NFC East: madieu williams

The Redskins knew Tanard Jackson would be reinstated soon. What they don’t know is how much help he can provide. For the time being, he’s considered a bonus. If he works out, that’s great. If not, they won’t be harmed.

As long as the Redskins continue to take that approach, they can’t be let down -- as they were two years ago. But it also should not, and will not, alter their plans on draft day. One team source said there's nothing they will or won't do based on Jackson.

While I’ve heard they view Jackson as likely being more productive than a rookie would be, it’s tough to really know that considering how little he has played lately. He has missed two straight seasons and has played in only 10 games since 2010.

So if a safety they like a lot somehow falls to them at No. 34, then the Redskins would and should draft him. Of course, that assumes they like that safety over a handful of other spots they'd like to address. It would be a serious mistake -- and a big leap of faith -- to pass on someone just because Jackson has been reinstated. The previous time they counted on him, it left them with Madieu Williams as the starting free safety.

At least now they have Ryan Clark ahead of him. But they still need more at this position, especially if the young safeties don’t develop.

Jackson was just starting to play really well, albeit in preseason, when the NFL suspended him in 2012. But he was active and all over the field and definitely looked like a player who would help. I remember talking to him about how well he was doing and how he was starting to look like his old self -- pre-shoulder injury, pre-suspensions. But he also was more subdued than I would have expected for a guy rounding into form. A couple of days later I learned why: I had spoken to him before he had been suspended (something that had been in the works for a while).

The Redskins have been able to plan for a little while for Jackson’s reinstatement -- it was not a secret that this was a possibility -- but there are still so many unanswered questions.

What sort of shape is he in? CSN Washington’s Rob Carlin spoke with Jackson about this in the fall. Still, it’s hard on anyone to be away this long and still be in the sort of shape necessary to play in the NFL. How much of the defense has he retained? This isn’t a huge deal because he’ll have plenty of time to learn. The Redskins have added to their defense since Jackson was suspended, but again, there’s plenty of time. It helps that he'll have the same defensive bosses: Jim Haslett and Raheem Morris, the latter of whom also coached Jackson in Tampa Bay.

Can he stay clean this time? Of all these questions, this is the only one Jackson should truly be worried about, given his history.

And one more: Can he still play? Another question that can’t be answered anytime soon. It’s not just about the seasons missed, it’s about the training, being around the game, sitting in meetings and working out in the offseason. Jackson turns 29 in July, so he’s still in his prime, albeit late. But this is a lot to overcome.

The Redskins aren’t expecting much from Jackson. That’s the best approach to take. Anything they get would then be a bonus.
The ESPN Stats & Information group has compiled some "next-level" numbers to help illustrate the most significant draft needs for NFL teams. We're taking a team-by-team look at their information on the NFC East's teams, and this post deals with the defending division champion Washington Redskins, whose top needs have been identified as cornerback/safety and offensive line.

Now, the notes we got from Stats & Info were based on the fact that two of the Redskins' starting offensive linemen, Kory Lichtensteiger and Tyler Polumbus, were free agents. Both have re-signed, which reduces the importance of offensive line as a need for a Redskins team that has no first-round draft pick. I expect them to focus on the secondary when they finally get to picking in the second round 11 days from now.

Stats & Info points out that the Redskins have allowed the most touchdown passes in the league (29) over the past two seasons on throws of 15 or more yards downfield. They also rank 23rd in the league in completion percentage allowed on such throws (46.6 percent) and 30th in yards per attempt on such throws (13.8). They hope to have starting strong safety Brandon Meriweather back from his season-ending injury, but they will need to replace disappointing free safety Madieu Williams, and that's likely to be a focus of theirs in the early rounds of the draft.

The Redskins also could be looking for a cornerback in the second or third round. They were able to re-sign DeAngelo Hall, but they lost out to Seattle in their pursuit of free-agent cornerback Antoine Winfield and are clearly looking to add depth at that position.
Mike Jones of the Washington Post takes a look at Washington Redskins safety Brandon Meriweather and wonders whether the Redskins can count on him for a return to full health and productivity in 2013.

Meriweather was the team's big defensive free agent last year, but injuries cost him all but one game and he never got to show the kind of impact he could have on the defense. Mike Shanahan looked at Meriweather as a player whose physical abilities would allow him to play multiple parts in his defense, including run support and blitz packages. The question now is whether Shanahan can reasonably make the same assessment of Meriweather one injury-riddled year later:
It remains to be seen what kind of player Meriweather will be when he recovers. Will he still have the same speed and explosiveness that made him a playmaker in New England? Or, will he struggle with consistency as he did in Chicago, where he wound up benched after only four games?

Meriweather has said repeatedly that the style and philosophy of Jim Haslett’s defense more closely resembles those of the Patriots, and he doesn’t believe his Chicago struggles will repeat themselves in D.C. But a knee that is slow to heal, or one that reduces Meriweather to a lesser player, will prolong the Redskins’ long-standing issues at safety.

As Mike points out later, the Redskins are already on the hunt for a free safety to replace the disappointing Madieu Williams. Tanard Jackson's drug suspension runs at least through August, so they can't expect to have him. My guess is that they will keep Meriweather in the hopes that he makes a full recovery and can be the player they believed he would be. He's costing them about $2.9 million against the salary cap in 2013, and with their salary-cap problems having to find two safeties on the free-agent market might be too expensive. I imagine they'll find Williams' replacement on the open market and then hope Meriweather makes it back. They also could target safety with their second-round draft pick (they don't have a first-rounder), since there appears to be many good options in the draft this year.

But if I'm the Redskins, I'm looking for free safety and operating as though I have my strong safety on the team already. Not an ideal situation given the concerns Mike laid out about Meriweather, but when you're out $18 million in cap room you don't get your ideal situations. I imagine Shanahan will hope he gets Meriweather back, but if he finds someone in the late rounds who reminds him of Meriweather, don't be surprised if Shanahan takes him.

Chat wrap: The Giants' new running game

February, 13, 2013
On Tuesday, we held our weekly NFC East chat. This is a link to the full transcript. These are some of the questions and some of the answers. Enjoy.

Gary (New York City): Dan, the one thing the Giants will REALLY miss about Ahmad Bradshaw was his ability to pass block. David Wilson and Andre Brown are both sorely lacking in that department. Do you think that convinces Jerry Reese to make the OL more of a priority high in the draft?

Dan Graziano: Possible, but I think the more likely scenario is that they bring running backs to camp who can pick up the blitz, and running back playing time is in large part determined by the backs' relative ability to do so. David Wilson is a lot of fun to watch run, but if the Giants think giving Wilson the bulk of the snaps is going to get Manning killed, they're not going to do it.

Weech (SoCal): You're of mindset that Doug Free falls under the addition by subtraction, which I agree with. I would argue that with the change to a 4-3, the DL goes ahead of the OL as need #1. Looking at it purely from a football x's and o's standpoint, do you think Ratliff gets out of "addition by subtraction" umbrella? It seems like Dallas needs him more than vice versa.

DG: I hear what you're saying, and if they can't keep Anthony Spencer you are probably right about the change in priorities. To me, though, the really tricky part happens if they lose Spencer AND cut Jay Ratliff. Because if they keep Ratliff, they can play Jason Hatcher at end and look for a tackle. And if they keep Spencer, they can play Hatcher at tackle and look for an end. But if they end up losing both, they have too many holes. So I think Ratliff becomes more important to keep if Spencer leaves.

Jason (Philadelphia, PA): Dan, hate to be the bearer of bad news (or reality), but the NFL has proven throughout its history that "innovative" coaches (college or NFL) fail without great players - the Eagles currently lack great players on defense, so "hoping for the best" aint going to cut it.

DG: Well, I think they lack defensive backs, but I think there's some pretty major talent in the front seven. Cole, Graham, Kendricks, Ryans, Cox. Jenkins if they keep him. There's a lot to work with on defense, in my opinion. They just need to figure out how to fit it all together, and build a secondary behind it.

GM (Miami): Dan, you have expressed the opinion that northern superbowls are bad ideas because it isn't just about the superbowl but about the week of events before the superbowl. Does New York turn into a ghost town in the winter? People still are out and about during the week, they just need heavier clothes. The only useful thing about having the superbowl in warm climates is that it renders teams that can play well in the snow and cold at a disadvantage - we might as well move all the teams to the south so that every single NFL operation is conducted in nice weather.

DG: My point is this, and it's actually pretty simple: Super Bowl week is the NFL's biggest week of the year. People come from all over the world, literally, and many of them are people the NFL wants/needs to impress or spoil. Yes, you can get around here in the winter, but the possibility also exists for a weekend like the one we just had, when you really could not. Why would the NFL want to increase the possibility of such a problem with its most important week? To me, not worth the risk.

Ryan (VA): The Skins spent a lot of money on the offense last year to get RGIII some help. Even though the defense played better as the year when on, which players do you see them targeting? The really need some help @ safety.

DG: I think they will target safeties in free agency and the draft, but Brandon Meriweather is definitely part of their plan at strong safety. They will hope for a healthy return from him, since they believe he can do many things in the defensive scheme they want to run. They'll still need someone at free safety, and I wonder if this George Wilson who just got released from Buffalo works as a veteran leader type. Though they tried the vet-leader direction last year with Madieu Williams and he kind of couldn't play.

As always, I enjoyed it. See you next week.
Hey, we didn't do a Twitter mailbag last week because I was taking a long weekend. That's on me. But we're back up and running this week. Remember, you can send in a question at any time of the week on Twitter just by using the hashtag #nfceastmail. You do not have to wait until I ask. Here are some examples from this week.

@ourfamily385: Dan, which should the Cowboys concentrate on first and more often in the draft, OL or DL?

@ESPN_NFCEast: Two weeks ago, if asked this question about the Dallas Cowboys, I'd have said offensive line without hesitating. However, with the hiring of Monte Kiffin as defensive coordinator signaling a change to a 4-3 defensive alignment, there are circumstances brewing that could make defensive line the correct answer. Anthony Spencer is going to be a difficult re-sign for the Cowboys given their salary-cap issues, and if he goes elsewhere, a pass-rushing defensive end to play on the side opposite DeMarcus Ware becomes the biggest need on the entire team. There are some who worry that Ware won't be as dominant a player with his hand on the ground as he was as a 3-4 outside linebacker, and he's shown serious signs of wear each of the past two seasons. If defenses don't have anyone to worry about on the other side, it's hard to see how Kiffin could get the pressure he needs to get on opposing quarterbacks from his down linemen. Now, none of this means the Cowboys don't have serious needs at guard, tackle and center. They do. But in terms of a first-round pick, losing Spencer might force them to focus on a pass-rushing lineman.

@paulzuk_81: Ideas on how the redskins can rebuild their mediocre secondary?

@ESPN_NFCEast: We discussed this on the blog the other day, and I think the biggest need for the Washington Redskins is at safety. They like the way Brandon Meriweather fits the strong safety spot in their system, but he's coming off a season's worth of knee injuries, and they might not be able to count on him. And they need to upgrade from Madieu Williams at free safety. So I think they need to get a safety in free agency (Pittsburgh's Ryan Mundy feels like a realistic name who'd be a fit) and seriously think about one with one of their first couple of draft picks. They could find a starting-caliber safety in the second or third round, especially if they think Meriweather's going to come back healthy and the pick has time to develop. We also raised the idea of cornerback DeAngelo Hall moving to free safety, which I think could work if he's up for it and will take a pay cut. That would create a need at cornerback, but they kind of need to upgrade from Hall there anyway.

@EricLB52: Do you think the eagles will do the switch to a 3-4 D-front? If so, you think they have the right personnel to do it?

@ESPN_NFCEast: Other than what new Philadelphia Eagles coach Chip Kelly said in his introductory news conference, everything I have heard since he got hired has said he wants to run a 3-4 defense. And since the things coaches say in news conferences are not always true, I am inclined to believe the other sources. However, I do not think in any way that they have the right personnel to do it. Trent Cole and Brandon Graham would become stand-up outside linebackers, and we have no proof either could make that transition smoothly. Fletcher Cox and Cullen Jenkins would become 3-4 defensive ends, which would probably be fine, but they'd need a nose tackle. Middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans, who was the best defensive player the Eagles had in 2012, was a poor fit in the 3-4 in Houston, which is why the Eagles were able to get him so cheaply. Basically I don't see how anyone in the Eagles' front seven would benefit from the change. Some might surprise and make it smoothly, but I don't think it makes any of them better. Also, a change like this likely would take at least two years before it worked effectively, as recent examples in places like Green Bay and Washington have shown. Do the Eagles and their fans have the patience to wait and suffer through the inevitable first-year struggles?

@EAZY41: What is the single biggest area that the Giants must shore up going into next season?

@ESPN_NFCEast: The New York Giants have a lot of areas to address this offseason, including the offensive line, running back, safety and cornerback. They have contract issues with several of their current players at those positions that must be resolved before they can determine what they need to do in free agency and the draft. But in a vacuum, I think their biggest position of need is linebacker. This is not an area the Giants have made a high priority in recent years, and if you asked them they might tell you cornerback and defensive line are more important areas of current concern. But inconsistent linebacker play was a problem this season, Chase Blackburn and Keith Rivers are unrestricted free agents and Michael Boley could be a salary-cap casualty. The three guys who were rookies during the Super Bowl season -- Mark Herzlich, Jacquian Williams and Spencer Paysinger, each have shown flashes, but might not be ready to start. Mathias Kiwanuka could have to move back up to defensive end full-time with the presumed free-agent departure of Osi Umenyiora. I think they need a leader and a thumper at the middle linebacker spot, and in limited duty so far Herzlich has not shown the ability to be that at the NFL level. Maybe he will, but if I were the Giants I'd be on the lookout for some proven help for at least one of my three starting linebacker spots.

Thanks for all of the questions.
I know this wasn't your game, Washington Redskins fans, but if you happened to see the third-to-last play of the Cowboys-Panthers game Sunday (maybe it came on your TV after the Giants-Redskins game ended, and you caught a glimpse), the Cowboys' defense showed you what's supposed to happen on a deep, desperate, downfield late-game throw. Cam Newton hauled off on second-and-10 from his own 46 and threw deep to Brandon LaFell down the right sideline. LaFell was double-covered, the way the Cowboys wanted him to be -- the cornerback trailing, the safety over the top creating a too-tight window. The pass fell incomplete. Two plays later, having held their lead, the Cowboys had won the game.

[+] EnlargeVictor Cruz
Elsa/Getty ImagesVictor Cruz got behind the Washington secondary for the game-winning touchdown on Sunday.
Now, I'm sure you feel like bringing up the Cowboys, of all teams, is just rubbing salt in the wound. But that happened to be the other game I watched in detail from Sunday, and it happens to be a perfect example of what the Redskins weren't able to do to seal their victory over the Giants. Up three points with less than a minute and a half to go, knowing Eli Manning needed to go 77 yards to win the game and would need to hit some big plays in order to do it, the Redskins called for double-coverage on Manning's top two wide receivers -- Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks. This was the correct defensive call by the coaching staff.

What the coaching staff did not do is actually go out and cover the receivers themselves. And unfortunately for them, neither did the defensive backs assigned to Cruz. Cornerback Josh Wilson let Cruz get behind him, which he never should have done at that spot on the field. And safety Madieu Williams, astoundingly, did the same. So when Manning's pass found Cruz, the only hope either Redskin had was to catch him. And there was no chance of that happening.

So to those calling for the firing of defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, I pose this question: Who do you propose as his replacement, and would that person somehow be able to make Madieu Williams a better NFL safety?

Of course he wouldn't.

The Redskins' secondary is a wreck. The two players they hoped would start for them at safety haven't played a single snap this season. Tanard Jackson got hit with a season-long drug suspension on cutdown day, and Brandon Meriweather has suffered through a series of injuries that have delayed his Redskins debut until some time in the future. That means their best safety is Williams, who's a really good guy and gets the defense but doesn't have the physical skills at this point in his career to actually play it. The rest of the safety crew is Reed Doughty, DeJon Gomes and Jordan Pugh. What this means is, when you call for double coverage at the end of a game like this and you're assigning a safety as part of that against one of the best receivers in the league, you're not working with top-level options.

At cornerback, Wilson is the Redskins' best player right now. And he's having a fine season for them. But he's not the kind of cornerback who's going to scare teams away from throwing to his side or targeting his man. So when he plays against the better passing attacks, he's probably going to give up a big play every now and then. It is what it is. If Wilson's your No. 2 cornerback, that's probably okay. If he's your No. 1, you have a personnel problem. DeAngelo Hall struggles so much in man coverage that they've been trying to hide him inside, even play him at safety every now and then. Cedric Griffin hasn't shown much. Richard Crawford and Jordan Bernstine are kids.

Now, this could be construed as an excuse for Haslett -- he's got nothing with which to work, so what's he supposed to do? But I think that's oversimplifying the argument, and I would actually take it further. I think that Haslett has actually been doing a remarkable job of coaching the Redskins' defense this year, and that he should be commended for what he's actually accomplished in spite of such extreme personnel deficiencies in the secondary.

Whatever success the Redskins' defense has had from week to week (and it has had some, including a three-interception game against Matt Ryan and the Falcons a couple of weeks ago) has been the result of extremely complex scheming and play calling by the coaching staff. Haslett has been mixing up pre-snap looks and post-snap coverages, moving linebackers into coverage, sacrificing pass rush in order to help on the back end where it's been called for. While they still give up far too many points, the Redskins have been able to make plays to keep themselves in the game against teams like Atlanta and Minnesota, and given what they have on the back end in terms of players, I think that's a testament to the job Haslett is doing calling their plays. It's why I think the return of Meriweather (whenever that happens) will help. Because while Meriweather's not great in coverage, he can help in blitz packages and play the run and do a number of things that will help the Redskins continue to scheme creatively, which they'll have to do every week in order to have a chance on defense.

I know this isn't a popular point of view, and I know it's easy to yell "fire the coach" when things aren't going well. But I submit that, when a defensive coordinator calls for double coverage on a wide receiver, he's expecting at least one of the men assigned to the play to keep himself between that receiver and the end zone. And if the six-year or nine-year veteran to whom that assignment was given can't even do that much, I'm not sure how changing defensive coordinators can fix a problem like that.

Eli Manning shows RG3 how it's done

October, 21, 2012
ManningWilliams Perlman/US PresswireGiants QB Eli Manning connected with Victor Cruz on a 77-yard TD throw with 1:13 left in the game.

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Justin Tuck has seen the future, and to his extreme disappointment, its name is Robert Griffin III.

"I'm pretty mad at the football gods for putting him in the NFC East," the New York Giants' star defensive end said after his first game against the Washington Redskins' electric rookie quarterback. "To face that guy twice a year is definitely going to be a headache. He takes away from your enthusiasm for the game a little bit."

Yes, the Giants were rattled and dazzled and thoroughly impressed by a rookie phenom who is accomplishing the nearly impossible feat of living up to his own hype. But not even Griffin could completely wreck Tuck's enthusiasm for Sunday's game. Because despite a brilliant fourth-quarter drive that gave the Redskins the lead with a minute and a half left in the game, Giants quarterback Eli Manning one-upped the rookie. Manning's 77-yard touchdown pass to Victor Cruz with 1:13 left to go delivered a 27-23 victory, widened New York's lead atop the NFC East and showed Griffin and the Redskins that, as much fun as they're having right now, they still have a ways to go.

"Right now, he's the best," Redskins cornerback Josh Wilson said of Manning. "He won this one. The guy made a heck of a throw, caught his man in stride, just made a play."

One more play than the Redskins were able to make to stop him. At the end of a tough day against a team that had bedeviled him for the third time in two seasons, Manning found Cruz in something the Redskins were calling double coverage and put the throw of the game right on the money. Wilson dove, and missed, as Cruz sprinted past him and safety Madieu Williams bound for the end zone.

"Looking at the back of 80's heels there at the end," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. "Holy cow, what a great feeling that was."

It was one of tremendous relief for the Giants, who a few moments earlier were staring at the very real possibility of falling to 0-3 in the division and losing to the Redskins for the third time in 14 months. As brilliant and tough as the Giants were seven days earlier in San Francisco, they were wobbly in this one. The defense allowed 248 rushing yards and 480 total yards. They allowed the Redskins to convert all three of their fourth-down attempts, including a circus act by Griffin on fourth-and-10 at the two-minute warning on which he eluded Jason Pierre-Paul and found tight end Logan Paulsen for 19 yards. As the final moments dwindled, it appeared as though Griffin's coming-out party against the Super Bowl champs would be the story of this game, as he impressed his opponents and inspired his teammates.

[+] EnlargeRobert Griffin III
Chris Faytok/US PresswireThe heroics of Robert Griffin III keep the Redskins in every game, but Washington isn't a serious contender in the NFC East yet.
"It wasn't easy for him out there today, and you still look what he did," Redskins receiver Santana Moss said of Griffin, who went 20-for-28 for 258 yards and two touchdowns and added 89 rushing yards on nine carries. "When you have a guy that gives you an opportunity every time, even when it's hard, that's a blessing. There aren't a lot of guys who can do the things he does."

The Giants have a guy, however, who can do some pretty special things, too. The Giants' quarterback has two Super Bowl MVP trophies to his credit, and such a demonstrated knack for late-game heroics that it's not even a surprise anymore when he and Cruz pull a 77-yard rabbit out of a fourth-quarter hat.

"I don't think anybody was surprised by it, which is crazy," Tuck said. "It's getting old, being in that situation. I would rather have us in the victory formation than have him having to throw 77 yards to Cruz. But that's the excitement that is New York Giants football."

"He's like Joe Montana right now," former Giant and current Redskins nose tackle Barry Cofield said of Manning. "There's no quit in him."

Said Manning: "Something we've been really good at over the years is the two-minute drive when the game's on the line and making plays when we need to make plays."

Having done it again, Manning and the 5-2 Giants find themselves in first place by two games as they head to Dallas next week to try to avenge the season-opening loss the Cowboys handed them here in early September. The Redskins find themselves a disappointed 3-4, with all four of their losses having come by a touchdown or less. Griffin is the reason they feel they can win any game they play, but their inability to win this one speaks to what's still missing in Washington.

As good a job as they've been doing designing schemes to cover personnel weaknesses in the secondary, those still exist, and they show up at inopportune times. As great as Griffin has been at finding a variety of receivers, his real big-play guy, Pierre Garcon, who showed in Washington's season-opening win in New Orleans that he can play that Victor Cruz role, is out with a foot injury. The Redskins can see what's special about who they're becoming and where they might be headed with Griffin at quarterback. But a game like this one, in which the Super Bowl champions rip your heart out in the final two minutes, serves as a reminder that the best stuff may still be a little ways off.

"I was pleased with the effort of our football team," Redskins coach Mike Shanahan said. "I thought it was a tough way to lose."

Griffin left his mark. Tuck said he'd take him over Michael Vick or Cam Newton if he were starting an offense. Osi Umenyiora called Griffin the best quarterback the Giants have played this year. Chris Canty said he was faster in person than on tape, and predicted that Griffin was going to have "a lot of success in this league." But in the end, even after the perfect 30-yard touchdown throw to Moss that put Washington ahead with a minute and a half to go, the Giants weren't worried.

"We have the best quarterback in the league," linebacker Michael Boley said.

And the Redskins knew it. Even though they'd limited Manning all day and intercepted him twice, they knew that seeing him with the ball in his hands was not what they wanted at that point in the game.

"We left a minute or so on the clock, and I guess that's too much with Eli," Redskins left tackle Trent Williams said. "Anytime he has the opportunity to come back or tie the game up, you know he's capable of making that throw to do it. That's why he is who he is right now."

Wrap-up: Redskins 38, Vikings 26

October, 14, 2012

A few thoughts on the Washington Redskins' first victory in their past nine home games Sunday over the Minnesota Vikings at FedEx Field.

What it means: That the Redskins are a .500 team and only one game behind the first-place Giants, whom they play next week in New Jersey. This was an impressive victory over a Minnesota team that came in 4-1 and playing very well, especially on the defensive front.

In RG3 they trust: Once again it was the rookie quarterback who led the Redskins, as Robert Griffin III rebounded from last week's concussion to throw for 182 yards and a touchdown on 17-for-22 passing and to rush for 139 yards and two touchdowns. Griffin's electrifying 76-yard fourth-quarter touchdown run, which came on a designed run play up the middle and with the help of a nice downfield block by wide receiver Josh Morgan, put the game away after the Vikings had cut it to 31-26 with 3:42 left on the clock.

Defensive star: Redskins coaches always rave about how valuable backup linebacker Lorenzo Alexander is, on special teams and as a willing and versatile utility player on defense. But with starters Brian Orakpo and Adam Carriker out for the year with injuries, a number of different players have been asked to do more. Alexander was all over the field for the Redskins on Sunday. Officially, he was credited with five tackles, including one for a loss, four quarterback hits and 1.5 sacks. Safety Madieu Williams had an interception return for a touchdown, and the way he's struggled, that was a big relief for him. But Alexander was the Redskins' defensive star of the game.

What's next: The Redskins will travel to East Rutherford, N.J., and play the New York Giants on Sunday afternoon. They beat the Giants twice last year, and if they beat them again Sunday, they will be in first place in the NFC East.

More bad news for Redskins' secondary

September, 5, 2012
So, a week ago, it looked as though the Washington Redskins' starting safeties for Sunday's season opener in New Orleans might be Brandon Meriweather and Tanard Jackson. While you might not have been overly thrilled with that pairing, you'd had a chance to get used to the idea that it could work.

Well, on Friday, the NFL announced that Jackson was suspended for a year for his latest violation of its drug policy. And on Wednesday, Redskins coach Mike Shanahan told reporters that Meriweather had sprained ligaments in his knee in Monday's practice and will miss 2-to-4 weeks.

The technical football term for this is "not good."

Madieu Williams is the likely starter at free safety, and Shanahan said DeJon Gomes could get the start at strong safety in Meriweather's place. (The other options are Reed Doughty and rookie Jordan Bernstine.) But regardless, one of the Redskins' thinnest positions is now much thinner. And their coverages will be affected by the issues with personnel at safety. The Redskins aren't overly strong at cornerback, either, but when they're at full strength they believe they can compensate for that weakness by not isolating their corners on receivers. They give them help, very often from safeties. Now, they have to worry about their safeties.

Like I said, not good.

On the bright side, it's not as though the quarterback they're facing Sunday is coming off a year in which he set NFL records for passing yards, completions, completion percentage and 300-yard passing games.

What's that?

I asked Washington Redskins coach Mike Shanahan about the team's safety position a couple of times this offseason -- once during minicamp and once during training camp. Each time, when we got to Tanard Jackson, Shanahan said the same thing. I'm paraphrasing here, but it was basically: Really good football player, but when you have a guy with his history, do you know if you can count on him? Jackson had two prior drug suspensions, and the Redskins were taking a chance because of his talent and his connection with their secondary coach, Raheem Morris, who'd been Jackson's head coach with the Buccaneers.

Well, Jackson appears to have let down Shanahan and the Redskins. The NFL has suspended Jackson for at least one year for another violation of its substance abuse policy. He will not be paid this year, and will not be eligible for reinstatement prior to Aug. 31, 2013.

Which is disappointing for the Redskins. Jackson was one of the stars of the show in the Redskins' preseason game against Indianpolis last weekend. He was filling in that day at strong safety for an injured Brandon Meriweather, but his own play and the lackluster performance so far of Madieu Williams had Jackson in line to possibly be the starter at free safety. Now, the Redskins are likely to go with Meriweather and Williams as the starters and DeJon Gomes, Reed Doughty and rookie Jordan Bernstine as the backups.

But while disappointing, this can't be counted as a surprise. As Shanahan indicated when we spoke about the guy, this always loomed in the background as a possibility. And when you hear coaches (Shanahan included) talk about wanting "high-character" players and players who can stay out of trouble off the field, this is why. Because the guys who have been in this kind of trouble tend not to be the kind of guys on whom you can rely.

Cautionary tale here, of course. The Redskins have two far more significant players, in left tackle Trent Williams and tight end Fred Davis, who were suspended four games for substance abuse violations last year and would get banned for a year if they were to be caught again. They're not likely to need this underlined, but a situation like this one surely gives them even more reason to keep themselves clean.
A year ago, Kevin Barnes was the Redskins' nickel cornerback. Today, he is no longer a Redskin. As part of their effort to reduce their roster to 75 players by Monday's 4 p.m. ET deadline, the Redskins have apparently traded Barnes to the Lions. (For what, we don't know. Can't possibly be much. Late-round pick is best guess.)

The Redskins didn't like the way Barnes played in the nickel corner role last year, and this spring they moved DeAngelo Hall in there and tried Barnes on the outside, where they thought his size made him a better fit. But he got passed on the depth chart by Richard Crawford, who played well and also contributed on special teams, and Barnes was about to be cut before the Redskins got the trade offer from the Lions. Crawford is now likely the No. 4 corner after Hall, Josh Wilson and Cedric Griffin, and there would seem to be little to prevent him from moving up the depth chart.

The Redskins' secondary is a weak spot on their team and a position of flux. They'll have two new starting safeties -- most likely Brandon Meriweather and either Tanard Jackson or Madieu Williams, and a obviously a reworked cornerback corps, and they'll rely on their coverage schemes to disguise weaknesses and move people (such as Hall) around to different roles as situations dictate. But it's also clear that younger guys on the roster -- like Crawford at corner and DeJon Gomes at safety -- will have a chance to move up the depth chart if they perform well. The Redskins are looking for people to show them something on the back end of their defense, and Barnes is a guy who didn't show enough.

Observation deck: Colts-Redskins

August, 25, 2012
The story of the day in the NFL preseason was the game between the Washington Redskins and the Indianapolis Colts. The Redskins won the exhibition game 30-17, but that obviously wasn't what made it a story. This was the showdown between the top two picks in this year's draft -- quarterbacks Andrew Luck of the Colts and Robert Griffin of the Redskins. And the pair put on a fun show.

Griffin was 11-for-17 for 74 yards and a touchdown. He missed on three deep throws down the field, but at least one appeared to be the fault of his wide receiver, and he showed quite a bit otherwise. On the four-yard touchdown pass to Santana Moss, Griffin moved out to the right side extremely quickly, showing his speed and preventing the Indianapolis defense from reacting in time to do anything about it. Griffin continues to show poise and confidence and doesn't get rattled when things don't go exactly as planned. Those are key qualities that, along with his talent and athleticism, bode well for his ability to handle NFL life in his rookie season and beyond.

Luck was 14-for-23 for 151 yards and a beautiful 31-yard touchdown pass to T.Y. Hilton. His test was tougher, since the Redskins' defense played better in this game than the Colts' defense did and he faced intense pressure on nearly every play, but he looked very good. Neither rookie quarterback showed anything to make his team feel any less excited about its future.

Here's what else I saw from the Redskins in this game:
  • The Redskins' defense is going to be about pressure up front. The defensive line and linebackers look very active and aggressive, even with Brian Orakpo out with an injury, and they did a very good job of disrupting things for Luck and for the Colts' run game in the backfield. When the Redskins drop a lot of guys into coverage, as they did on the Colts' final drive of the first half, their weaknesses are exposed. And when the quarterback avoids the rush, as Luck did on his touchdown throw, the Redskins could have problems downfield. On that play, safety Madieu Williams was in single coverage on the wide receiver, and it was a mismatch.
  • That said, safety Tanard Jackson looked excellent. Starting in place of an injured Brandon Meriweather at strong safety, Jackson looked good in run support, made some nice tackles and knocked away the Hail Mary attempt at the end of the first half. Jackson could beat out Williams for the starting free safety spot. He's a favorite of secondary coach Raheem Morris from their time together in Tampa Bay, and his issues have all been off-the-field, not on. A couple of secondary players made good plays at or behind the line of scrimmage, including cornerback Josh Wilson and safety DeJon Gomes. The issues are down the field, not up front.
  • Rob Jackson was the starting outside linebacker in place of Orakpo, but Chris Wilson quickly replaced him and had a great game that included a third-quarter sack of Chandler Harnish for a safety.
  • On offense, rookie Alfred Morris got the start at running back again and looked very good. He carried the ball 14 times for 107 yards and a touchdown. He's exactly the kind of runner Mike Shanahan likes -- he makes one cut and gets up the field -- but he's also got some nice moves once up the field and that forward body lean you've heard so much about that helps him pick up extra yards. He needs to improve in pass protection before the Redskins feel great about him, but he looked good throwing blocks in Saturday's game, and it's clear that's a matter of reps and not ability or willingness. Tim Hightower is still the coaches' preferred starter at running back, and he looked lively as he got 28 yards on five carries in his first game action since tearing his anterior cruciate ligament last October. But they're bringing Hightower back slowly, and with Roy Helu and Evan Royster both nursing injuries, the chances are improving that Morris will be the starter for the Sept. 9 regular-season opener in New Orleans. I still expect each of those four to start at some point this year, assuming they all get/stay healthy.
  • Brandon Banks was returning kicks again in the second half, but it cannot be a good sign for Banks' roster chances that Niles Paul returned kickoffs and Moss returned punts in the first half. Banks was told he'd have to make the team as a wide receiver, not just a return man, and it does not appear as though he's done that, so they're probably looking at other return options to see what they have.
  • The Redskins' offensive line did a very good job in the run game, and we've seen it look worse in pass protection, though the Colts did have success early with an interior pass rush against Will Montgomery and backup left guard Maurice Hurt. That might get better once Kory Lichtensteiger is back healthy, but it's something to watch. For what it's worth, Griffin seems to handle the rush well. Doesn't get flustered when forced out of the pocket, keeps his eyes downfield, etc.
  • Josh Morgan looked better than Leonard Hankerson, who had a bad drop and slowed down for some reason on a deep throw from Griffin that fell incomplete. I think the coaches would like to line up with Hankerson and Pierre Garcon as their starting wide receivers, but Morgan could surpass Hankerson if he stays healthy and keeps making plays.
  • You'll laugh, but Rex Grossman looked good, especially when he threw it to Dezmon Briscoe (who's making a late push for a roster spot himself). Grossman finished the game 8-for-8 for 127 yards and two touchdowns against the backup defense of one of the league's worst teams. Somebody asked me on Twitter if the Redskins might cut Grossman and just go with rookies Griffin and Kirk Cousins at quarterback, but why? Grossman knows the offense, can help the rookies learn it, and when he's not throwing interceptions he runs it quite well. He's the perfect backup for the 2012 Redskins.
The Washington Redskins will play their third preseason game of 2012 on Saturday afternoon at 4 p.m. ET against the Indianapolis Colts. The game is being billed as a showdown between two rookie quarterbacks -- No. 1 draft pick Andrew Luck of the Colts against No. 2 draft pick Robert Griffin III of the Redskins. But since those guys won't be on the field at the same time, here's what I'll be watching...

Most closely: Tim Hightower. The Redskins' starting running back is seeing his first game action since he tore his ACL last October. Mike Shanahan said Hightower likely wouldn't start, and he doesn't want to overtax him right away. But this begins the process of finding out how much Hightower can help the Redskins early in the season. With Roy Helu and Evan Royster both sitting out due to their injuries, we're likely to see a lot of rookie Alfred Morris and some Tristan Davis at running back, but Hightower is the guy on whom the coaches will have their eye, because they want him back as soon as possible. They consider Hightower the most complete back on the roster, and if his knee will allow it he will be the starter.

On the other side of the ball: The coverages in the secondary. The Redskins have been doing some strange things back there, moving DeAngelo Hall around from the slot corner spot to free safety and all over the place, dropping linebackers into coverage, etc. I think it's because they don't have much quality at cornerback and safety, and their plan is to mix and match coverages as best they can in an effort to disguise their weaknesses. With Brandon Meriweather injured, I'm interested to see if Tanard Jackson can show anything at strong safety, or whether he's strictly in a fight with Madieu Williams for the free safety spot and Reed Doughty is Meriweather's backup. Safety's going to matter, especially if they're planning to use Hall inside and rely on Cedric Griffin to cover outside receivers.

If I think of it: Much as I joke, I'm as interested as anyone else to make a Luck-Griffin comparison. And no one's saying this will offer a definitive one, so we can have some fun with it. This should be Griffin's most extended action of the preseason, if tradition holds. I also have my eye on the offensive line, where Chris Chester returns at right guard but they're still without Kory Lichtensteiger at left guard and of course Jammal Brown at right tackle. I think you should get used to Tyler Polumbus at right tackle.

Observation deck: Redskins-Bears

August, 19, 2012
As much as everybody tries to read meaning into the on-field results of preseason games, the only thing that truly matters to the teams is getting through them healthy. For that reason, the Washington Redskins' 33-31 exhibition loss to the Bears in Chicago on Saturday night was a painful one. Outside linebacker Brian Orakpo and strong safety Brandon Meriweather both left the game in the first quarter with injuries -- Meriweather to his knee, Orakpo to the same pectoral muscle he tore last year. Redskins coach Mike Shanahan said after the game that both would have MRIs on Sunday, and obviously when you lose two defensive starters you have to be concerned. Inside linebacker London Fletcher also was a late scratch from the starting lineup Saturday, and Shanahan didn't say much about Fletcher when asked postgame.

So it was a troubling night for the Redskins because of what was happening on the trainer's table, not so much because of what was happening on the field. Remember, we absolutely cannot make long-term predictions based on these games. We don't know what we're watching. Some teams game-plan for opponents in preseason, other teams don't. Much of the decisive action comes against third-teamers that won't see the field all year. All we can do is evaluate one night's performance for what it is, and to that end ...

1. Robert Griffin III is still learning. And this is fine, of course. It is to be expected. The hype around the Redskins' rookie quarterback has been intense and exciting, but on occasion it can seem to ignore the important fact that Griffin is a rookie who must learn and get used to the challenges of the NFL game. In the preseason opener last week in Buffalo, the Redskins worked hard to protect Griffin, limiting his throws and his reads to the quickest possible, and he looked very good. He makes smart decisions and displays the kind of poise and leadership you want to see from your franchise quarterback. But the Bears' Cover 2 made things more challenging for Griffin on Saturday, as did Chicago's Julius Peppers-led pass rush, and Griffin looked shakier in Game 2. He was 5-for-8 for 49 yards, was sacked three times and fumbled on one of those sacks. Fred Davis missed a block on the fumble snap, and rookie running back Alfred Morris admitted to reporters after the game that he'd failed to pick up the blitz, but Griffin also needed to protect the ball better while running from the pressure. In general, he looked like a rookie who needs to show more composure against the rush. And again, at this stage in his career, there's nothing wrong with that at all.

2. The secondary looked like a mess. Bears quarterback Jay Cutler had a field day from the start. He found big Brandon Marshall up the right sideline for 41 yards after Marshall blew past Cedric Griffin. It looked as though cornerback DeAngelo Hall was playing free safety on that play, perhaps as part of this weird plan to convince Hall he can be used the way Green Bay uses Charles Woodson. It didn't work. Later, Marshall caught a 20-yarder on Josh Wilson. This time, Meriweather was providing the safety help but overshot the tackle. Orakpo got hurt in coverage on Devin Hester, and I still can't figure out what he was doing so deep. Alshon Jeffery had a big catch a little bit later on, and it looked like he had linebackers in coverage as well. I understand the safeties are new and they're moving the cornerbacks around a lot, but the Redskins' coverages Saturday did not look cohesive while the first-teamers were on the field. I thought Madieu Williams showed some good things, including an open-field tackle of Earl Bennett.

3. Brandon Banks showed something as a returner, with a 91-yard punt return, and Aldrick Robinson flashed his incredible speed as a receiver, bursting into another gear on his 49-yard catch-and-run touchdown. Weird thing is, Robinson doesn't show much as a returner and Banks hasn't shown enough as a receiver. If you could combine them, you'd have something. But the Redskins might not be able to keep both.

4. Morris got the start at running back over Evan Royster with Tim Hightower and Roy Helu hurt. Early on, Morris showed why Shanahan likes him. He makes one cut and then gets upfield quickly, which is essential for success in Shanahan's zone-blocking run game. He also has that good forward body lean, which helps him pick up yards after contact. The sixth-round pick from Florida Atlantic had 34 yards on 10 carries. Royster was the third-down back even when Morris was in the game, and he had 20 yards on two carries. Tristan Davis had 10 carries late but did little with them and isn't likely to be a factor when this running back mess gets sorted out. Morris is a factor, right now.

5. Kirk Cousins. Yes, he looked great. He was a stunning 18-for-23 for 264 yards and three fourth-quarter touchdowns, including one to newly converted tight end Niles Paul, the one to Robinson and one to Dezmon Briscoe. The Redskins like Cousins a lot. But no, as anyone who's really paying attention knows, there's no quarterback controversy in Washington and there's not about to be one. The Redskins traded three first-round picks and a second-rounder to get Griffin. They did not do that for Cousins. Their plan for Cousins is to develop him as a backup and, ideally, trade him for something of value down the road the way Andy Reid and the Eagles did with Kevin Kolb. Preseason performances like this one can only help with that latter goal. But remember, the performance was against backup defensive players. Cousins never saw Peppers.
The Washington Redskins will play their second preseason game of the year Saturday night in Chicago against the Bears at 8 pm ET. Here's a look at what I'll be watching...

Most closely: The protection for Robert Griffin III, and how he handles it if he sees more pressure than he did in the first game against Buffalo. In that game, the Redskins ran an offensive scheme whose sole priority seemed to be the protection of Griffin. They ran quick, short routes, and he made quick decisions and throws. Against the Bears' Cover 2, Griffin might have to go deeper into his progressions and reads, which could expose him to pressure of the still-banged-up line in front of him doesn't hold up long enough. That's fine, as long as he doesn't get hurt, because he's going to see pressure in the regular season and needs to practice handling it. Saturday night could offer a look at some things we didn't get to see Griffin do last week. I'm also interested to see if the line blocks for the run better than it did last week, when it couldn't open holes for Evan Royster and Roy Helu early in the game.

On the other side of the ball: The secondary. Brandon Meriweather was a washout in Chicago, but the Redskins believe he's a better fit for their coverage schemes and have him listed as their starting strong safety. Will he be fired up to play well against his old team, even in a meaningless game? And who's the starter at free safety? Madieu Williams or Tanard Jackson? At cornerback, it looks as though they like DeAngelo Hall on the inside, but that leaves Cedric Griffin or Kevin Barnes as a starter on the outside opposite Josh Wilson. Can rookie Richard Crawford build on his strong first preseason game and make himself a threat to those veterans' playing time?

If I think of it: Sure, I'm as curious as you are to find out whether Royster or rookie Alfred Morris starts at running back with Helu and Tim Hightower hurt, but I expect that they'll both play plenty. Also watching to see if we can spot Santana Moss this time, whether Fred Davis is a passing-game target at all and how the defensive line rotation works.