ASHBURN, Va. -- One week it works and life is good for the Washington Redskins. Like it did against the Chicago Bears. A pass, or two, avoided trouble, found a Redskins player and good things happened. Robert Griffin III threw with a better rhythm. Receivers made plays. The line provided protection.
They scored 45 points. Griffin and the offense looked revived.
A week later? No rhythm; dropped passes; missed throws and pressure in the pocket.
They scored 14 points. Griffin and the offense need to be revived.
One (big) reason for the inconsistency of the Redskins offense is a passing game that is turning the ball over more than last year (10 interceptions, including eight by Griffin compared to eight all of last season).
“We’re definitely not where we want to be in any part of the game, but especially in the pass game,” Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said.
Griffin is completing just 26.2 percent of his passes 15 yards or more downfield, averaging 7.0 yards per attempt with two touchdowns and four interceptions -- and a QBR of 8.5. Last year he completed 57.6 percent of such throws, averaged 17.1 yards per attempt, tossed eight touchdowns to two interceptions and had a QBR of 99.8.
“We’re getting closer, but it’s not where it needs to be,” Redskins receiver Pierre Garcon said. “It’s communication and seeing the same things on the field.”
Here’s what’s changed since last season -- and why the Redskins have struggled:
In the last game of the 2012 regular season, the Dallas Cowboys changed how they defended the Washington passing game. They opted for more man coverage; they rotated a safety into the intermediate middle. And they stopped the Redskins’ bread-and-butter intermediate game, taking away their favored dig routes off zone-read play-action.
It’s not that everyone is doing that these days, but the Broncos did it at times Sunday. Other teams have as well. Shanahan said more teams are playing quarters coverage, in which a defensive back is assigned a deep quarter of the field, taking away deep routes the Redskins liked to run and forcing more outside throws; Griffin excelled throwing down the middle last season. Even if it's a favorable coverage, teams have a better feel for this passing game.
“They recognize the concept quicker so even though the guy is open, it’s a quicker window,” tight end Logan Paulsen said. “They say, ‘I’ve seen this on tape 20 times so let me get under it because I know what he’s doing.’ ”
But a number of players say the passing game concepts shouldn’t be stopped just because they’re facing different defenses. Indeed, there were several missed opportunities last week – open receivers not thrown to; passes dropped; protection breakdowns. Those are individual mistakes, not scheme-related. Still, different schemes have made it tougher for a team with a still-maturing passer.
The zone-read fake, for example, now consists of throwing more deep outs rather than inside breaking routes, which are quicker. That means the protection must hold up longer.
“We’ve been in situations where defenses take a certain type of play away, more of an easy play, and you’ve got to do the harder play,” Shanahan said. “You have to keep doing it until you can execute and get them out of something that you’re struggling against.”
The Redskins excelled at play-action throws last year, ranking first in both yards per attempt (11.85) and yards per game (118.5). This year? They’re sixth in yards per game (68) and 23rd in yards per attempt (6.70). Playing more from behind without a novelty offense has hurt these numbers.
“That’s reflected in our inconsistency running the ball,” Paulsen said. “We’re not quite as dominant as we were last year in the last seven games. So much of what we do is based off play-action so when that’s not 100 percent clicking in the run game, that’s not quite as good.”
The play-action is tied in part to Griffin’s ability to run and be a triple threat: he could hand off, keep it or throw. That led to defensive players scrambling when they realized it was a pass. That created gaps in coverage the Redskins exploited. With Griffin’s legs less of a threat in most games this season, defenses have played more man coverage. That hasn’t led to big pass plays.
“It’s all about what we did with Robert,” Redskins receiver Santana Moss said. “Robert was new to this league and a lot of things he did wowed people because they didn’t know what the hell was going on. They didn’t know if he’d tuck it or run it so the defense sits back and says we’ve got to find a way to prevent him from doing that. When he’s doing that then everything’s wide open. But when he’s not we have to be more creative and say, Hey, let’s find a way to beat them without having to run Robert and do the things we did last year.”
The problem, too, is that the Redskins built their game in part around Griffin’s running. Griffin missing the offseason hurt his, and the offense’s, ability to evolve.
“If you have a perfect, drop-back offense where you have a Peyton Manning and a Tom Brady and a Drew Brees offense, where that’s all we did, then you can do that year in and year out because you can’t stop them,” Moss said.
The Redskins don’t have that style of game. So changes in defensive schemes against a modified version of the quarterback makes for a tough transition.
“It’s not too late for all that to happen for us,” Moss said. “Right now this early in the season Robert’s getting a feel for things. I can see him improving each week, running better, throwing better. We’ll get on eventually and when we get on, we can sit back and talk about how long it took.”