NFL Nation: 2013 Week 15 WAS at ATL

Falcons 27, Redskins 26: Ten Observations

December, 15, 2013
1. Robert Griffin III said all the right things Wednesday after learning he’d be shut down for the season. And he handled himself the right way Sunday. There’s no doubt he knew the camera would be on him quite a bit. But he appeared to be in the game the entire time -- celebrating, upset when the two-point conversion failed, sitting next to offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and Kirk Cousins as they looked over snapshots during the game. It’s exactly the way Griffin needed to behave.

2. I thought backup Rex Grossman was pretty good talking about how Griffin conducted himself Sunday. Here’s what he had to say: “Great. It’s a tough situation, but at the same time he’s a good person and he has a bright future. He’s the franchise quarterback. I think this situation is tough because it’s so dramatic and he’s handling it with class and going with it. It’s not that big a deal, I think.” Wait? Not a big deal? Here’s why he said that: “Because he’s going to have all the opportunity in the world to be as successful as he wants to be and he has a long time to get ready and his career is still [going up]. He understands that. Everybody does.”

[+] EnlargeKirk Cousins
AP Photo/John BazemoreKirk Cousins had a nice day passing, throwing for 381 yards, but his three turnovers proved costly.
3. It’s hard to praise Cousins for his performance without it sounding like a shot at Griffin. One doesn’t have to be about the other. They’re different. They have different strengths, which is why one offense will never look exactly the same for two quarterbacks. The zone read flourished last year; Cousins couldn’t run it. Cousins is more comfortable in the pocket. Naturally, more plays will be called for him there. I’ll say this: Atlanta’s defense is really bad and the Falcons were using three rookies in the secondary. That’s not taking anything away from Cousins because he still must execute and he did. He did that well, aside from a couple of plays (the turnovers, obviously). Those turnovers were the difference in the game and Cousins does throw picks. I remember one scout before the 2012 draft worrying about this part of his game. That must change. Anyway, seven turnovers in a game after having 14 all of last season. The Redskins should not have been in the game given that statistic.

4. But I liked how, on Cousins’ 53-yard touchdown pass to Pierre Garcon, the ball landed in the receiver’s arms right after he made his double move. No hesitation. I liked how Cousins used his eyes and didn’t lock in on guys. He was decisive with his throws and was able to step into his passes. Cousins also usually gave receivers a chance to gain yards after the catch. He also avoided negative situations or third and real long. The Redskins were 5-of-10 on third downs with all but three for 6 yards or less. Makes a difference. Cousins helped by hitting checkdowns in certain situations, thanks to keeping his eyes downfield.

5. The problem with covering the Washington Redskins now is that so much of what goes on right now doesn’t pertain to football. Rather, it’s about reacting to various reports, or trying to find out what’s true and what isn’t. NFL Network reported today that Kyle Shanahan plans on setting out “on his own path next year.” Shanahan denied this in a text Sunday night, saying it’s “100 percent not true.” But I do know that he’s never liked when people refer to he and his dad as the “Shanahans”. And that it would be good for him to be on his own, away from the questions that surround coaching for your father -- especially when you’re not winning. He did a good job publicly trying to distance himself from the quarterback switch last week.

6. I don’t blame Mike Shanahan for being annoyed with questions about his job status or situation. And he did answer a lot of these things publicly last week. But these stories keep getting leaked so the local media is then forced to ask about them. It’s a bad cycle, but it starts with the leaks. Simple as that. You know why sports reporters get into this business? To cover games, not Watergate.

7. I had no problem with the Redskins going for the two-point conversion. You’re 3-10, win the game when you have the chance. They had been picking apart the Atlanta secondary all game. They used a lot of screens and rub routes throughout the game and the Falcons did not handle them well. Naturally, on the two-point conversion they ran one that the Falcons finally defended. Cornerback Desmond Trufant didn’t let himself get picked by Josh Morgan, instead clamping on to Garcon, the primary read.

8. However, Morgan appeared open. Cousins blamed himself for the play, something he does quite a bit. He’s more honest about his bad plays than his good ones. “My initial reaction is I had Josh open on an offscheduled play and if I had set my feet, I may have been able to drill it into Pierre. That’s a play I clearly didn’t have a good enough feel for.”

9. Give the Redskins’ defense a lot of credit for how they played. Atlanta scored 20 points off turnovers , with one touchdown drive starting at the Redskins’ 2. Atlanta started four drives in Washington territory (managing 20 points). The Redskins forced six punts and held Atlanta to 243 total yards. Linebacker Brian Orakpo had a terrific game with eight tackles, 1.5 sacks, three tackles for loss and two quarterback hurries working against left tackle Lamar Holmes. Orakpo used speed and power and set up Holmes well; he got him outside and then when Holmes set wide, Orakpo would get into his chest and cut inside. Defensive lineman Chris Baker played one of his best games -- maybe his best -- with four tackles and a hurry. He did a nice job shedding blocks, too, and making stops.

10. Running back Alfred Morris was too loose with the ball and it hurt Washington twice. His fumbles did not lead to points, but they occurred deep in Atlanta territory so they took away the Redskins’ chance to score. Think another field goal would have made a difference? His game was like too many others: “Good game, but …” Morris finished with 98 yards on 18 carries and was terrific on the inside zone pitch; the Falcons linebackers overflowed and gave him cutback alleys. “A rope-a-dope deal,” as Logan Paulsen called it. At times when the linebackers tried to read the play, it bought time for the offensive linemen to reach them.

Kirk Cousins praised for performance

December, 15, 2013
ATLANTA -- They praised him for his command in the huddle, the poise he showed in the pocket and his decisive passes. Quarterback Kirk Cousins provided what the Washington Redskins needed in the passing game.

[+] EnlargeCousins-Griffin
AP Photo/David GoldmanRedskins QB Kirk Cousins, sitting beside inactive teammate Robert Griffin III, watches as the Falcons' offense takes to the field in the second half.
Yes, he took advantage of a weak pass defense using three rookies in the secondary. Cousins also made one play after another, which is one reason the Redskins only lost 27-26, despite seven turnovers. In his first start of the season, with coach Mike Shanahan saying he benched Robert Griffin III to keep him healthy for the offseason, Cousins completed 29-of-45 passes for 381 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. He became the first Redskins quarterback to pass for at least 300 yards in his first two starts -- his debut occurred in Week 15 last season.

"It was a gutsy performance by him," Redskins backup quarterback Rex Grossman said. "A lot of chaos during the week."

Chaos doesn't seem to even sum up the week. For Cousins, though, it was about an opportunity. He capitalized in a big way. But Cousins didn't focus on what he did well, instead pointing out his mistakes, including his fumble and the failed two-point conversion.

"Those four plays, if they go differently, it's probably a much better result," Cousins said. "[On the interceptions], the ball needed to be thrown further in and it's a completion and we're moving the chains. That's something I'll never do again. Every in cut I throw now will be where it needs to be."

The coaches still liked what he showed.

"It was nice to see him go out there and play with a lot of confidence," coach Mike Shanahan said. "He kept his composure and did a heck of a job leading us down the field. Just proud of the way he handled himself."

Cousins responded to adversity well. He threw a first-half interception from his own 1-yard line, failing to lead receiver Aldrick Robinson on an in-route. But on the next drive, Cousins connected with receiver Pierre Garcon for a 53-yard score. Cousins led field-goal drives on the next two series.

After his second interception, this one with 5 minutes, 45 seconds left in the game that led to a Falcons field goal and a 27-20 lead, Cousins drove the Redskins for what nearly was the game-winning series. He connected with receiver Santana Moss for a three-yard touchdown. On this series, Cousins completed 10 of 13 passes for 85 yards.
"He was just making very quick decisions," Grossman said, "getting the ball out quickly and accurately and conducting himself like a vet."

In recent weeks, Griffin had been hit much more than Washington liked. Sunday, Cousins was sacked once and hit only three times. He avoided potential sacks by getting rid of the ball or finding his checkdowns, which also helped him stay away from third-and-long situations as well.

"I had time," Cousins said. "I felt I was given a chance to succeed."

For the first time in several weeks, the Redskins' offense played with confidence. Players did not want to make it look like any positive comment about Cousins was a knock on Griffin. But there are differences.

"Kirk does a good job of asserting his own energy and his own mentality into the huddle," said Redskins tight end Logan Paulsen, who stressed that there's no issue with Griffin in this regard. "Rob is more laid back. Kirk demands a certain type of tempo and you saw that [Sunday] a little bit. Guys were in and out of the huddle. Guys were more energetic."

There's no threat of Cousins running the ball, unlike Griffin. That means he has to keep his eyes downfield and handle himself in the pocket differently, knowing his legs aren't a good option. The Redskins did not run the zone read option, focusing more on bootlegs and drop-backs.

"He was very poised to step into the situation he did," Redskins running back Alfred Morris said. "He did a phenomenal job commanding the huddle and commanding the game and overcoming adversity. He had turnovers; it happens. But it shows the character he has that he didn't let negative things like that bring him down."
ATLANTA -- Matt Ryan couldn't help but notice teammate Tony Gonzalez's reaction after Gonzalez latest milestone was acknowledged on the Georgia Dome video screen.

"Kind of when they showed him on the JumboTron ... I don't think you have a more humble guy, too," the Atlanta Falcons quarterback said of his Hall of Fame-bound tight end. "With all that he's accomplished, he was embarrassed to be on the big screen. But he's been awesome to play with."

Gonzalez signaled the thumbs up to the crowd after he became the fifth player in NFL history with 15,000 receiving yards. He joined Jerry Rice, Terell Owens, Randy Moss, and Isaac Bruce in the elite category and now has 15,008 career receiving yards.

"That was cool," Gonzalez said of his latest achievement. "It's special. Every time I get a catch now, it seems like they're saying something like that's this or that's another milestone. I guess that's what happens when you get old, when you're playing as long as I am. But I'll take it."

Gonzalez scored on a 13-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter to mark his third-consecutive game with a touchdown catch. He also extended his streak of consecutive games with a reception to 209 while catching a team-leading six passes for 62 yards on Sunday.

"He's unbelievable. He really is," Ryan said of Gonzalez. "His consistency for 17 years in this league is incredibly impressive. There's no shortcut to it. There's no mystery to it. Tony works as hard as anybody I've ever been around, and he's blessed with a lot of talent as well."

Gonzalez will retire after the Falcons conclude the season Dec. 29 at home against Carolina. Ryan was asked if folks might try to convince Gonzalez to stick around one more year.

"He could definitely do it, if he wanted to, that's for sure," Ryan said. "But, no, I think we all know it's coming to an end. But it's been a great ride."

Young Falcons bend, but don't break

December, 15, 2013
ATLANTA -- It seemed only fitting that Atlanta Falcons rookie cornerback Desmond Trufant tipped away a gutsy two-point conversion attempt by the Washington Redskins to preserve Sunday's 27-26 win.

No matter how the turnover-filled game was dissected, it marked yet another step in the Falcons' youth movement as the organization continues preparation for the future.

True, there are going to be some hiccups along the way, as was evident throughout Sunday's matchup. But the resilience shown by Trufant and some of the other young players to shake off their inconsistent play was an encouraging sign.

"At my position, sometimes you're going to give up some," said Trufant, who was displeased about allowing a touchdown. "That's just the nature of the game. This is the best in the world. You've got to stay mentally strong. You can't get down on yourself because it's a long football game. Like you saw, we can turn it around and make big plays."

[+] EnlargeAtlanta's Desmond Trufant
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesRookie Desmond Trufant breaks up a two-point conversion attempt intended for Pierre Garcon.
A defense starting three rookies in the secondary and two at linebacker -- as well as second-year player Jonathan Massaquoi over Osi Umenyiora at right defensive end -- got exposed early and often by new Redskins starter Kirk Cousins. But the Falcons still managed to come up with seven turnovers, the most they've had in a game since 1988. They scored 20 points off those turnovers.

Days before the game, veteran safety William Moore expressed confidence in his rookie defensive backs, but vowed to step up his game in the process. He followed through with a key interception immediately after the Falcons' offense failed to punch it in on fourth-and-goal midway through the third quarter. Moore's turnover led to Steven Jackson's 2-yard touchdown run.

Trufant also had a fourth-quarter interception that set up Matt Bryant's 51-yard field goal.

Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan made an adjustment with the defensive backfield at halftime after the Falcons surrendered 320 first-half yards, including a 53-yard touchdown from Cousins to Pierre Garcon. In the second half, the secondary played more quarters coverage -- a four-deep, three-underneath zone. In the third quarter, the defense allowed the Redskins just 13 yards in 10 plays.

The defensive switch seemed to make rookie defensive backs Robert Alford and Zeke Motta more comfortable in their respective roles. Motta admitted he blew his over-the-top coverage on Cousins' 23-yard touchdown pass to tight end Fred Davis. But the rookie settled down afterward.

"It was a learning day for those rookies," coach Mike Smith said. "We gave up some big, explosive plays on the corners. Then we came back and made a play.

"That was a heck of an interception that Desmond Trufant had there in the second half of the ballgame. There's going to be plays made and there's going to be plays given up. We need to continue to focus on not giving up those explosive plays. It's been our Achilles' heel for the entire season on defense."

Although veteran such as Moore (interception, fumble recovery) and defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux (two fumble recoveries) spearheaded Sunday's effort, Smith has plenty to be encouraged about in terms of his young players growing up. Trufant, the team's first-round pick, has been steady all season long and undrafted linebacker Paul Worrilow fell one tackle short of his seventh consecutive double-digit tackle game. Second-rounder pick Alford had nine tackles while fourth-round pick Malliciah Goodman came up with a fumble recovery.

"We're going to be around here a long time, so I think it's good for us to get out there and just get on the same page and get used to playing with each other," Alford said. "To finish strong, that's really what we're trying to do. We're trying to finish strong so we can have momentum coming into next year."

Shanahan bothered by job questions

December, 15, 2013
ATLANTA -- Less than five minutes into his news conference, Mike Shanahan was asked a question that, as many had all week, veered away from what he’d rather talk about: football. Instead, it addressed the chaos from throughout a week that saw different stories leaked almost daily.

This time, Shanahan decided enough was enough. So when asked what he could do to stop the reports from coming out, Shanahan ended his news conference.

“OK, thank you gentlemen,” he said as he walked away.

[+] EnlargeMike Shanahan
AP Photo/David GoldmanRedskins coach Mike Shanahan can't avoid speculation about his job security as his team tries to finish out a miserable season.
Perhaps 30 seconds earlier, when asked about the latest story of the day, Shanahan said, “We’re just disappointed we lost the game. I’m tired of talking about the job. If you want to talk about this game, if you want to talk about Dallas or if you want to talk about the New York Giants, that’s great. We’re a football team. I’d sure like to concentrate on that.”

It’s been a long week for Shanahan and the Redskins because of the controversy surrounding his job and whether or not he’ll return in 2014. Stories have popped up almost every day, and they’ve run the gamut from he’s trying to get himself fired to not wanting to leave, but only returning under certain circumstances (perhaps with an extension and with the assurance he could run things his way).

Then there was the decision to bench quarterback Robert Griffin III, which increased the scrutiny. Shanahan said he only wanted Griffin healthy for the offseason, but this move led to more speculation about ulterior motives.

It weighed on the players, who welcomed the three-hour respite provided by playing a game.

“It was so nice to get out there,” Redskins tight end Logan Paulsen said. “I don’t have Twitter, I don’t have Facebook, I don’t listen to the radio, and I don’t listen to news. But this is so saturated, it’s touching everywhere. I’m watching Thursday Night Football, and at halftime they’re talking about the Redskins. I’ve never had a situation where I had such a hard time staying away from it. Family and friends call me about what’s going on. I’m like, I don’t want to be talking to you guys about this. It’s difficult, but it is a sanctuary to come here to play, and a sanctuary during the week at practice. Even though it’s overwhelming, we have an opportunity to lose ourselves in the game.”

At 3-11, the noise will continue to grow because the questions won’t be going away until a decision is made.

“We don’t pay attention to it. We just have to keep our blinders on,” Redskins receiver Pierre Garcon said. “You just have to let it roll off your back.”

It was a postgame topic. It will be one throughout each of the next two weeks. That means there will be two days they can just like being players again.

“Once we’re between the lines, it’s all the game,” linebacker Brian Orakpo said. “Everything else is out the window. Regardless of the drama, we came out trying to win a game and we fell short, but we fought hard to the end.”

Rapid Reaction: Atlanta Falcons

December, 15, 2013

ATLANTA -- A few thoughts on the Atlanta Falcons' 27-26 win over the Washington Redskins at the Georgia Dome.

What it means: Draft position will dominate the conversation for the remainder of the season, no matter the opponent. And the 4-10 Falcons looked like they were playing to lose based on the comedy of first-half errors. Fortunately for Atlanta, the Redskins (seven turnovers) seemed to turn the ball over on every possession, which kept the Falcons from improving their draft status. The Falcons entered Sunday’s action at No. 3 on the draft board behind the Houston Texans and the Redskins, although Washington has to surrender its 2014 first-round pick to the St. Louis Rams. Fans still hope the Falcons finish in position to have a shot to draft a player such as South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.

Living legend: Veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez won’t make the Super Bowl, but he’s still trying to make his final NFL season a memorable one. Gonzalez surpassed 15,000 career receiving yards on Sunday, becoming just the fifth player in NFL history to reach that milestone along with Jerry Rice, Terrell Owens, Randy Moss and Isaac Bruce. Gonzalez scored a 13-yard touchdown and caught a pass in his 209th consecutive game.

Stock watch: Left tackle Lamar Holmes had shown much improvement from the beginning of the season. But Holmes took a significant step back on Sunday while going up against Redskins pass-rush specialist Brian Orakpo. Holmes couldn’t contend with Orakpo’s quick first step and couldn’t keep the pressure off Matt Ryan. Holmes even got flagged 15 yards for a clip. New starting right tackle Ryan Schraeder didn’t fare much better against Ryan Kerrigan, but Schraeder hasn’t played a lot this season.

Youth movement: One obvious concern coming into the game was how the Falcons' defense would respond with three rookies starting in the secondary: cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford along with safety Zeke Motta. Well, all three had hiccups against new Redskins starting quarterback Kirk Cousins. Veteran safety William Moore vowed to compensate with a strong effort. Well, Moore did have a key interception. Trufant also managed to pick off a Cousins pass and tipped away the two-point conversion attempt to seal the win. Also on defense, second-year player Jonathan Massaquoi started at right defensive end as the Falcons used veteran Osi Umenyiora in a reserve role for the first time this season.

What's next: The Falcons finish out their road schedule with a matchup with the mighty San Francisco 49ers on ESPN's "Monday Night Football." The teams last met in last year’s NFC Championship Game, with the 49ers advancing to the Super Bowl with a 28-24 road triumph. What a difference a year makes, with the 49ers still among the league’s best and the Falcons suddenly near the bottom of the league standings.

Rapid Reaction: Washington Redskins

December, 15, 2013

ATLANTA -- Thoughts and observations from the Washington Redskins' 27-26 loss to the Atlanta Falcons:

What it means: Not everything was Robert Griffin III's fault. And you can’t start dreaming of a first-round pick in exchange for Kirk Cousins, although he showed plenty to still make him intriguing. It also means that you can’t turn the ball over seven times and expect to beat any team, even one that shares a 3-10 record. Cousins had some terrific moments and showed positives, but he also made a couple of bad throws that led to costly interceptions. Cousins looked like a young quarterback making his second NFL start. But he does a good job ignoring past mistakes and nearly led a comeback win. Cousins is a more aggressive passer than Griffin, which works for and against him. The Falcons seemed to have a good handle on Washington’s passing attack in the second half, as the Redskins did not sustain momentum from the end of the first half. The Redskins have now lost at least 11 games for the fifth time in owner Dan Snyder's tenure.

Two-point failure: The Redskins, with nothing to lose, went for a two-point conversion with 18 seconds left in the game rather than force overtime. They played for the win, and it’s tough to blame them. The Redskins had hurt Atlanta on rub routes and picks throughout the game. It appeared they tried another one on the right side, but the Falcons picked it up and denied Pierre Garcon the go-ahead points.

Costly mistakes: With their seven turnovers, the Redskins turned the ball over half as many times in this game -- against a 3-10 team that had forced 12 all season -- as they had in all of 2012. This statistic also is a big reason the Redskins are 3-11 (and the 14 turnovers last year explain why they were 10-6). The Falcons turned those turnovers into 20 points. Plus, there were two fumbles by running back Alfred Morris deep in Atlanta territory and a third by receiver Santana Moss that cost Washington a chance for at least three field goals and maybe more.

Stock report: Going up: Linebacker Brian Orakpo and defensive lineman Chris Baker both played outstanding games. Orakpo was disruptive, generating pressure, sacks and penalties and not always off one aspect of his game. He won with speed, going around the edge, and strength driving into the tackle and cutting inside. Baker did a nice job with penetration and shedding blocks at the line. Going down: Funny thing is, Cousins had a strong game but turned it over three times; Morris had a good game but fumbled twice. The defense surrendered 27 points, and there was the usual soft zone coverage, but it did its job quite a bit, too.

Up next: The Redskins host the Dallas Cowboys, giving them a chance to spoil someone’s playoff hopes in their home finale.
ATLANTA -- A few halftime notes with the Atlanta Falcons trailing the Washington Redskins, 20-17:

• The youth movement isn't working so well today: Rookie cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford have had their issues in coverage. Rookie safety Zeke Motta took a bad angle on one play and got blocked off another. And rookie right tackle Ryan Schraeder has had issues against Redskins pass-rusher Ryan Kerrigan, just like second-year left tackle Lamar Holmes has had issues stopping Brian Orakpo. True, this is valuable experience for the inexperienced Falcons. But they should be enjoying better success against an equally bad Redskins team. At least one of the young Falcons -- guard Harland Gunn -- made the most of his opportunities.

Osi Umenyiora is no longer a starter: The veteran defensive end did not start Sunday's game despite being a regular starter all season. At least Umenyiora didn't pout on the sideline. He came into the game off the bench and immediately forced a fumble, recovered by teammate Jonathan Babineaux. The Falcons started Jonathan Massaquoi and Peria Jerry at the defensive end spots. Umenyiora primarily played the role of situational, third-down pass-rusher in the first half. So what about his future with the team? Besides, the Falcons already made a statement by benching veteran cornerback Asante Samuel for Alford.

• The Falcons are trying to send Tony Gonzalez out in style: Quarterback Matt Ryan seems to be making Gonzalez a priority today. He hit the soon-to-be-retired tight end for a 13-yard touchdown in the first quarter. And the aging Gonzalez didn't dunk it over the goal posts. Gonzalez extended his consecutive games with a reception streak to 209.

• Although the Falcons have been terrible on defense, Babineaux has been extremely disrupted. He's set to become a free agent an obviously wants to prove his value.