player on the field. He was exceptional in the passing game, obviously, but he also had one of his best games run blocking – and it’s no coincidence the Redskins‘ three running backs averaged 5.7 yards per carry.

Davis was excellent using his feet and hips to stay square against blockers and turn them out. On the first play of Washington’s third series, he got under OLB Joey Porter’s inside shoulder and drove him out by keeping his legs churning. RB Tim Hightower chose that hole and gained six yards. On the next play, he pivoted to seal OLB Clark Haggans on the right edge, which opened a hole through which Hightower gained 10.

On a critical third-and-1 in the fourth quarter, Davis helped extend the Redskins‘ touchdown drive by getting off the ball a step faster than Cardinals OLB O’Brien Schofield and sealing him inside so FB Darrel Young could gain seven.

Davis was a weapon in the passing game, too. His strong arms and hands help him catch passes even with defenders hanging on him. Porter couldn’t match up with him. Through two games, no one has.

C Will Montgomery: This is the beginning of a lot of love for the offensive line this week. This game might have been the unit’s best in coach Mike Shanahan‘s 18 at the helm. All five guys consistently won individual matchups, and again, that’s how the Redskins‘ three running backs averaged 5.7 yards a pop.

Montgomery gets top billing because he was a stout run blocker, and because the Redskins‘ protections were much smoother and more effective against Arizona than they were against New York. QB Rex Grossman was sacked only once, and he posted a passer rating of 101.7 on the 16 dropbacks on which the Cardinals rushed more than four. Montgomery is responsible for making protection calls at the line, along with Grossman.

Cardinals DL Darnell Dockett did get by Montgomery and hit Grossman on a third-down pass by swatting Montgomery’s initial punch, but Willie-Mo otherwise was a major asset because of his strength. He’s one of the Redskins‘ strongest players, and it showed in how he controlled several Arizona linemen.

In the fourth quarter, RB Roy Helu gained seven yards through a hole that Montgomery created by driving Dockett out to the right. When Dockett turned his shoulders perpendicular to the line of scrimmage, Montgomery ate him up and ran him out. Helu also gained seven on a first-quarter run behind Montgomery, who simply shoved DE Calais Campbell to the ground.

Montgomery will have a chance to distinguish himself on Monday night against Dallas NT Jay Ratliff, who consistently gave C Casey Rabach problems the last two seasons. If Montgomery can control Ratliff in the run game, the entire offense could flow from there.

RB Roy Helu: The spark he provided behind RB Tim Hightower makes you wonder why he carried only once against New York when the running game was struggling. Then again, the quality of the running lanes against Arizona was a thousand times better than in the previous game.

Still, Helu made the most of his touches. His feet set him apart. He can juke defenders without losing speed, which helps him break tackles. He gained 20 yards after contact on the 33-yard screen pass he caught in the second quarter. And how about him hurdling LG Kory Lichtensteiger without breaking stride? He clearly has a higher gear than Hightower, which makes for an effective change of pace.

Helu even picked up a blitz, blocking ILB Paris Lenon coming up the middle on a fourth-quarter pass. He didn’t square Lenon up like Hightower does, but his read was correct and he did enough to stop Lenon.

RB Tim Hightower: Hightower was determined to stick it to the team that gave up on him, and he did so. He’s a hammer the way he finishes his runs. He showed on several plays his preference to lower his shoulder and slam into a tackler than run out of bounds. That will wear a defense out.

The offensive line made things much easier for him against Arizona than they were against New York. On his 20-yard run in the second quarter, for example, he hardly had to cut. He just took a direct path inside RT Jammal Brown and was barely touched before he got to the second level.

Hightower was much better in pass protection this week. He spun ILB Paris Lenon around in the hole on QB Rex Grossman‘s first pass of the game, helping the Redskins pick up a seven-man blitz and gain 19 on a pass to WR Santana Moss. On third-and-10 on the Redskins‘ fourth-quarter touchdown drive, he cut down LB Reggie Walker coming from the left edge of the defense, allowing Grossman to hit WR Jabar Gaffney for 20 yards and extend the drive.

QB Rex GrossmanGrossman made mistakes that could have cost the Redskins the game, but he gets a game ball because he made plays that ultimately helped win it. I won’t rehash the details of his interceptions (which you can read here). He wasn’t the main culprit on either pick, but, as Mike Shanahan said, Grossman ultimately is responsible for protecting the football. Even if WR Santana Moss botched the timing of a play, Grossman still threw into trouble.

Another negative play was underthrowing TE Fred Davis down the left sideline early in the second half. A play that went for 40 yards might have been a touchdown if he put the ball out in front.

Grossman had difficulty finding open receivers partly because Arizona dropped seven players in coverage on 28 of 44 dropbacks (64 percent). But he did reasonably well taking what the defense gave him, especially late in the game when Kyle Shanahan appeared to call shorter, quicker passes.

Grossman had the mental toughness to shake off the early interceptions and lead the Redskins back from eight points down with 10:52 to play. His decision to try for the touchdown instead of settling for the first down on fourth-and-3 took some serious (rhymes with halls). He would have been sharply criticized if the throw didn’t produce the 18-yard touchdown, but Grossman took what the defense dictated – the defensive back moved to cover WR Jabar Gaffney in the flat – and his throw to the back corner of the end zone was absolutely perfect.

I’m eager to see how Grossman’s confidence and poise carry over to a hostile environment on Monday.

RG: Chris Chester: I have to get another lineman on this list. Any of the other four would do, really, but I’ll go with Chester and LG Kory Lichtensteiger because LT Trent Williams committed a false start on third-and-goal from the 3 and RT Jammal Brown appeared to break down on the blocked field goal in the first half.

On RB Tim Hightower’s 20-yard run through the right side in the second quarter, his combination block with C Will Montgomery helped make that play.

Cardinals DL Darnell Docket lined up between Montgomery and Chester with play-side leverage on Montgomery. We’ve seen this a ton of times in Kyle Shanahan’s offense – the center gets beat running the stretch play because he’s at a leverage disadvantage before the play even starts. But as the play started to the right, Chester blocked Dockett long enough for Montgomery to get to Dockett’s play-side shoulder and hook him inside. Then Chester released to block ILB Paris Lenon, and Hightower was off and running.

Chester helped open a hole for Hightower’s 5-yard run on the last play of the first quarter. He was lower than DT Nick Eason off the snap, and he got his hands inside Eason’s when they engaged. Chester drove him to the outside, and Hightower cut in behind him.

I’m not convinced that Chester will remedy the Redskins‘ right guard problems because he didn’t consistently win individual matchups in the preseason or against the Giants. You could see why the Ravens, whose run-blocking scheme is more power-based, would let him walk in free agency. But Chester is a smart and has shown he can run well enough on stretch plays. It’ll be interesting to monitor his progress in the offense, as he’s a year behind the other four linemen.

LG Kory Lichtensteiger: It’s no coincidence the Redskins consistently run screen passes to the left. The Steiger’s athleticism makes them possible. On RB Roy Helu‘s 33-yarder, he got enough of ILB Paris Lenon on his cut block in space to move Lenon out of the play and create a lane for Helu.

And even though DL Darnell Dockett read the Redskins‘ screen pass on second-and-6 late in the first quarter, Lichtensteiger stayed on the block by moving his feet, which allowed RB Tim Hightower to cut inside and get the first down.

K Graham Gano: The heat on Gano would have been scorching if he had missed the decisive 34-yard kick in the final two minutes. He deserves credit for drilling it under pressure.

Oh, to have been inside Mike Shanahan‘s brain when he decided to go for it on fourth-and-3 from the Arizona 18 trailing by eight with 5:23 to play and all three timeouts. Sure, it was a product of his confidence in QB Rex Grossman and the offense, but it also might have been an indication about his belief in Gano.

GASSERS

Maybe I’ve gone soft, but there are no gassers to hand out this week. The offensive line opened running lanes and gave QB Rex Grossman time to throw. Grossman redeemed himself by engineering two late scoring drives.

Receivers weren’t consistently open for Grossman, but WR Santana Moss still caught a huge touchdown in the fourth quarter, and WR Jabar Gaffney caught a low pass on third-and-10 to extend the drive and make Moss’ touchdown possible. Receivers generally blocked well, too. Aside from some isolated but costly breakdowns in the red zone, the offense played very well.

OBSERVATIONS

The Cardinals batted down six (!) of QB Rex Grossman‘s passes at the line of scrimmage. Their linemen made a concerted effort to get their hands up. All teams do, but it was more noticeable against Arizona.

It’s up to the offensive line to keep defenders’ hands down and create passing lanes for Grossman, who in turn must maintain a high release point.

TE Chris Cooley had no catches for the first time since Week 5 at Carolina in 2009, and he has a batted pass to thank for that. He was open in the right flat on a keeper with acres of room to run, but LB Clark Haggans knocked the ball down.

Speaking of Chris Cooley, let’s break down the tight ends participation. The Redskins ran 79 plays, including the kneel downs but excluding the 2-point conversion. By my unofficial count:

Fred Davis played 56 snaps. He was alone on 42.

Cooley played 37 snaps. He was alone on 23.

Davis and Cooley, just the two of them, played together on 13 snaps.

The Redskins went with three tight ends once, adding Logan Paulsen.

And for the record, Davis played alone on the 2-point conversion.

Even though we can’t be sure how Cooley’s knee is affecting the playing time distribution, it’s clear that both are going to play a lot. Mike Shanahan believes it’s a strength of the team, so he’ll continue to game plan accordingly. If Davis continues to run block like he did against Arizona, he’ll barely come off the field.

I mentioned this above, but here’s the breakdown of QB Rex Grossman‘s day against the blitz.

Against four rushers, he was 13-of-28 for 145 yards, a touchdown and an interception. His passer rating was 59.4.

Against five or more rushers (the blitz), he was 12-of-15 for 146 yards, a touchdown, an interception and a sack. His passer rating was 101.7.

The Cardinals made things difficult by dropping seven in coverage and limiting his options downfield on 64 percent of his dropbacks.

It will be interesting – perhaps even decisive – to see whether Dallas sees this game film and reduces the frequency of its blitzes. Then again, if OLB DeMarcus Ware can pressure the quarterback by himself, it’s a moot point.

I left LT Trent Williams off the game balls list because of his false start on third-and-goal from the 3, and I agree that’s a bit nitpicky. He played much better against an Arizona pass rush that’s not as dynamic and powerful as New York’s. He was much better with his technique, as was RT Jammal Brown, and the entire line benefited from being in better sync.

Williams will be a major focus of Monday’s game against the Cowboys and OLB DeMarcus Ware, who leads the NFL with 4.0 sacks. It should be a fair gauge of his progress to this point.

Arizona’s only sack appeared to result from FB Darrel Young‘s failure to pick up FS Kerry Rhodes on play-action. Young blocked down on the defender RT Jammal Brown had under control, and Rhodes came free.

Young made up for it with his 7-yard carry on third-and-1 that extended the fourth-quarter touchdown drive. With smooth footwork, he sold the counter and then snuck around the left edge after the quick handoff. It was a great call by Kyle Shanahan, especially considering Arizona had loaded up on the other side of the play.

Allow me to vent here: The FOX production of this game was brutal. I don’t care what Will Montgomery’s fingers look like on the ball before the snap; I want to see the formation and the personnel. And is it too much to ask to return from commercial in time to see the first play of the fourth quarter?

And to clear up any false notions you might have about the Redskins front office after analyst Tim Ryan said: “What a find by Bruce Allen in the fourth round in Roy Helu,” just know that Mike Shanahan is the one making personnel decisions.

Bruce Allen works on details such as contracts, the salary cap and executing trades, but Shanahan is the one with final say on personnel. I’m not sure why Tim Ryan felt inclined to say otherwise.

…That’s it for the offense. Let me know what I missed. Leave a comment, email me at rcampbell@washingtontimes.com, or hit me on Twitter @Rich_Campbell.

To read about the defense, click here.