Phillip Thomas stood just outside the end zone, his hands square on his hips, his face painted with exasperation.
Thomas and the Washington Redskins had been beaten several times for lengthy gains by the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday, and with fewer than 11 minutes remaining, they were humiliated yet again. A blown assignment left the second-year strong safety, playing the 32nd defensive snap of his career, out of position almost 20 yards away from the line of scrimmage, forcing him to equal the speed of an oncoming ballcarrier who has run a 4.4-second 40-yard dash.
Thomas was no match for wide receiver Donte Moncrief for the final 55 yards of what ended up being a 79-yard touchdown reception. The Redskins’ pass defense also was no match for quarterback Andrew Luck, who threw for 370 yards in a 49-27 Colts victory.
By scoring six touchdowns on gains of more than 30 yards, Indianapolis became the first team since 1966, before the AFL-NFL merger, to accomplish that feat. While the Colts entered the game with the league’s No. 1-ranked offense — and, in turn, the No. 1-ranked passing offense — exactly how the Redskins managed to flub so many plays was something those responsible for them couldn’t grasp nearly a full day later.
“There’s a thousand other plays during the season when we’re all on the same page and nothing’s wrong, you know?” said cornerback David Amerson, who was involved in the lapses of coverage on at least three of those long touchdown passes. “But the two or three times it happens, and they go for it deep and go for 21 points, it’s all, ‘It’s Week 13. What’s going on? Why is it not together?’ It’s not that. I mean, we’re human. We make mistakes. We’ve got to fix that at the end of the day, but that’s just what happened [on Sunday].”
Already undermanned because of a rash of injuries this season, the Redskins sustained two additional losses in the secondary on Sunday, with strong safety Brandon Meriweather spraining one of his big toes and cornerback Chase Minnifield sustaining a concussion.
That left Thomas and Greg Ducre, who began the season on San Diego’s practice squad, to play alongside two young starting cornerbacks — Amerson, in his second season, and Bashaud Breeland, a rookie — and an experienced free safety in Ryan Clark, who is in his 13th season.
Such inexperience, though, isn’t an excuse for what transpired. Several of the mistakes were significant elementary mental lapses, such as early in the third quarter, when Amerson stepped toward wide receiver Hakeem Nicks near the right flat instead of dropping back on Moncrief.
In a Cover-3 look, taking care of Moncrief, who ran a fly out of the right slot, is Amerson’s responsibility. Instead, he was tantalized by Nicks, who was already being shadowed by Breeland, and allowed Moncrief to jaunt 48 yards into the end zone, with Amerson throwing up his arms in surrender as the wide receiver crossed the goal line.
Even on Moncrief’s second touchdown, the 79-yarder, a mental breakdown was to blame. Amerson was on Moncrief at the line of scrimmage, but he was fooled by a move immediately upon the snap and couldn’t recover. Thomas, meanwhile, should have been in position to help the cornerback, but he was too far to the right, lured by wide receiver T.Y. Hilton as he ran out toward the sideline 15 yards downfield.
“We’re playing against a heck of a quarterback and the No. 1 offense in the league,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said Monday. “I expected them to make their plays. I didn’t expect them to waltz down the field and have guys 30 yards wide open on three or four occasions and us to miss tackles.
“We expect to make them work for every yard they get, and if they get yards, fine, but we don’t want to give them anything. I felt like we just gave them too many yards — too many easy yards.”
Clark, speaking after the game Sunday, suggested that a lack of communication in the defensive backfield was the team’s biggest problem. If players were more clearly made aware of their specific responsibilities before the snap, he theorized, they’d be in better position once the play began and could more adequately react to what the offense was running.
Even that seemed to be a divisive issue among the other defensive backs Monday morning. While several said that they had not yet watched the film of the game to isolate and address specific errors, Amerson and Meriweather said the communication between players was not the reason for the breakdowns.
Breeland, though, believed it was, calling it “basically the biggest thing” that held the Redskins back. The lack of familiarity between the defensive backs after Meriweather left the game played into that.
“We’ve got DBs dropping here and there, so it’s like, we’ve got guys dropping in and chemistry is really not there,” Breeland said. “The coaches have got to coach on the fly, so it’s hard for players who have been out there to really get accustomed to playing with somebody that they haven’t been playing with all year.”
Amerson, who passionately defended his teammates’ effort on Monday, played nearly two-thirds of all defensive snaps last season as a rookie. Breeland, thrust into a starting role when DeAngelo Hall tore his left Achilles’ tendon in a Week 3 loss at Philadelphia, has now been on the field for 85 percent of the defensive snaps during his first season.
In the long term, these mistakes should prove useful for the young players, who are penciled in as starters for the next several seasons. Gruden, however, is troubled that such rudimentary mix-ups have popped up more than halfway through the schedule, and he suggested Monday that if they don’t desist, “we’ve got to make some moves.”
“They’ve got to continue to do their job,” Gruden said. “We’ve just got to continue to coach them to do their job right.”