Washington Redskins: NFC East
“That’s how they play,” Jackson said of the Eagles defense. “They’re very na´ve, and they play how they play, so they can care less who’s out there or who’s at wide receiver. They’re going to play their defense the way they play it. I’m just glad I was able to get the opportunities I got on them.”
Jackson found himself lined up across from cornerback Bradley Fletcher. During the week, Jackson enjoyed watching tape of Fletcher giving up three touchdown passes to Dez Bryant last Sunday.
In the first quarter, Jackson ran past Fletcher and under a pass from Robert Griffin III. Jackson veered to his right and caught the ball for a 51-yard gain.
On the next play, Alfred Morris ran 28 yards for a touchdown and a 7-3 Washington lead.
In the third quarter, with Washington holding a 17-14 lead, it happened again. Fletcher was singled up on Jackson. The receiver blew past him, drifted toward his right and caught another Griffin bomb. This one went for 55 yards.
After that play, Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis took Fletcher out for a while. Nolan Carroll played cornerback in his place.
“He’s had two bad weeks,” Davis said. “I was hoping he could get out of that slump. He didn’t. They went at him deep. They made the plays on him, so I made the switch. I think Fletch is a good corner. He’s just lacking confidence right now.”
Two plays later, Jackson drew a pass interference penalty in the end zone. Darrel Young ran for a 1-yard touchdown on the next snap.
“We felt like our corners could stay with him and obviously, they didn’t,” Eagles coach Chip Kelly said.
That was the second miscalculation the Eagles made regarding Jackson this year. Back in March, Kelly decided Jackson was a poor fit for the kind of team he was trying to build. Jackson was released.
He caught an 81-yard touchdown pass when the teams met in September at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. The Eagles won that game, though. This time, Jackson didn’t get into the end zone, but his team won.
“As far as my ex-teammates, I think a lot of guys miss me,” Jackson said. “They tell me that during the game. I still have good relationships with a lot of guys over there. They constantly tell me how much they miss me and wish I was still there. But that’s a decision they chose to make in the front office.”
At 1-4 after Monday’s 27-17 loss to Seattle, the Redskins don’t have any margin for error in the NFC East. They’re three games out of first and two out of third. But, at this point, it’s not about their place in the standings as much as it is re-establishing themselves.
“We’re 1-4 and disappointed, but that was the defending Super Bowl champions, and we went toe-to-toe with these guys, and that’s something to hang our heads high on,” Redskins linebacker Brian Orakpo said. “Our guys played great. We just didn’t finish in the end. The effort was there, guys were making plays. There are no moral victories, but it’s something to build on.”
Well, maybe, said safety Ryan Clark. He said losses can’t be built upon, but positives can be drawn.
“It’s effort, it’s will, it’s want-to,” Clark said. “It’s being able to battle adversity, like playing so bad on national TV last week and getting an opportunity against an extremely good team and you go one way or another. You could out and you fight and you scratch and you claw or you get embarrassed again. We didn’t do that. We got beat by a better team and, as far as I’m concerned this weekend, the best player in the NFL. Russell Wilson made every play he had to make for his team to win.”
The offense managed 17 points against arguably the NFL’s best defense. They failed to run the ball well -- 32 yards on 17 carries. Despite that, they entered the fourth quarter down a touchdown. Quarterback Kirk Cousins wasn’t spectacular; he did throw for 283 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions -- 117 of those yards came on two passes to DeSean Jackson.
“There’s no such thing as a moral victory, but in some ways this is,” tight end Logan Paulsen said. “There are a lot of things we can take away from this game.”
They’re trying to stay patient.
“It’s a process, man,” Jackson said. “New coach, new quarterback that’s getting a lot of experience. There’s a lot of new players so we’re trying to find our identity."
Linebacker Ryan Kerrigan said, “It is frustrating, but if we get that kind of effort and just limit the big plays and limit the mistakes, then we have a chance to be good and start stacking up some wins.”
The Redskins once again failed in a key area that continues to haunt the offense: third downs. Quarterback Kirk Cousins in particular has struggled in this area. Fortunately for the Redskins, they’re playing a team on Sunday that could help them get better in this department. Or, perhaps, their stats are a little misleading -- and not as inviting as they appear.
Let’s start with Cousins. Quarterbacks earn their money in the red zone and on third down. Too often, though, that’s been a troubling down as Cousins ranks last in the NFL among quarterbacks who have appeared in at least three games with a 49.8 passer rating on this down. Cousins has completed 21-of-37 passes for 204 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions.
In three starts last season, Cousins had a 64.5 passer rating -- that was 25th in the NFL during that stretch. He completed 24 of 39 passes for 224 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.
So it’s been an issue. Some of it is too many third-and-longs: Of their 12 third downs Monday, eight were for 5 yards or more. The problem is that teams will blitz Washington more on third down. Cousins has faced a blitz on 19 of his 37 third-down throws. He’s completed eight of those 19 passes for 55 yards and an interception.
Which brings us to Arizona. The good news for Washington: The Cardinals allow the opposition to convert on 45.5 percent of third downs. The quarterbacks they’ve faced: Philip Rivers, Eli Manning, Colin Kaepernick and Peyton Manning. A pretty good group.
But it’s the pressure on third down that will be worth watching. The Cardinals have blitzed an NFL-high 33 times on third down. It usually works: Quarterbacks have completed 16 of 30 passes for 242 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions on those plays. The yards per attempt (8.37) ranks 21st in the league, so there’s a potential payoff -- but that means Cousins and the rest of the offense must handle this scenario better than they have in the past.
“You know, it was the pressure,” Rolle said during his weekly radio show on WFAN in New York, courtesy of the Washington Post’s Dan Steinberg.
“It was the pressure up front. When you slow the tape down and you watch how we got after those guys up front, it was phenomenal. … And one thing that our coaches put a point of emphasis on is when this guy doesn’t have pressure, his passer rating is 100-something, but when he has that pressure and he gets pressure in his face, his passing rating went all the way down to like 60-something.”
Now, here are the stats. And I broke it down by the number of rushers Cousins faced. Typically, he’ll face more pressure against a five-man rush, and his numbers are definitely worse against that look. He was pressured by four-man rushes as well so it's not always about the number of rushers.
But I’ll stick with that direction for now. According to ESPN Stats & Information, against five-man rushes this season, Cousins has completed 24-of-43 passes for 293 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions for a 73.1 passer rating.
Contrast that to his numbers vs. a four-man rush: 43-of-65, 537 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions for an 87.8 passer rating. Not spectacular, but solid -- and clearly better.
Last season, Cousins actually fared worse vs. a four-man rush: 42-of-80 for 439 yards, one touchdown, three interceptions and a 57.2 rating. Against a five-man rush: 22-of-41, 278 yards, three touchdowns, two interceptions and a 79.1 rating.
But those are just the stats. The reality, watching games, is that he struggles against pressure. Many quarterbacks do, but for Cousins, it’s about keeping his poise in those situations and not forcing throws -- something he’s done vs. any sort of look. To beat Seattle, the turnovers must be cut to zero.
For what it’s worth, opposing quarterbacks have a 101.9 passer rating against Seattle when it rushes four. But it drops to 78.0 when the Seahawks rush five (which they’ve done 28 times in three games). They’ve also faced Aaron Rodgers, Philip Rivers and Peyton Manning.
“So that was something that we put a point of emphasis on: make sure we put pressure in his face, get him uncomfortable in the pocket,” Rolle said. “Because if he sits in the pocket, it doesn’t matter who you are in the defensive backfield, that guy is very accurate, and he’ll rip you apart. So it all started up front; those guys did a phenomenal job, and we were just able to capitalize in the back end.”
“I turned the ball over too much,” he said.
It was only his sixth career start, but his penchant for turnovers has plagued him throughout the early part of his NFL career. Thursday also represented a stark difference from his previous two games -- if you rip him for last night, tough to then ignore what he did in those games. As usual, the truth is somewhere in there about who he is as a quarterback. He’s trying to prove he deserves a starting job somewhere.
The Eagles’ game presented a strong case; the Giants game did not.
Regardless, the result was another ugly showing in a prime-time game. It started with the turnovers, which Cousins said toyed with him.
“I got a little bit of mind play because I was killing us here and there and all the turnovers in the second half,” Cousins said. “So what happened, I turned the ball over too much.”
Cousins had a few killer turnovers. The fumble was bad, though that was a result of bad protection as right tackle Tyler Polumbus was beaten by Mathias Kiwanuka, who sacked Cousins in 2.3 seconds. Cousins pointed to his third-quarter interception as a back-breaker. The Redskins trailed 24-14 but had forced a punt after opening the second half with a touchdown.
It was a bad throw with a corner, Prince Amukamara, playing tight on receiver Ryan Grant. The throw was inside; the pick was easy.
“Had I not turned the ball over, you’d like to think the game would have taken a different tale,” he said.
That led to another interception. And so on. And so on.
“It’s like that cascading effect,” tight end Logan Paulsen said. “You make one mistake and you try to compensate or overcompensate. I felt the same thing after my fumble. I’ve been in games like that where you make a mistake and a couple plays later you make another mistake, and you can’t get out from under it.”
Cousins admitted he then started forcing more throws.
“I was trying to get everything back in one play,” he said. “You can’t do that. I was trying to force things and trying to do too much and didn’t stay true to my reads and stay patient. … It just snowballs, and you put your defense behind the eight ball.”
Cousins now must move forward and prepare to face the NFL’s best defense (Seattle).
“Hopefully, he can put it behind him,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said. “This is a very tough position. One of the main things I’ve said all along is one of the biggest traits you have to have as a quarterback -- you’ve got to be mentally tough. You’re going to have rock games, rocky throws, rocky performances. The great ones will bounce back.”
Jackson, nursing a sprained left shoulder, did catch a couple passes from a short distance during individual drills. But that was about all he did. Gruden said there’s still a chance Jackson could get some work Friday.
“He’s still sore, but he’s getting better, and his range of motion is better,” Gruden said. “It’s an injury where a couple more days will do him a lot of good.
“A lot of it is pain tolerance. … I think he’ll be OK.”
Gruden said they will test Jackson the morning of Sunday’s game against Philadelphia. Jackson said Wednesday that he plans on playing, and he texted good friend LeSean McCoy and told the Eagles running back he would play against his former team.
“There’s no guarantee, that even if he does dress, that he has to play the whole game,” Gruden said. “There’s a chance he plays 20 to 30 plays. Maybe 60. I don’t know yet. He’ll be honest about it. I know he wants to play and compete against the Eagles, but he also knows we have other guys who can do a better job than him if he’s injured. He still has a few good days left to get this right.”
If he can’t play, then rookie Ryan Grant will get more opportunities in Washington’s three-receiver sets. He lacks Jackson’s speed, but he’s a talented route-runner.
Also on the injury report for Washington: Tight end Jordan Reed (hamstring), defensive lineman Kedric Golston (groin), corner Tracy Porter (hamstring) and linebacker Akeem Jordan (knee) did not practice. Center Kory Lichtensteiger (groin) and kicker Kai Forbath (groin) was limited.
But a lot changed with one injury. With Cofield now headed for the short-term injured reserve list, and unable to play for eight games, the Redskins’ depth will be tested, as will their versatility.
Though Cofield did not have a strong second half last season -- certainly not as strong as his first half -- he remained a key part of what Washington did defensively. Also, he played well Sunday. With better depth, he would't be needed as much in their nickel packages, the way he had been in the past. They hoped to keep him fresh -- a necessity -- considering he had hernia surgery in the offseason and was dealing with a strained groin.
Players constantly point out how smart and intuitive he is, knowing offensive tendencies and reacting accordingly. It makes a difference and his penetration on two short-yardage situations was key. He had to learn how to be a nose tackle after never having seen the blocking schemes he did in his first season at the position in 2011.
Baker can handle the position, as it’s probably a more natural spot for him. He plays with excellent leverage and, when that’s the case, power. It’s a good time for him to take over because of his comfort level on defense, reading offenses and understanding his responsibilities up front. He’s developed into a solid player since joining the Redskins. But the Redskins were better off with Cofield in the middle and Baker on the edge. That gave them two quick players along the front to pair with Hatcher’s power.
They can use Kedric Golston at nose in a pinch, as they did Sunday. Even Jenkins played there for at least a snap Sunday. But it’s not the ideal situation.
It’s also another test for Washington’s defense. The Redskins are down one starter with safety Brandon Meriweather suspended for one more game. They have some age and, therefore, durability questions on that side of the ball as well. The defense got off to a good start with its showing Sunday, allowing only 10 points. They certainly can continue playing well without Cofield; it was a lot easier to do so with him.
Way played for Tulsa Union High School in Oklahoma whose nickname also happens to be the Redskins. They’ve received pressure to change their name but have resisted.
While Way didn’t want to discuss the team’s name, he did talk with excitement about one of his high school’s traditions. The topic arose because he was talking about what signing with Washington meant to him and those he played sports with in high school.
At football games, players ran onto the field through a teepee with smoke coming out, chanting, Way said, “All my life I want to be a Redskin.” Then they would chant, “Work, work, baby, work, work.” So, after signing with the Redskins last month, Way said he received 65 texts from high school buddies filled with the Redskin line.
“I had work, work, baby, work, work just copy and pasted to everybody,” Way said.
As for his high school, the National Congress of American Indians urged them last year to change their nickname, pointing out that 28 other high schools have done so. Tulsa Union declined.
According to the Oklahoman, Tulsa Union issued a statement in response, saying, “Union community members of all races tell us this is not an issue divided strictly on the lines of race. The debate appears to be between some people outside of this district who have a different opinion as to how people inside this school district should believe, feel, and identify themselves. It is those within the Union community that the district serves.
“Definitions need to be in context of time, place and usage. In this day and age, in the Union community, ‘Redskins' is not derogatory; rather it defines a diverse, yet close-knit community that exhibits great pride and spirit in its schools and programs as well as in its determination and traditions of success.”
And as a result, Griffin and coach Jay Gruden were both defending his progress after a 23-17 loss to Baltimore on Saturday night.
That wasn’t the case Saturday.
“He is further along than it appears he is,” Gruden said. “Based on his production [Saturday], a lot of people would say he’s not further along. He’s a lot further along than he gets credit for. All you have to look at is practice and game tape, and it wasn’t very good from anybody. But I’ve seen him practice, and I’ve seen him come a long way. [Saturday] didn’t show how much he’s come forward.”
On the game broadcast, former Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann was adamant in saying backup Kirk Cousins had outplayed Griffin in the preseason. The Redskins are committed to Griffin; Cousins has made his own mistakes, though he’s more comfortable in the pocket at this stage.
“There will be overreactions all over the place,” Griffin said. “It’s our job to make sure we stay cool, calm and collected and keep fighting on. ... I won’t judge Week 1 to Week 2 to Week 3 in the preseason as a regression on myself or on this team or the offense in general.”
Griffin finished the preseason completing 13 of 20 passes for 141 yards and two interceptions. The No. 1 offense did not score a touchdown in its 10 drives this preseason (though one was a kneel-down to end a half). Saturday, the Ravens generated too much pressure with four rushers, though sometimes they were helped by Griffin’s indecision.
Nor did it help that of the eight third downs they faced, five were for 8 yards or longer. Two of the eight third downs resulted in penalties, one by Washington negating a first down and one by the Ravens. On the third downs, Griffin was sacked twice and fumbled the shotgun snap another time. The Redskins continue to say it will take time for Griffin to improve in the pocket. Like the team’s fans, though, they get frustrated with the growing pains. But it wasn’t just a tough night for Griffin.
“Everybody is going to point at Robert, but it’s a total team thing,” Gruden said. “We had some chances to make plays, and we didn’t make them. Nobody played good enough in that first half to really talk about of note.”
Griffin was 0-for-3 on first-down passes with one interception. Another first-down pass resulted in a pass interference penalty.
“We have to do a better job of getting into a rhythm, get some completions early and get some first downs,” Gruden said. “We did a poor job of first and second down. It all starts with me the playcaller and on down to everybody else. We have to do a better job getting things going.”
Tackle Trent Williams, whose holding penalty wiped out a 29-yard catch-and-run, said of the game, “I don’t know if we can find a positive out of that.”
No, they could not. Not when the offense manages three points out of their first two drives despite getting the ball at the 50 and then the Ravens’ 42. But Gruden, with one preseason game left that will be devoted to backups, said he’s not going to let one game sully the preseason.
“They’ve done enough that I can take a lot of positives to draw from, not just the first half of a game,” he said. “We’re not going to panic and abort ship.”
One preseason game does not start a trend, but through training camp, it’s evident that Washington’s offensive identity must start with the running game.
They have the offensive weapons to be explosive and exciting in the passing game. But they also have a young quarterback, Robert Griffin III, who is still learning the passing system -- not to mention everyone else is learning it as well.
But they don’t need to learn the running game. They need to use it to shape their mentality. They ran for 177 yards against the New England Patriots on 44 carries. Again, preseason is not always a predictor. In this case, it needs to be.
“We felt we could pound the ball down their throats,” Redskins tight end Logan Paulsen said of the Patriots. “We wanted to assert ourselves in a physical way, and I think we did. As we go, hopefully it will gain some momentum and keep it rolling throughout the year.”
There’s no way to know that of course. When the passing game starts to click, will they lean that way? No way to know right now; a knock on Jay Gruden in Cincinnati was that he abandoned the running game too fast. Then again, he did not have a running game as strong as what he inherited in Washington.
The Redskins’ left side did a terrific job (guard Shawn Lauvao does not play with as much strength as you’d like when he reaches the second level, but he can obstruct). Fullback Darrel Young is off to a good start and Paulsen is an excellent blocking tight end.
When you’re starting a new program and want to instill a mindset, it’s good to start with the physical aspect of the game on both sides of the ball. That’s why it’s good that Ryan Clark, if he can stay healthy, is at safety. And it’s good that they drafted tough-minded players such as corner Bashaud Breeland and linebacker Trent Murphy (and guard Spencer Long for that matter).
“There’s an element of physicality you bring,” Paulsen said. “You know the defense will try to stop you and you want to assert yourself in a way that says we know and you know, but we’re still gonna do it. It’s always something special when you get that done.”
Having a certain mindset carries you through tough times. You don’t get that just because you can run the ball, but it does help.
“You want to find the right guys who are very competitive and can handle it,” Gruden said. “You have to be mentally tough because there are so many ups and downs through the course of a season. Only time will tell when adversity strikes how they react.”
I always enjoyed watching Marty Schottenheimer’s teams because they adopted a certain mindset of tough, hard-nosed ball. It helped them recover from an 0-5 start way back when. I have no idea if Gruden can shape his team in that manner; there’s a ways to go. But he and the organization at least understood that they needed to be more physical on offense and defense. It’s not as if they’re killing each other in practice, but it has been more physical. The Redskins under Mike Shanahan also wanted to run the ball.
“With Mike, we knew we wanted to run the ball, but it got a little convoluted how we would run the ball,” Paulsen said. “For a while, we didn’t have the pieces in place to run it. Now everything is here and we’re established, and that’s something we’ve taken a lot of pride in.
“As we get in the season the [passing game] will become a bigger part. We have outstanding playmakers. But it will be nice if this carries us forward.”
With speedy playmaking receivers, the Redskins' running back understands he can benefit from them, especially since DeSean Jackson is one of the newcomers.
“I never looked at it as if I was going to get less touches having him,” said Morris, who has rushed for a combined 2,888 yards in his first two seasons combined. “I got excited having him because he’s going to take that extra defender off the box.”
Morris was tied for sixth in the NFL last season with 44 carries against eight-man fronts, averaging 3.55 yards per carry according to ESPN Stats & Information. Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson (108) and San Francisco’s Frank Gore (107) led the NFL with such carries. Two years ago, Morris was eighth in the NFL with 50 runs against eight-man fronts.
So it might not be that Morris will see a whole lot less eight-man fronts. However, there’s little doubt the Redskins will use a lot of three-receiver sets with Jackson, Pierre Garcon and Andre Roberts. That means more chances to spread the field, more weapons for a defense to worry about and better lanes, potentially, for Morris.
Since entering the NFL, Morris has the most carries against seven-man fronts (396) and averages 4.83 yards per carry against those looks. He's 22nd in the number of five- or six-man fronts (121) and averages 5.02 yards per carry. In comparison, Philadelphia's LeSean McCoy has 290 runs against such looks the past two years.
“It definitely takes one, two extra eyes off the backfield just for a split second which can just make the difference in any game, any play,” Morris said.
Earlier in the week, fullback Darrel Young caught a touchdown pass in the right flat because the defense lost him because it had other weapons to worry about. Young caught scoring passes like that two years ago when the offense lacked the same depth at receiver, but there were weapons in Morris, quarterback Robert Griffin III and receiver Garcon. Now they have Roberts, who has looked good in the slot, and Jackson as well as tight end Jordan Reed.
And Morris has maintained since his rookie season that he doesn’t care how many carries he receives.
“Just having [Jackson], they have to respect him,” Morris said. “I would love it if they stacked the box this year. We could just go deep every play. I would love that. The quicker we can get off the field, the better.”
Coach Jay Gruden half-joked Saturday that he was going to suspend Meriweather two practices for a hit. It’s another reminder to Meriweather to lower his target. The problem is, when instincts take over, it’s tough to know what’s going to happen. A hit deemed too violent might only be a few inches away from being a good one.
Ryan Clark is right; football players, especially those on defense, must play with “reckless abandon.” But the bottom line is there are rules in place, and Meriweather flirts with danger in this area all the time.
“When you don’t play it full speed, when you don’t play it as physical as you could possibly play it, you leave yourself at a disadvantage,” Clark said.
When Meriweather returned after his one-game suspension last season, he did not draw another fine for any of his hits. At times he seemed to go lower; not all the time, however. But he’s going to have to do it the right way every game in order to stay on the field.
The issue here, too, is that the Redskins lack proven depth behind him. They liked how Phillip Thomas started to develop in camp last summer, but he suffered a Lisfranc injury in the first preseason game and needed surgery. Though he’s in camp and has been praised by the coaches, he’s never played in a real game. There’s no way to really know how he’d do if anything happened to Meriweather.
With Meriweather, the Redskins like to run certain blitzes from the corners knowing he has the speed to get to their vacant area. He plays with passion and brings energy and plays physical. Yes, he also takes chances and that’s gotten him in trouble with other teams.
What the Redskins need is for Meriweather to find stay aggressive, but also smart. Every hit he makes will be scrutinized. They say Meriweather has learned his lesson, yet it’s a topic that still comes up. There’s really no way to know if he has, but they do know this: The Redskins need him on the field.
It happens every day in practice. On Friday, it poured throughout practice, and Griffin threw poorly missing targets with throws that weren't close. The entire offense was sloppy, but so was he. It rained again Sunday -- it had mostly stopped by the time practice began but the field was soggy. Griffin, aside from a couple throws, was better than he was two days ago and more accurate. A great day? No. A better day? Yes.
Another example: Griffin misread a blitz Saturday leading to a pick-six by corner DeAngelo Hall. Afterwards Griffin described what happened. After watching the film later that afternoon, he learned something else -- something coach Jay Gruden pointed out after reviewing the play as well. Griffin needed to hit tight end Jordan Reed, his primary target.
Instead, he looked off him too fast and went to his secondary target DeSean Jackson. But Hall, in a trap, stepped in front for the pick.
“Watching on film, Jordan was there and all I’ve got to do is throw to him and we move on to the next play,” Griffin said. “Those are the things you see when they bring those fire zone blitzes and buzzing guys out. Sometimes you can misplace the guy. I’ll never make that mistake again.
“It’s something you get used to seeing them bring a fire zone and rolling to a cover 2. You know they’ll probably miss Jordan underneath even though they’re buzzing out there and he’s breaking in. He’ll be open so that’s what you go to next time.”
“It was beneficial to have another day like today,” Griffin said.
Early in camp Griffin took off running too many times on pass plays. It wasn’t always because of him, but he’s the one with the ball in his hands. It happened more frequently the first couple days and did so once in full-team work Sunday morning on a third-and-11.
“You go back and look at that and see what it was,” Griffin said. “See if it’s an opportunity to get the ball out or if I need to make a decision and run sooner. We’ve gotten better over the last three days in that aspect of everyone being on the same page knowing where guys need to be.”
These are a lot of the lessons Griffin could not learn last year without an offseason and with only a couple weeks of practice before the opener.
He’s started 28 regular-season games in his career, but he won’t turn 25 until the offseason.
“If you look at the quarterbacks in the league, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, they’re all still learning,” Griffin said. “That’s the beauty of the game. The more you play, the more you will learn. I’m only 24. They have some experiences I don’t, and I have some experiences they don’t. At the end of the day we’re all learning.”
The Philadelphia Eagles won the division last year in Chip Kelly's first season, but do they have staying power?
Alfred Morris has eaten up yards on the ground in his first two years with the Washington Redskins, but can he do it without Mike Shanahan's system?
The New York Giants' offense grew stale under Kevin Gilbride. Can new coordinator Ben McAdoo get Eli Manning back to a top level?
The Dallas Cowboys' defense was bad in 2013 and have pinned their hopes of improvement on new coordinator Rod Marinelli. Just how much can Marinelli do?
John Keim, Kieran Darcy, Andy Jasner and Todd Archer look at what can be expected from the Redskins, Giants, Eagles and Cowboys with training camp just around the corner.
Will Rod Marinelli improve an already poor defense having lost DeMarcus Ware, Jason Hatcher and Sean Lee?
Todd Archer: I believe the Cowboys will be better with Marinelli serving as defensive coordinator instead of Monte Kiffin in part because it can't be worse. It can't be worse, right? Ware, Hatcher and Lee were part of last season's poor defense and missed time. Lee will be missed the most because of his playmaking ability. Ware's pass rush will be missed even if he had just six sacks in 2013. I believe the Cowboys have Hatcher's replacement in Henry Melton. He might not get 11 sacks, but he'll be fine. Marinelli does not have the talent he had to work with in Chicago, but he is a top coach. He can coax the ability out of these guys. Does that mean the Cowboys will be a top-10 or even top-15 defense? Not really. If they can get in the low to mid 20s, then that's improvement. He is more in-tune with today's game than Kiffin and will be more willing to adjust if necessary. The Cowboys had no answers last season. I think Marinelli will have more answers but not enough pupils to earn an A.
Andy Jasner: It's hard to imagine the Cowboys' defense getting any worse. Well, anything is possible. Four different quarterbacks threw for 400 or more yards in a single game last season. The New Orleans Saints had 40 first downs against the Cowboys' defense in November. Even with some key pieces missing from the defense, they should be improved for one simple reason: work ethic. Marinelli has been part of some bad teams in the past but not because he didn't work hard. Marinelli will instill good habits in his defensive players and improvement throughout the unit will likely be visible. Four years ago in 2010, Marinelli was promoted to defensive coordinator with the Bears. That defense steadily got better as the season moved on. The Cowboys allowed 388 first downs last season, the second-most in NFL history. Even with Ware, Hatcher and Lee, the defense was awful. Good work habits should help across the board.
John Keim: Man, how bad will the Cowboys' defense be if he can't help them improve? Does that mean even more quarterbacks throwing for 400 yards after a record-setting four did a year ago? That was a defense in transition last year, going from a 3-4 to a 4-3 under coordinator Monte Kiffin, who had been out of the NFL since 2008. The problem is, they've lost their most productive players in the front seven. Losing Lee is a huge blow because he was the one of this group who was going to return. Marinelli has done good work as a coordinator in the past and was excellent as Dallas' defensive line coach in 2013, despite needing to use 20 players because of injuries. If the Cowboys stay healthy and their defensive backs respond to different coverages they'll improve. But they have such a long way to go.
@toddarcher the defense is going to be so bad that if they don't score 30 points they won't win! Another miserable year for us cowboys fans!— Chris Matteson (@chechespopp) July 8, 2014
Will the rest of the division figure out Eagles coach Chip Kelly and make him a one-hit wonder?
Archer: The second time around against the Redskins and Giants, the Eagles' offensive performance slipped in 2013. The numbers against the Cowboys were better in the rematch only because the Cowboys were so good in the first meeting. In what was their best showing of 2013, Dallas gave up only 3 points and 278 yards in the first meeting. In the de facto NFC East title game to close the season, the Eagles scored 24 points and put up 366 yards. That's still respectable for a defense, especially one that was as bad as the Cowboys' last season. Kelly is innovative and appears to know how to stay ahead of the curve. He did that at Oregon in the Pac-12. But it will come down to Nick Foles. If he is a franchise quarterback and not a one-hit wonder himself, then the Eagles will struggle. Having LeSean McCoy, Darren Sproles, Jeremy Maclin, Riley Cooper, Zach Ertz and Brent Celek will help Kelly and Foles. With everybody wanting to hand them the division in the offseason, I think it's best to tap the brakes a little.
Jasner: Everything seemed to click in Kelly's rookie season as running back LeSean McCoy rushed for a league-high 1,607 yards and quarterback Nick Foles threw 27 touchdowns against just two interceptions. Foles began the season as a backup to Michael Vick, who now plays for the New York Jets. Kelly took his high-powered offense from Oregon and made the seamless transition to the NFL. Kelly did a stellar job of adjusting to defenses last season and there's no reason to believe that won't happen again. The rest of the division has plenty of film on how to stop the Eagles' offense. Doing it is another thing altogether. Don't expect Kelly to be a one-hit wonder. However, repeating the feat is always more challenging with defenses keying in more closely. The Eagles may not put up the same huge numbers in Kelly's second season. With talent such as McCoy, Foles, Jeremy Maclin and Darren Sproles, the Eagles will still be able to score plenty of points.
Keim: I'm assuming Kelly will have some changes for defenses in order to build on what the Eagles accomplished last season. What he can't do is fall in love with his "system" and forget it's the talent that made it work. The tough part is expecting Nick Foles to post similar numbers as in 2013. And you can't minimize the loss of receiver DeSean Jackson, even in terms of his impact on others. That said, I still expect them to be a potent offense. They do a good job manipulating defenses and they still have one of the best all-around players in the NFL in running back LeSean McCoy -- not to mention a terrific line. So even if teams think they've figured out Kelly's offense, I'd expect the Eagles to keep doing well.
@SheridanScribe I don't think so, as a eagles fan I think that division is broken, and we have our full arsenal back minus DJacks— Chocolate Gladiator (@Willing2GoHamm) July 16, 2014
Was Alfred Morris just a product of Mike Shanahan's system and will his effectiveness decrease under Jay Gruden?
Archer: So is he Tatum Bell, Mike Anderson or Reuben Droughns? Is that the question? Those three guys combined for four 1,000-yard seasons under Shanahan and never really performed well again. There is definitely something about the Shanahan system that makes it seem like any back can rush for 1,000 yards. But I think Morris could be more Clinton Portis than those other three. Portis was outstanding in Denver before his trade to Washington. The question, however, with Jay Gruden isn't so much the system as it is his willingness to run the ball enough. The Bengals ran for nearly 1,800 yards last year but it seemed like Gruden went away from the running game in the big moments. When you have a guy like A.J. Green that can be understandable, but is Andy Dalton good enough to carry the show? Now the question is can Robert Griffin III carry the show? The best way to help Griffin is to make sure Morris is a big part of the plan. If Gruden is smart, then he makes Morris the centerpiece of the offense.
Jasner: It shouldn't. Morris racked up 1,275 yards rushing, 4.6 yards per carry, and 7 touchdowns last season. He was selected to the Pro Bowl for the first time and was arguably the Redskins' most consistent offensive player. Gruden will expect Morris to become a complete player with the ability to run block and pass block. Gruden is a meticulous coach whom expects his players to be all-around competitors. Gruden has always leaned heavily on running backs in his system and it would be foolish not to have Morris do the same thing in 2014. Morris has played all 32 games in two seasons, resulting in 2,888 yards rushing and 20 touchdowns. Morris' effectiveness should increase under Gruden as long as he's healthy. When there's an ultra-talented player such as Morris, you give him the football as often as possible.
Keim: I don't think so. Gruden used his backs differently than Washington has with Morris, but in Cincinnati he did not have a similar runner. Nor in Washington does he have a Giovani Bernard (at least not yet anyway; maybe Lache Seastrunk becomes that sort of player in 2014) to take a ton of work away from Morris. The Redskins will use other backs, especially in the pass game. But they kept the run game the same for a reason: They want to feature Morris. He makes the offense go. Last season, Bengals running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis carried the ball 278 times two years ago; that's two more than Morris had in 2013. If healthy, and if the Redskins want to win, then Morris will still be in that 280 carry, 1,300-yard area.
@john_keim Yes. Gruden is notorious in forgetting about the run game. Unless you are a young fast multi purpose back: (See Giovanni B)— Dan (@dautry88) July 14, 2014
Will Eli Manning revert to Pro Bowl form in Year 1 under new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo?
Archer: Having worked with Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay for two seasons, McAdoo should have the benefit of the doubt with Manning. There is no doubt Manning was bad last season and his 27 interceptions are proof of it. He took too many chances. He didn't get help from his receivers at times. His line didn't help him. His eyes were on the rush a lot. Rodgers has been sacked a lot in Green Bay, but some of that is because he won't take chances. He will eat the ball and move on to the next play. Can Manning do that? if he doesn't, then it will be another long season for the Giants. I believe Manning will have a bounce-back year, but I don't know if it will be Pro Bowl form. It will be good and solid form and that could get the Giants back into the playoffs.
Jasner: Maybe not Pro Bowl form, but it has to be better than last season's debacle with 27 interceptions. Yes, 27. To be fair, Manning had poor pass protection on a week-in and week-out basis. He was never able to locate his rhythm. McAdoo has a reputation of building a strong rapport with his players and that was evident when he was the quarterbacks coach and worked with Aaron Rodgers with the Green Bay Packers. Manning must keep his interception total down and the Giants can't give the ball away 44 times like they did last season. Manning will have more options on offense in 2014 and some early-season success will be a boost to his confidence. This team doesn't resemble the two Super Bowl-winning teams under Manning. Don't expect a Pro Bowl season from Manning, but it should be a whole lot better.
Keim: One thing that hurt Manning, against the Redskins at least, was the defense's familiarity with Kevin Gilbride's system -- and, more important, his tendencies. They had a strong handle on what to expect. My guess is other teams did as well. But it sounds as if McAdoo will focus more on shorter passes which, the Giants have to hope, will help Manning cut down on his interceptions. Yes, he's learning a new system, but Manning is a smart player so I don't think it will hold him back that much. I'm looking for a big bounce-back year from him, but whether he reaches the Pro Bowl will depend on how his line improves and how the questions at receiver are answered. I'm not ready to go that far just yet.
- Washington Redskins offensive coordinator Sean McVay praised quarterback Robert Griffin III for how he handled the offseason – physically and mentally. “He did an excellent job above the neck,” McVay said, “as far as absorbing the new system, some of the terminology. … He’s done an excellent job translating his knowledge in the meeting room onto the field, recognizing some of those looks. Some of the audible situations we’ll give him the opportunity to call things at the line. He’s shown he’s fully capable of doing it and that’s what gives him a great chance to have success this year.”
- Griffin did not call audibles the first two seasons, but in talking to players the past two years, the Redskins had built-in rules in their offense so that if a bad look presented itself, there were automatic checks to another option.
- Cord Jefferson wrote an interesting piece on receiver DeSean Jackson in ESPN The Magazine. One thing that jumps out is his father’s involvement in his life. We already knew about this, but Jefferson wrote about Jackson’s father having an argument with his oldest son Byron after the latter told him he was giving up football after stints in the World League of American Football and the Canadian Football League. Jackson’s father eventually pulled a gun on him, leading to them being estranged. That was broken because Byron Jackson returned to help groom his younger brother.
- But it also illustrates the pressure put on DeSean Jackson to succeed in the NFL by his father. It wasn’t always easy, though in the end it sounds as if Jackson understood it better. And the heavy role his dad played is what Griffin gets. It’s why Griffin feels as if he understands Jackson’s motivation, which in turn helps him relate better.
- For what it’s worth, the Redskins obviously were pleased with what they saw of Jackson on the field this spring. As one coach texted last week, “He’s the real deal.” That’s not a surprise given his talent and background, of course, but they are excited about what he’ll do in Washington. Then again, I doubt they’d say otherwise right now.
- OK, in case you missed the last week of the Redskins’ nickname controversy: Here’s a story on a school board in the state of Washington that said they won’t force the local high school, in a heavily Native American district, to change its nickname; Senator John McCain said the name should change; a Redskins Pride Caucus was formed by Virginia politicians tired of the controversy.
- Here’s something I stumbled upon about Redskins running back Lache Seastrunk. Before last college season, he guaranteed that he’d win the Heisman Trophy. Don’t believe me? Here’s his quote to the Sporting News, “I’m going to win the Heisman. I’m going to win it in 2013. If I don’t, I’m going to get very close. I’m shooting for that goal. I will gladly say it.” Seastrunk also told the Sporting News, “I feel like there’s no back who can do what I do. I know I’m the fastest back in the country. I know I’m the best back in the country. Nobody’s going to work harder.” Have to say, I like guys who aren’t afraid to say how they feel. Don’t forget, Seastrunk said this spring, “I don’t have any weaknesses.” This kid could be a reporter’s dream.
- This story by Phil Sheridan surprised me as well: In the last 10 years, the Eagles have a home record of 44-36 and their road mark was 45-34-1. It’s mystifying how a team that has largely been a playoff contender during this stretch hasn’t been better at home. They were only 4-4 at home last season as well, though they won their last four (before losing a home playoff game). In the last 10 years, the Redskins have gone 5-5 in Philadelphia. Players get a kick out of pulling into the parking lot in their buses, seeing little kids flip them off and seeing eggs splatter on the windows. By the way, Philadelphia has added 1,600 seats to the Linc for this season.
- If the New York Giants want their passing attack to flourish again, it would help tremendously if third-year receiver Rueben Randle becomes a consistent target. He caught 41 passes for 611 yards and a team-leading six touchdown receptions, which our Dan Graziano likened to a “little like being the tallest dwarf.” Graz has a way with words. Anyway, Randle had three games of 75 or more yards but 10 with 40 or fewer. That has to change. And Giants receivers coach Sean Ryan said recently, “I've seen a difference in his seriousness towards his work. This spring, I thought he was locked in. I thought he did a good job learning the new offense. Like I said, he's got some football intelligence to him. Things come to him. He sees things pretty well. But I thought he really worked hard at being locked into the meetings and on the field as well. I noticed a difference in him." Receiver is a tough position for young players to learn; we’ll learn a lot more about Randle after this season and the direction he’s headed.
- For the first time in a while, Dallas lacks star power when it comes to its pass rush. Not that anyone else in the division will feel sorry for the Cowboys, entering life without DeMarcus Ware (not to mention Jason Hatcher and his 11 sacks from this past season). The problem is, where will their rush come from? The best options are a rookie second-round pick (DeMarcus Lawrence) and a defensive tackle coming off ACL surgery (Henry Melton). Calvin Watkins explored that situation here.