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Thursday, December 20, 2012
NFC East race: The case for the Redskins

By Dan Graziano

This is the second in a three-part series that will look at each of the three teams tied for first place in the NFC East with two weeks to play and make the case for why that team will win the division. The case for the New York Giants appeared here Wednesday, and the case for the Dallas Cowboys will appear Friday. But today we look at the Washington Redskins, who have won five games in a row, and the reasons to believe they will keep it going and win the division.

Mike Shanahan
Mike Shanahan and his staff have the Redskins in a groove offensively.
The coaching that is going on in Washington right now is high-level stuff. We've read much this week about offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and the ways in which he's adapted his head-coach father's offense to electric rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III. But the fact that they were able to produce at a high level offensively last week with Kirk Cousins making his first NFL start shows that this is a nimble scheme being run by talented, intelligent coaches who right now appear to have an answer for everything.

The Redskins lead the league in rushing at 164.8 yards per game. And while rookie Alfred Morris looks like a back who was too good to last until the sixth round, even he'd tell you that a big reason for his success is the perfect way in which he fits the zone-blocking run-game scheme Mike Shanahan's been running since his Denver days. The offensive line has performed well, fullback Darrel Young is playing at a high level, the receivers all block, and as a result the Washington run game stands as a legitimate threat on each and every down. But what heightens the threat is Griffin, who's a threat in and of himself to run at any time, and forces the defense to account for possibilities that just don't exist when you're defending a more traditional offense.

There have been many questions about whether the Washington offense is sustainable long-term, but it's clear that the players are buying in completely and learning more and more as the weeks go along. It's an evolving offense, and some of this coaching staff's greatest accomplishments are establishing the players' belief in the coaches and making the players feel invested in that evolution. The Redskins right now look like a mature team that smells an opportunity and knows what to do with it. And with a rookie quarterback, a rookie running back and an offensive line about which there were preseason questions, that demonstrates a coaching staff that's earning its money.

I think you see the result of excellent game-to-game coaching on the defensive side of the ball as well. This is a Redskins team that has played basically the whole season without its two starting safeties, lost its best pass-rusher and a starting defensive lineman to injuries early in the season, and is even more shorthanded in the secondary lately because of the drug suspension of cornerback Cedric Griffin.

Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett has been able to scheme each of the past five weeks around the personnel shortages, often making in-game adjustments that have made the defense look totally different in the second halves of games. He's deployed linebacker Rob Jackson strategically, correctly deciding when he's best used as a pass-rusher and when he's more useful in coverage. He's managed to move cornerback DeAngelo Hall around in different coverages and even some blitz packages designed to help hide Hall's one-on-one weaknesses. The line has toughened up around nose tackle Barry Cofield as the season has gone on, and while this defense will never be confused with the 1985 Bears, the Redskins have shown an ability to scheme and adjust enough to win. The way the offense functions most weeks, they don't always need to do that much.

Griffin is obviously the wild-card here, and the element the Redskins have that sets them apart once the game begins. But the remaining two teams on the Redskins' schedule -- the Eagles and the Cowboys -- are teams that have already seen him once. That didn't necessarily help the Giants the second time they saw him, but the point is Washington can't rely on Griffin himself as the element of surprise in either of these two games. They're going to need to come up with something new to show the Philadelphia and Dallas defenses if they're going to win both games and take the division. But the reason to like their chances is that the coaching staff is showing a deft week-to-week ability to do just that, and the players are buying in and executing the plan extremely well.