- John Keim, ESPN Staff Writer
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Yes, the Washington Redskins will be eliminated from playoff contention with a loss Sunday night to the New York Giants. Of course, they were never really in contention based on their inability to play a complete game once this season. Still, it’s shocking that a team coming off a division title with everyone back and whose health has been pretty good this season could be out of postseason contention with four games left.
The most troubling aspect is that it’s not like you could watch this team and think, “They’re playing well; they’re just undermanned.” That’s not the case. There's a difference in some areas at being undermanned and not put together well. Not everything is cap related. They haven’t played well; they haven’t looked well-coached. The salary-cap penalties definitely had an impact, though it’s impossible to say how much of one. Robert Griffin III’s knee had an impact, too, in how it limited his work in the offseason. Still, knowing all this, the organization was overly optimistic this summer.
Griffin’s knee obviously has been a big factor. Before last season I thought he’d make a big impact just because of his ability to make plays with his legs. It allowed him to ease into the NFL as a passer. It also forced opponents to defend him a certain way, which enabled him to produce as a passer, too. It hid his flaws (not to mention those of the people blocking for him). But the knee injury forced him to become a player he wasn’t ready to be: a (mostly) dropback passer. He’s still fast, he’s just not as explosive. He still uses his legs and sometimes tucks and runs too soon. But losing that explosiveness, coupled with defenses playing him differently, is why you can’t make a declarative statement on his career based on 2013. He needs time to adjust not only as an NFL passer but as a player who lost a little off his fastball. Not many young players must adjust to that much in their first two years.
That’s not to excuse anything, but it is a reason to say he must keep playing this season (silly not to play him; I really don’t get the argument to sit him unless you aren’t confident in him being your franchise quarterback) and for all the talk about how he must mature in other ways, he’s still a young quarterback who needs to improve.
The Redskins are back to must-win games, but not because of the playoffs. If this coaching staff wants a legitimate case to return, the Redskins can’t afford to lose games at home to sub-.500 teams like the Giants. They need a strong finish. Look like a well-coached team and play a complete game. So December won’t be interesting because of a playoff race. As usual in Washington it’ll be interesting because of the referendum on the coaching.
With defensive end Stephen Bowen now done for the season, reserve Chris Baker will get more opportunities (even if Kedric Golston starts ahead of him). Baker makes plays, but he also is not the most disciplined player. He likes to get upfield and is still adapting to the mindset needed as a 3-4 defensive lineman.
Here’s what defensive coordinator Jim Haslett said of Baker: “When he got here, he was kind of a raw guy that didn’t understand the scheme. He’s getting better and better. He’s very athletic. You’d like to have him thump a little bit more. Because he’s so athletic, he wants to use that all the time. I think once in a while when you’re in there in the 3-4, you’ve got to be a thumper. He does it. And then other times he’s very athletic for a 330-pound guy. So we just want a little bit more thumping out of the guy and be a little more aggressive in the run game because in the pass game and all that, he’s quick to react to that.”
The Redskins will have to play better against Giants receiver Victor Cruz than they did a year ago. Up until that touchdown pass in the first game they had done well against him. But they botched that play and in the second game Cruz caught a 49-yard pass -- and was open for two more deep passes that Eli Manning overthrew. Cruz’s tendency is to turn inside more often than not -- they play a lot of inside leverage on him -- but he’s hurt the Redskins by staying to the outside at times. Also, the linebackers when dropping have to do a better job re-routing him.
In the second game last season, linebacker Perry Riley applied some pressure off the edge. I don’t know if they’ll try it again, but it’s worth watching (they also sent some slot corner blitzes). Also, with a new center the Redskins should try to attack the middle with stunts and A-gap blitzes to get to Manning. For what it’s worth, watching replays of that second game versus New York served as a reminder for just how slow Madieu Williams had become. I didn’t need a reminder, but it stood out.
The Giants play with power in the interior of their defensive line. That’s not something the Redskins' line has handled well and it’s a reason why there needs to be improvements up front, notably on the right side. I’ll be curious to see how the Giants handle Griffin this year and if they use eight-man fronts. Also, if fullback Darrel Young is able to play, will the Redskins fool New York again with the dive to him (as they’ve done the past two years)?