LANDOVER — Three observations from the Washington Redskins’ 21-17 victory over the Detroit Lions in a preseason game on Thursday:
1. The offensive line did not have a good day.
The loss of left tackle Trent Williams, who sat out the game after experiencing soreness in his right foot, shouldn’t have meant as much as it did. The Redskins installed Willie Smith, the undrafted free agent who made the team in 2011 and returned earlier this summer, and figured that he’d be able to pick up where Williams left off.
That alone showed how much of an impact Williams, a perennial Pro Bowler, can have. Smith struggled to hold back defensive end Ezekiel Ansah on the Lions’ first sack of the evening, when rookie right guard Brandon Scherff was bull rushed and Robert Griffin III, trying to move to his left to escape the pressure, walked right into Ansah’s arms. Smith was also pushed back on the second sack, while at the same time, the inside of the pocket collapsed, leaving the quarterback no room to run.
Recognizing the struggles, the coaches tried to put Griffin in position to get rid of the ball quicker, but that also failed to work. On one third-and-2 pass attempt, Griffin took a three-step drop and attempted to fire the ball to wide receiver Pierre Garçon, but an apparent miscommunication between Smith and left guard Shawn Lauvao left the two linemen to block the same defender and allowed defensive end Phillip Hunt to run, scot-free, at Griffin for a pulverizing hit.
Smith has struggled in training camp, and he was a longshot to make the team. More concerning, though, is the play of the right side of the line — especially with Scherff. The rookie is still adjusting to the speed of the game, the position change and the move to the right side, but being bullrushed by defensive tackle Tyrunn Walker, who has started one game in his previous three seasons, on the first pass attempt of the game shows just how much Scherff needs to learn.
2. With Griffin, the Redskins can’t have it both ways.
After Griffin threw just eight passes in the preseason opener against the Cleveland Browns, it seemed logical for the Redskins to trot him out there for a longer stretch and allow him the chance to develop the rhythm and feel for the game he spoke about wanting after practice on Tuesday.
The problem was, even though Griffin was getting hammered — some of the issues were on him, others were on his protection — he couldn’t be afforded the ability to make progress without the additional snaps. Griffin threw just five passes against the Lions, making two throws on third down, throwing a quick hitch, mixing in a play-action pass and finding a checkdown.
Was it smart for Griffin to return to the game for a fourth series late in the first quarter, when he had already taken a sack and been hit three times? Considering his injury history, probably not. At some point, though, the bubble wrap needed to be removed, and Griffin needed to be able to show however much progress he’s made in a game with a live defense. The most unfortunate part is that if he’s not cleared to return from his concussion by mid-week, he won’t be able to do it next week against the Baltimore Ravens, either.
3. The running game will have to be the focus.
This was going to be true anyway, especially with Griffin’s inconsistency, but it holds true. Alfred Morris picked up 10 yards on three carries — one of them for 10 yards, all on the first series — before making way for Chris Thompson, Matt Jones and Trey Williams. With the three youngsters, the position appears to be in good hands.
Thompson, the most experienced of the three, handled a third-down role with the first team and had five carries for 37 yards, including a 19-yard burst in the third quarter. He’s determined to show that, at 5-foot-8 and 193 pounds, the lack of size that should hold him back from being an adequate pass protector can be overcome with strong technique and fundamentals.
Jones, the third-round pick out of Florida, was given the first extended opportunity behind Morris, and his punishing, downhill style adds something the Redskins haven’t had in several years. He’s hard to take down on first contact, and, as he showed on his 24-yard run in the second quarter, he’s got some giddy-up.
Williams, undrafted out of Texas A&M, was lauded by Kirk Cousins for his ability to cut without losing speed. He wasn’t touched at the line of scrimmage on his 30-yard run in the third quarter, but he needs to be decisive and see the hole as it develops; a few of his 10 carries went for negligible gain because he danced in the backfield.