Saturday, August 24, 2013
Observation deck: Redskins-Bills
By John Keim
Highlights from the Washington Redskins’ 30-7 win over Buffalo on Saturday, their third straight in the preseason. Somewhere, Don Shula’s boys are getting nervous. Or not. Anyway, here you go:
The running game was terrific, but I need to start with the defense. Yes, the Bills have some issues at quarterback. Kevin Kolb was knocked from the game, but he’s at best an average quarterback. Still, the Bills want to play at a fast tempo and it’s not just about passing the ball; they want to run the ball a lot, too. But the Redskins’ defense forced two three-and-outs in addition to a 10-play drive (aided by a third-down penalty on David Amerson). It would have been good to see the Redskins’ defense face this attack longer, to get a better feel because it can wear teams down. However, the Redskins handled this attack well and one reason was linebacker London Fletcher. To a man, players talk about how communication and conditioning are key to battling that offense. The Bills typically snapped the ball with 20-23 seconds left on the play clock. Yet the Redskins’ D did not look confused or lost. They subbed and were able to use their base and nickel packages. “London is the calming force of the defense,” Redskins defensive end Kedric Golston said. “You feed off his confidence and getting the calls. That tempo is trying to catch you with everyone not communicating. That’s how big plays happen.” By the way, Buffalo managed a first down on only three of 12 series and none in the second half, though when Jeff Tuel is your quarterback for most of the game, that's bound to happen.
It can’t be underestimated how important it is to have someone like Fletcher on the field. It doesn’t mean mistakes won’ t happen; it does mean that they can minimize those mistakes because of his knowledge. “He’s a coach out there and even with the short amount of time we had to get up, we were able to get the calls out and get lined up,” linebacker Ryan Kerrigan said. I haven’t asked Fletcher about this, but there’s little doubt that he’s watched film of Oregon and of Philadelphia in preparation for the opener, and probably has for a while. There’s still no voice in the defensive room that players trust more than Fletcher.
I know one growing trend in the NFL is the use of packaged plays in which the quarterback has the option to either hand off or throw – and only he knows what he’s going to do. Buffalo does that; Philadelphia will do some of that. And Saturday, the Redskins scored a touchdown in that situation. They don’t do this a lot, but it’s certainly not foreign to them. They scored a touchdown two years ago versus Minnesota in this fashion to receiver Jabar Gaffney, and their first drive against New Orleans in the 2012 opener featured several such plays. Anyway, against Buffalo, Rex Grossman spotted the safety in a spot that left him vulnerable – up near the line on the right side. Typically, the safety would have been where receiver Pierre Garcon was headed on his slant. Grossman knew what to do. Watch the offensive linemen on this play– everyone was blocking for a zone run to the right; left tackle Trent Williams went for the linebacker. Grossman stepped that way but threw the slant to Garcon for an easy score. The corner had no shot at making the play – and even gestured to the safety at the end. Don’t blame him at all. “I knew we would get a blitz or he would drop out of leverage,” Grossman said of the safety. A good call and an easy touchdown.
It’s a shame about Richard Crawford on many levels. It leaves the Redskins in a bind for punt returner. I wrote about this elsewhere on the site, but the options are veterans such as Santana Moss and DeAngelo Hall. However, coach Mike Shanahan does not like to use key players in this role, and both would qualify. Besides, Moss has not returned a punt since 2009, and Hall has four returns in five seasons. There’s also Aldrick Robinson, who was bad in this role two preseasons ago and didn’t show a lot of improvement last summer. Can they really trust him? Skye Dawson has looked better since two disastrous returns in the opener (a fumble and a bad decision to reverse field). Anyway, Crawford is one of the Redskins smarter players; he’s always struck me as a future coach because of the way he thinks and understands the game. And he had improved a decent amount this summer – after spending the spring working with Redskins Hall of Fame corner Darrell Green. Mostly, this is about Crawford’s returns and I liked how comfortable he was fielding the ball. It looked natural and he (usually) made the first defender miss.
Another option is Chris Thompson. There’s much that I like about Thompson and what he offers, and yet there are two major issues that just won’t go away: durability and ball security. I was pleasantly surprised how he looked fielding the ball. In practice a week or two ago Thompson did not look smooth at all; he twisted his hands awkwardly catching it on the run to his left and he fought the ball other times. However, he looked much different Saturday. “When I got back there I was pretty calm,” he said. It showed. He ran up and caught one on his 31-yard return. He had to backpedal and grab another one and moved to the side. Still, he’s only fielded three punts in a game since high school. It’s hard to imagine they can trust him with ball security at this point. But they absolutely love his speed and his sharp cuts in the open field. Some of this talk makes him sound like Brandon Banks, though Thompson is loads ahead when it comes to character.
Now, for Thompson’s runs from scrimmage. The fumbles are an issue, and it’s clear he’s still adjusting to running in this offense. Of his 15 carries, none went for more than 9 yards. There were some positive signs: He did not dance around, and when he saw the opening he cut up and took what was there. Liked on a 5-yard run in the fourth how patient he was running to his left, then cutting up and running into the gut of a linebacker, moving him back a yard. He only averaged 2.9 yards per run and I’m curious to see when rewatching the game what sort of holes he really had. I saw good signs. However, those fumbles are killers. He showed resiliency in what he did after the fumbles and that’s good. (He actually carried the ball in his left hand on a run to the right, his first after the fumble. Why? Because he's left-hand dominant and felt more secure with the ball in that hand.) But he’s fumbled twice in two preseason games. If you’re going to do that, you’d better make a few really big plays. Thus far, that hasn’t been the case. Can he make the roster? Yes, because the coaches love his speed and he can develop. But he has not yet earned it with his performance (just remember, though, two years ago that Banks had not really earned it either until a big preseason finale).
I liked how rookie tight end Jordan Reed played after a tough debut versus Pittsburgh. In that game, he dropped a pass and struggled as a blocker. Saturday, Reed caught the ball well and blocked even better. Reed competes hard, one reason he’s further ahead as a blocker than the coaches had hoped or realized he would be at this stage. On Keiland Williams’ 23-yard run it was Reed who cleared an opening by driving a linebacker out of the way. It wasn’t his only good block, but it was one good example. He used his hands better and was a little quicker with his feet getting in position. I also like that he makes smooth catches on balls that would be a little tougher for most players of his size at his position. I don’t know when he’ll make an impact, but I like his potential.
Another guy who deserves credit: safety Bacarri Rambo. Didn’t get a chance to talk to him after the game, but you saw one reason why the coaches really like him: The ability to quickly learn. With the tackles it was all about angles rather than desire and after working on it even harder this week, there was a big improvement. Should you be completely comfortable yet with him? No. Even Sean Taylor needed to adjust to this during games; I remember asking Gregg Williams about Taylor’s open-field tackling as a rookie. The difference for Rambo tonight is that he didn’t hesitate. He was decisive and it showed. He tackled running back C.J. Spiller in the open field. Rambo also tackled Kolb in the open field. OK, Kolb isn’t Mike Vick. But what Rambo needed was some confidence in this area, and he received it Saturday. The coaches even gave Rambo extra time when the other starters were out, a smart move. They need him to be solid in this area. One game doesn’t make or break anyone – good or bad – but it was a positive step.
The Pat White show continues. Does it mean he’ll win a roster spot here? Not unless the Redskins do the unlikely and keep four quarterbacks. And while he’s done a nice job running the zone read plays, keep in mind what separated Robert Griffin III on these plays was his ability to provide a triple threat: run, hand off or throw. White hasn’t shown he can be consistent throwing the ball from this look. White has improved greatly since we first saw him in spring workouts and if nothing else he’s shown that if and when he’s cut, it would be wise for someone else to at least take a look. His passing is still inconsistent and while he’s good throwing slants – hitting guys in stride – he has trouble on out routes. Before I go crazy on him I’d like to see consistency throwing into different areas and against different looks. But for a guy out of football for three years White has been far from an embarrassment and has provided jolts of energy on the field. He was very patient on his touchdown run, allowing fullback Darrel Young to do his job and then following behind. It’s just too bad for the Redskins that White is ineligible for the practice squad. White is behind Grossman; that touch throw to Roy Helu on the wheel route was very, very nice by Grossman. Maybe White gets there someday but he’s not close to those types of plays yet. Still, he’s improved.
Finally, running back Roy Helu showed once again what he can do in the open field. As a running back there are still times I’m not in love with him. He gets the yards that are available too often whereas Alfred Morris creates more yards for himself. Morris did just that on his first three runs; each one went for longer than it should have because of his vision or his cuts or all of the above. His patience is exemplary. Helu is learning how to run with a little more patience. He didn’t always set up blockers. But one of Helu’s best runs, a 12-yarder, also coincided with a major negative – a fumble. However, the run was good as Helu pressed the hole well and got the linebackers to overflow to their right. A big cutback lane opened and Helu took advantage. Lucky for him, he recovered his own fumble. On the next play, you saw the dangerous Helu: his footwork was sharp as he was forced to cut a yard or two deep in the backfield because of pressure. Then he made a quick jump cut outside; all tight end Niles Paul had to do was obstruct his man and he did. Helu bounced wide for 17 yards. There’s a big difference between Helu and Morris, but both can be dangerous when used properly. If Helu gets 10 touches a game he will provide some big plays. If you put him on the field in passing situations with tight end Fred Davis and receiver Pierre Garcon and use play action… one of them will get wide open. Get a one-on-one matchup with a linebacker, as Helu did, and it can result in a wheel route and long completion. I’m not about to say this will be the most explosive offense ever, but a healthy Helu certainly provides more options and added firepower.