Haunted by the fleeting touch of a dropped pass a day earlier, Jordan Reed returned to Redskins Park on Monday afternoon and stood in front of a machine as 300 passes popped into his gloved hands.
For Reed, the Washington Redskins’ rookie tight end, the extra work was mandatory. Ever since the start of the regular season, which is now entering its ninth week, Reed has found some way to hone his abilities away from the structures of the team’s organized practice.
“It’s kind of like my own secret to myself,” Reed said. “If I work hard, then something’s going to happen.”
Through seven games, Reed ranks second on the Redskins with 34 receptions for 388 yards. That, in itself, is reflective of a problem Washington faces: Though its use of a tight end in the passing game is crucial to the offense, none of the four receivers behind top target Pierre Garçon have been as supportive.
Reed caught eight of 14 passes thrown his way in the Redskins’ loss to the Denver Broncos on Sunday, while Garçon reeled in seven of 11. Six other players combined to make only five catches on 14 attempts.
Even Santana Moss, a reliable safety valve for quarterback Robert Griffin III last season, has caught only 19 passes. In the last four games, he’s been thrown to only 13 times.
The Redskins’ passing offense ranked fifth after a victory over the Detroit Lions on Sept. 22. In the five weeks since, the unit has fallen to 10th.
“To me, stats and rankings and stuff like that — it doesn’t always really tell the true story, in my opinion,” Griffin said Wednesday. “We’ve struggled at times. We’ve been really good at times. Against Chicago, we threw the ball extremely well and ran the ball efficiently, and this past week, we didn’t do that. It’s a week-to-week thing. We just need to be more consistent with it.”
The Broncos entered Sunday’s game with the lowest-ranked pass defense in the league, allowing an average of 319.9 passing yards per game. The Redskins, though, could only muster 180 passing yards combined between Griffin and Kirk Cousins, who entered late in the fourth quarter when Griffin was removed with a left leg injury.
Rankings, though, are just numbers. The Broncos were able to control the Redskins with solid man coverage downfield, forcing Griffin to hold the ball longer and leaving him susceptible to a refined pass rush.
The problem is similar to what the Redskins faced in a road loss to the Dallas Cowboys on Oct. 13, when Garçon was controlled tightly by cornerback Brandon Carr and the receivers, collectively, were unable to gain separation downfield.
Late last season, as the Redskins embarked on their seven-game winning streak, they were able to supplement their passing offense with a top-ranked running game. Early deficits have prevented the ground attack from developing in several of the Redskins’ losses, and without that, the play-action pass — a staple of the offense — hasn’t been as effective.
“We try to go out on the field and try to work on it and practice on it, but the difference between this year and last year, to me, is very obvious,” coach Mike Shanahan said. “There are different things we work on every day to hopefully get to where we want to be.”
To shake things up, the Redskins have rotated different receivers onto the field. Joshua Morgan, who led the team with 48 receptions last year, has just 16 this season and been steadily replaced by Leonard Hankerson. Aldrick Robinson, who until Sunday had been strictly Garçon’s backup, played a season-high 24 snaps. Even Reed lined up as a wide receiver for 16 of his 50 plays.
“If you’re not getting the ball that week, it’s because you’re not in the game plan for that week,” Moss said. “They know what you can do. You’re on the team for that reason. It’s about being ready when they’re ready for you to have it, and if you’re ready, then you don’t never have to be worried about being ready because you never know. That game that you’re not expecting it, it might come to you.”
Reed learned that on Oct. 20, when, in the Redskins’ 45-41 victory over the Bears, he caught all nine passes thrown to him for 138 yards and a touchdown. Already a growing part of the offense, Reed cemented his role with a reliable performance.
That’s why the drop on Sunday, which happened with 6:18 left in the game, bothered him so much. That’s why Wednesday, he stayed on the field 30 minutes after practice ended, at times lying on his back and catching passes from tight ends coach Sean McVay.
“It has a lot to do with game plan and certain matchups we can exploit from the defense,” Reed said. “Whoever has the best chance of winning is probably going to have the most plays called for them during that week.”