CLEVELAND — Three observations from the Washington Redskins’ 20-17 victory over the Cleveland Browns in their preseason opener on Thursday:
1. The tight end situation is a mess.
Whatever mood players felt after the game, albeit one that started the preseason, was dampened with the news that tight Niles Paul had broken his left ankle and is likely out for the season. Paul was blocking Browns outside linebacker Paul Kruger in the first quarter when he was hit by inside linebacker Craig Robertson, causing his ankle to bend inward.
Paul is considered a leader in the locker room, especially on special teams — a unit he has been a part of since entering the league as a wide receiver in 2011. Players appreciated that he worked to earn what he received; he was slotted as the Redskins’ top tight end entering the season, and he recently signed a three-year, $6 million contract.
His loss will further muddy a position that had already been ravaged by injuries in the opening days of training camp. Logan Paulsen injured his right big toe in practice on Aug. 6 and Jordan Reed strained a hamstring on Monday, leaving neither available to face the Browns.
Paulsen traveled to visit Dr. Robert Anderson, a foot and ankle specialist, on Tuesday, with his availability still uncertain. Gruden conceded after the game that it’s possible Paulsen could miss the season as well.
The absence of the top three players led to Je’Ron Hamm and Chase Dixon, who spent a stretch of last season on the Redskins’ practice squad, and Devin Mahina, an undrafted rookie out of BYU, as the only healthy players for the rest of the game. (Hamm later left after getting poked in the left eye.) The Redskins will likely have to look elsewhere for help — but there aren’t many proven players at the position available at this stage and may have to wait to pick someone up from the scrap heap when the preseason ends.
2. Robert Griffin III was sufficient.
The quarterback didn’t play the greatest game, taking only 18 snaps and going 4-for-8 for 36 yards while appearing exclusively in the first quarter. Had he connected with wide receiver Pierre Garçon on what would have likely been a 61-yard touchdown pass on the first series, those numbers would pop quite a bit more.
He had his moments, including hitting Ryan Grant on a crossing route on his first attempt and scampering for three yards on a third-and-2 that gave the Redskins a first down. The deep throw to Garçon wasn’t the greatest — the wide receiver had to adjust a little bit, but it’s a catch he needs to make — and he also was nearly intercepted on the next pass, an attempt to rookie Evan Spencer at the sticks that sailed a bit high.
What stands out more, though, are the failed jump-ball attempts to Garçon in the end zone on the second drive. Griffin simply air-mailed the first one on second-and-6 from the Browns’ 14-yard line; it had no chance of ending in Garçon’s mitts. On the other, Griffin was forced out of the pocket and tried Garçon again, but the pass was also uncatchable.
3. Special teams remains a debacle.
Jamison Crowder, a fourth-round rookie out of Duke, looked better and better as a potential fit as a punt returner — and he didn’t even play against the Browns because of a hamstring injury.
Andre Roberts, who held that role last season and was not at all productive, fumbled away his only attempt on Thursday, while Chris Thompson, given that opportunity as a rookie two years ago, let one punt bounce near the 15-yard line before snagging it and taking it for a nine-yard gain.
There was also the terrible coverage gaffe to open the second half, with Darius Jennings returning the opening kickoff 54 yards before he was brought down by inside linebacker Alonzo Highsmith.
One bright spot: Kai Forbath, who hasn’t been particularly reliable during training camp, made both of his field goal attempts — sinking one from 33 yards in the first quarter and one from 52 yards in the second quarter. The 52-yard conversion would have been a career long had it not been a preseason game.