Redskins Nation held their breath before Sunday’s game, as the health of quarterback Robert Griffin III hung in the balance. Despite limited practice throughout the week that helped to instill some hope, RG3’s sprained knee was deemed better off rested and untouched.
Fellow rookie Kirk Cousins would get the start.
To say the Redskins offense started slow would be an understatement. Through the first 14 minutes of the game, Washington had already committed a penalty, tossed an interception, and managed to gain just seven yards on offense.
Things would eventually change just before the end of the first quarter by way of a 54-yard Leonard Hankerson touchdown and the Redskins held tough throughout the rest of the game, ultimately defeating the Browns 38-21 in Cleveland.
1. Kirk Cousins, anyone?
So maybe Kirk didn’t start out so hot. But is anyone disgruntled with 329 yards of 26-of-37 passing and two touchdowns for a rookie making his big league debut?
Yeah, me neither.
As the game went on, Cousins appeared to get more and more comfortable. Where his throws were errant and ugly in the first quarter, Cousins rebounded in the second half and was making veteran passess by the final quarter to help seal a Redskins’ victory. The deeper Cousins ventured out into the water, the better he was able to swim. And as much of that credit goes to offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan ( which I’ll hit on later ), it takes an intelligent quarterback like Cousins to go out and execute.
At the end of the day, Browns fans had to be disgusted that the Redskins’ fourth-round rookie outperformed their quarterback Brandon Weeden — a 29-year-old that the team traded up for last April.
2. Keeping the lid on the Browns offense
It wasn’t as if the Browns were something similar to the Patriots or Texans, but it did appear as if a majority of Redskins fans were sleeping on their Cleveland counterpart.
After winning the game by 17, those same Redskins fans will talk about how bad Cleveland is and how “the Browns were just being the Browns.” But those guys didn’t lose by 17 because they’re terrible. They lost by 17 because the Redskins defense, yet again, showed up and showed out.
It wasn’t long ago that the Redskins defense — their secondary especially — was considered the team’s weakest link. But since the bye week, the defense has come out reenergized and redefined, playing with passion and executing on nearly every front.
Against the Browns, the Redskins were very effective at keeping the lid on an offense that has the playmakers necessary to catch a defense napping. I’m not sure if you’d call them ‘explosive’, but the Browns are no slouch. Trent Richardson sets up the ground game, Josh Gordon has the big-play skill set, and Brandon Weeden can sling the rock when given time.
From the very beginning, the Browns couldn’t make use of their vertical threat. Whether by way of solid coverage, intelligent play calling by the Redskins, or Weeden’s inaccuracy, the Browns struggled to get anything going down field.
The Browns’ longest pass/catch of the day came late in the game by way of a 69-yard touchdown pass to Travis Benjamin. On that play, although the zero safety help was questionable, the score ultimately falls on cornerback DJ Johnson. Left on an island with the opposition down 31-14, Johnson should have never been caught flat-footed. Trailing by 17 late in the game and looking for a quick score, the Browns lined up a speedster like Benjamin on the outside for that specific reason.
Even so, bad coverage happens from time to time. It was a hiccup for a guy that hasn’t seen a lot of action, but will continue to now that Cedric Griffin has been suspended for the remainder of the season.
With the Browns’ next longest pass being a 30-yarder to Greg Little before the half, the Redskins defense can give themselves a pat on the back.
3. Back to the basics: stopping the run
After listening to the miserable announcing of Ron Pitts and Mike Martz during Sunday’s game, you would’ve thought Browns running back Trent Richardson was approaching 200 yards going into halftime and was the father of Martz’s first grandchild.
At the end of the game, Richardson had 28 rushing yards. Twenty. Eight. Frickin’. Yards.
This isn’t to say that Richardson isn’t a talented young running back with many accomplishments ahead of him. No, I recognize that the young man is a beast. But refrain from being swayed by the likes of Pitts, Martz, and Richardson’s two touchdowns for the game.
Richardson’s first score came from six yards out — a tough run demonstrating TRich’s strength and determination. His second was from one yard out — a veteran-like run that had Richardson bouncing outside to avoid would-be arm tackles. But taking just 11 carries in the game and averaging 2.5 yards is far from impressive.
I don’t think the Browns had plans of their No. 1 draft pick running the ball just four times in the second half on Sunday.
4. The Manimal that is Rob Jackson
Filling in for the injured Brian Orakpo is no easy task, but rush linebacker Rob Jackson has been very impressive this season. On Sunday, he continued to show out with a stat line to the tune of four tackles, a sack, a forced fumble, two pass deflections, and a leaping interception that showed off better hands than Cleveland’s best receiver.
When Jackson rushes off the edge, I believe him to be one of the team’s best. He has a threatening combination of speed and size, in addition to a creative repetoire of skill moves and a motor that won’t quit. But when it comes to dropping into coverage or reading a play, I think that’s where Jackson has been most impressive, simply because people didn’t know how effective he could be at doing it.
The loss of Orakpo has undoubtedly hurt the Redskins defense. But thanks to Rob Jackson, things aren’t nearly as bad as they could be.
5. Jimmy and Kyle deserve game balls
Although it’s the players that go out on the field and execute plays, it’s the coaches that put them in position to win. And on Sunday in Cleveland, both offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and defensive coordinator Jim Haslett deserve credit for a masterful gameplan that showcased very well en route to a 38-21 victory.
As I mentioned leading up to the game, a situation where Kirk Cousins starts would ultimately uncover the true struggles of the Redskins offensive line. Not many people realize that in addition to being one helluva quarterback, Robert Griffin III also has the talent and skill set to disguise the woes of an average-to-below-average offensive line. His speed and threat to run keep defenses at bay, thus making the job easier for the big guys up front. A more traditional quarterback, however, would expose the Redskins’ pass protection efforts.
Kyle was one step ahead of the game. And in order to accomodate his quarterback, offensive line, and offense as a whole, Kyle used the bootleg as an extension of the typical zone-read and kept the Browns on their toes with umpteen misdirections — a wrinkle the Cleveland defense apparently couldn’t stop.
On the defensive side of the ball, Jim Haslett once again deserves credit for a job well done. This was the fifth consecutive game plan in as many games that the Redskins have found success and the unit is finally getting some pressure up front.
Despite earlier claims of Haslett being on the hot seat ( myself being one of those finger-pointers ), the Redskins defense is just as much responsible for the team’s recent success as the offense. Regardless of what the box score tells you, Haslett has this defense playing well in the crunch and with a newfound passion.
That said, I’m not about to show all love for Haz. Do I like the rebound? Of course I do. But I still feel like someone can come in next season and run this thing right from start to finish ( and hopefully at full health ).
6. Improving as the game goes on
It wasn’t only Kirk Cousins that improved as the game went on. The team, as a whole, picked up momentum with each quarter. The offense got better on third down, the defense increased pressure, the offensive line appeared to get better push, and the ground game started to move in the second half.
Want a fun number to look at? In the first half, Alfred Morris had just nine carries for 18 yards. In the second half, Morris had 18 carries for 69 yards and two touchdowns. Props to the line, Kyle Shanahan, and the Fo-Six Impala himself.
If the Redskins can consistently improve over the course of a single game, all future opponents, whether it be regular season or playoffs, are in for a fight.