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Tuesday, August 20, 2013
Redskins vs. Steelers: Ten observations

By John Keim


Highlights from the Washington Redskins' 24-13 preseason win over the Pittsburgh Steelers.

1. It’s a good thing Barry Cofield's hand injury isn’t more serious and shouldn’t keep him out of any regular-season games. Cofield has looked exceptional in camp and was particularly good versus the Steelers. He twice beat Maurkice Pouncey with a swim move past his left shoulder and was disruptive in the backfield. What’s becoming clear is that Cofield and Stephen Bowen will receive fewer double teams with an improved rush from the linebackers, forcing extra attention. The more the Redskins can collapse the pocket, the better off they will be. On Cofield’s sack, one reason he was able to get there was because of an extra push by Bowen and end Kedric Golston (who is having an excellent camp). Cofield relied on athleticism to get him through his first season at nose tackle; now he’s using quickness and smarts. His ability to read plays has definitely improved. Combine that with his speed and he could be a major pest for offensive lines.

2. Linebacker Ryan Kerrigan heard someone yelling to watch for the screen -- he thinks it was London Fletcher. But Kerrigan deserves credit for reading his clues as well, something he’s done an excellent job of since entering the league. It makes a difference. He noticed the tackle trying to lure him a little deeper and he saw the angle of the back coming out. So Kerrigan stopped, backed up a little and timed his jump. Just a smart play. Kerrigan’s growth in this defense is a big reason why the pass rush should be better. He lined up at right tackle, left tackle and left outside linebacker. The Redskins can pair him next to a speed linebacker (Brandon Jenkins) or a powerful one (Darryl Tapp). More importantly, they can throw a changeup to guards inside because of his speed.  Kerrigan’s rush when aligned wide was also good. He did a better job getting into the tackle, closing any space between he and the tackle, and allowing him to use a quick rip move and then to strip the ball for a fumble. He took a more direct path to the quarterback -- too often when aligned over the tackle he goes too straight upfield; this time, he went more toward the quarterback.

3. The Redskins have committed 18 penalties in the first two preseason games, with three unnecessary roughness penalties in the first half (two by DeJon Gomes). Even Fletcher was called for one, on the second play from scrimmage. Fletcher pushed tight end David Paulson to the ground drawing the foul. As a captain, he must be more mindful of his actions. Nobody knows this more than Fletcher.

4. Thus far, the Redskins have shown an ability to rush the passer in various ways -- without needing to resort to extra rushers. Will that continue? We’ll find out. But they applied pressure Monday night with four-man rushes from their base linemen as well as from their nickel set, tapping into their versatility at linebacker. Oh, and they did it without Brian Orakpo as well. One reason Orakpo was not missed? Darryl Tapp. The veteran is one of the more surprising players this summer, mostly because he was a veteran changing positions and that’s not easy to do. But Tapp played with the strength that defensive coordinator Jim Haslett talked about the other day. He did a nice job setting the edge against the run and was able to move left tackle Mike Adams off line with a big left-handed slap. All power. Tapp also drew a hold on Adams with a spin move. He’s not the same threat as Orakpo, clearly, but Tapp has improved. There was one rush early that still illustrated Orakpo’s importance by his absence. Rookie Brandon Jenkins rushed too wide on the left side and Tapp was a bit upfield. Kerrigan got a decent push at left tackle, but Bowen was double teamed inside and generated no pressure. Thanks to good coverage, Ben Roethlisberger was limited to a two-yard scramble. With issues in the secondary, whether from injuries or youth, the pass rush needs to be a major factor, especially early in the season while those problems are being corrected.

5. Safety Bacarri Rambo continues to have issues with angles in the open field. Probably a lot of that has to do with being a rookie and adapting to the speed of the game. That’s a valid excuse. But if the Redskins are going to start him, then they need him to clean this up in a hurry. They are probably happy that Steelers safety Ryan Clark sought out Rambo after the game, wanting to offer some coaching tips on playing safety. They chatted only a couple seconds, but he said Clark told him to “try to close space as much as possible. Don’t run in front of the ballcarrier, stay inside him and force him outside and take a good shot.” That’s exactly what Rambo didn’t do on one cut by Jonathan Dwyer. Rambo went to his outside hip, allowing an easy cutback. This is what the preseason is for, especially for rookies. But Rambo knows his play must improve. The pep talk from Clark helped. “I look up to him; he’s one of the better safeties in the league,” Rambo said.

6. I saw the good side of Aldrick Robinson and, except for one drop, Leonard Hankerson. I like how Hankerson beat man coverage, showing excellent stems to the outside and cutting back inside for a clean release. Most of Hankerson’s catches last season came in zone coverage. That doesn’t mean he couldn’t manage press coverage, but it does mean that’s not what he typically faced. He knew on his touchdown that he would score simply based on the man coverage he knew he was about to run. Then he made a one-handed grab with his left hand. Of course, he did drop one down the right seam on a perfectly thrown ball by Rex Grossman earlier in the game.  It was a tough catch in traffic, but one that Hankerson must make to become a bigger, more reliable threat. As for Robinson, he got hurt on a play in which he made a terrific grab. It also was a classic throw by Grossman, who led Robinson into more yards. Robinson responded with a fearless catch, reaching out in traffic, on the play in which he hurt his knee. Earlier, Robinson drew a pass interference penalty because of his speed -- Ike Taylor had to grab him after getting beaten on a double move. Robinson would have been wide open.

7. It was not a good night for the Redskins draft picks. Tight end Jordan Reed did not finish his route in the red zone, leading to a Grossman interception. Say what you want about Grossman, and he has had a tendency to throw picks in the red zone, he throws with a lot of trust and confidence. So if a receiver is off on their route it can lead to disaster because Grossman won’t hesitate to throw. Sometimes it’s his decision-making; not in this case. Reed also dropped a pass because he turned up-field too soon. Not sure how his blocking was, but will check for that when re-watching the game. Running back Chris Thompson fumbled on his second carry. It’s not surprising given that it was his second carry since October and there’s no live tackling in camp. Thompson learned a valuable lesson about protecting the ball going through the middle, especially against NFL tacklers. But it’s clear after tonight who needs to be the No. 2 back (really, it is been clear all along): Roy Helu. His 30-yard run was a mixture of the zone read-option fooling Pittsburgh’s defense (ironically, the Redskins did not run this against them last season) and his speed. Helu is not a consistent runner because of his impatience at times and vision. But he’s a threat because of his speed. As for Thompson, he has work remaining.

8. Anyone who wonders why Grossman is still on the roster should not do so after tonight. Quarterback is a vulnerable position, whether inside the pocket or not, and with Grossman the Redskins are in good shape should something happen to either Robert Griffin III or Kirk Cousins. Grossman is an accomplished passer who will make sure the offense can still operate efficiently. Yes he makes mistakes, but teams could do a lot worse than Grossman as the No. 3. Most teams would need to bring in a young kid with no experience in such a situation. Maybe that player eventually will grow, but the Redskins have two young quarterbacks who are growing in front of Grossman. Having a veteran in this role is a needed luxury. For what it’s worth, Cousins didn’t do a whole lot in his action. The Redskins picked up only two first downs in his three series. He was a little behind on a slant to Hankerson that was caught and then he missed high to Santana Moss on an out route. However, had the ball been lower it was a possible pick-six situation.  Facing that defense was a good challenge for the Redskins; I would like to have seen Cousins do a little more -- and play a little more (as would he, of course). The running game wasn’t much of a factor and that didn’t help him.

9. Rookie corner David Amerson was fine in coverage and though he was willing to be physical (again), he has to make sure to keep his head up when tackling. It led to a whiff on one attempt. On the 26-yard throw by Roethlisberger over his head to tight end David Paulson on a scramble, Amerson plastered on the receiver in his zone, but Paulson came from the other side of the field. The rookie did not see him and nobody was on him -- Rambo was deep middle and needed to stay there.

10. Tackle Tyler Polumbus will be under scrutiny until he proves he can consistently handle pass protection. That's why it was troubling to see him get beat for a sack and also called for a holding penalty. On the sack, he let LaMarr Woodley get quickly into his hands and pads -- while not keeping his hands inside. On this play, Polumbus' left hand was outside Woodley's pad and the linebacker blocked his right hand. Advantage Woodley. We saw Kerrigan use quick hands against Polumbus in practice to get pressure too. Polumbus has clearly worked on keeping his hands inside and at times has shown improvement. There were other blocks he handled well, including a spin move by one rusher. But when he doesn't use the proper technique he can't rely on other attributes like a Trent Williams. Polumbus' pass protection appeared fine for the other parts of his night, but those were two big negatives in only one half. By the way, Williams played with a small splint on his left wrist and said he wasn't bothered by the injury. He'll continue to use a cast in practice.