Dallas at Washington Game Tape Review: Offense

Washington Redskins running back Clinton Portis runs for a short gain against the Dallas Cowboys during the third quarter at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland on September 12, 2010. UPI/Kevin Dietsch Photo via Newscom

15/32 for 171 yards, 0 TDs, and 1 sack.  That was Donovan McNabb’s line for this game.  I could not have been happier with the way he played.

Well, that’s an overstatement.  McNabb left a lot of completions on the table in this one, and it would have been a lot nicer if he completed those passes.  But considering that he was victimized by his receivers throughout the entirity of this game, he managed the entire game quite well, and played like the best player on an offense that is going to make 15/32 a reality more often than not.

One thing that stuck out to me as this game progressed was that Kyle Shanahan is going to have to undergo the largest learning curve of anyone involved with the Redskins.  I don’t think his play selection was poor, necessarily, I just think he went in there with the mentality that he could call anything and that it would work, because that’s just the way it’s always been, and between McNabb, Portis, and Cooley, I mean the players would bail him out anyway.  Kyle was aggressive in nature without really attacking, and the multi dimensional attack we keep hearing about was very Zornian: Cooley and Moss are our best offensive players, so we get them the football often.

Things worked better in this game than normal, even though offensive efficiency was at or below levels established with a similar group in recent years.  For one thing, credit the Dallas defense.  When you look at all the blue chippers they have on that unit: two first round corners, two first round OLBs, Jay Ratliff, and then we have to match up with Trent Williams and Jammal Brown and Fred Davis and Mike Sellers, and then we have guys like Joey Galloway and Roydell Williams trying to break down their coverages, well, the best match-up we had all day was Santana Moss on Terence Newman.  It’s been that way for six seasons now.

Dallas still has no idea how to take Chris Cooley away from us after all these years, which I suppose is good.  Captain Chaos was a big part of the pre-halftime gameplan, but he was also McNabb’s outlet receiver on desperation throws.  Seven of McNabb’s 15 completions picked up yards in chunks (greater than 12 yards).  Three of those were to Cooley, four of those were to Santana Moss, none of those were to anyone else.  McNabb’s legs are less dangerous than Jason Campbell’s legs (at least he can slide), but they are still the third most dangerous weapon in our passing game.  That’s something that hasn’t changed since Jim Zorn’s first day.  We’ll see how the team can get Fred Davis involved now that Chris Cooley is back.

Mike Sellers played a lot of snaps in this game, coming off his injury in the preseason.  Mike Sellers was not very good.  He didn’t sustain one block the entire game that I saw.  Sometimes he hit someone and bounced off, other times he initiated contact and ended up on the ground.  Twice he was asked to block DeMarcus Ware, neither time did he survive initial contact.  Ware isn’t a great player against the run, speaking generally, but our blocking schemes turned him into one for the balance of this game.  Chris Cooley and Fred Davis both executed some very difficult blocks in this game in both the running and the passing game.  Davis, however, missed an easy one and got called for holding another time.  Cooley and Derrick Dockery both blew assignments to where they did not know whether we were running or passing on the play (Dockery’s resulted in illegal man downfield, Cooley’s just in an Anthony Spencer tackle at the LOS.

Donovan McNabb’s best plays in this game came behind the line of scrimmage.  I didn’t think he was great (or even an improvement) in the pre-snap phase, as Dallas was getting great jumps on his snap count the whole night.  Their favorite defensive play was double-A gap pressure, which was designed to exploit our greatest weakness, our interior OL.  They had great success getting inside of Casey Rabach, but they had only one sack and almost no charted pressures from interior rushers such as Ratliff and Keith Brooking and Bradie James.  That doesn’t make any sense.  If the center was almost useless out there, how in the world did Dallas fail to touch McNabb despite playing on our side of the LOS all night?

It’s simple: Clinton Portis killed everyone.  Portis didn’t play against Dallas in either of the two games last year, which is a large reason why the protection was so inexcusable and why Dallas held us without an offensive TD in those games.  McNabb had adequate time on every single passing play in this game, which was a marked improvement from the past two Dallas games.  It didn’t matter what blitzes Dallas diled up or what players Casey Rabach wasn’t blocking, there were zero wasted plays in this game due to aborted snaps or untouched pass rushers.  In fact, I counted one untouched rusher the entire night for the Cowboys.  This is the equivalent of going from 45 demerits on a driving test to just 1 demerit on an identical test two days later.  Portis was the biggest reason for this.

McNabb, himself, was another big reason for improved protection.  McNabb has the benefit of playing exclusively in systems where they take their pass protection seriously, and he played like a guy who expected his running back to go drill the linebacker who had run right through the A-gap.  McNabb didn’t exactly have open receivers running through the Dallas secondary (or anywhere else), but the execution (timing) of the plays was not disrupted by anything that was happening at the line of scrimmage.  Every once in awhile, the Cowboys would flush McNabb, but he was usually able to escape to his right side, where he is still able to make a play.

Let’s give it up for the rookie, Trent Williams, as well.  He had little help on DeMarcus Ware the whole night, and Ware was largely an irrelevant player against the pass most of the night.  Ware had one sack against Williams and one other hit on the quarterback while rushing against the rookie on the blind side, but at the end of the day he had no holding penalties, just one false start, and held one of the games’ premier pass rushers to a number of meaningful plays that can be counted on one hand.  Anthony Spencer did more damage than Ware, but he also had better match-ups: Jamaal Brown, Stephon Heyer, Fred Davis, and Chris Cooley.  Dallas isn’t going to be happy with the play of their OLBs when they go to the film because Portis was in a mad dash for the interior OL on pretty much every play to try to get Jay Ratliff before Rabach held him.  That put Ware and Spencer in one v ones the entire game, and all it got them was a third and long sack in a punting situation, and a number of pressures that can be counted on one hand.  In the event they did get pressure, McNabb’s mobility was plenty sufficient to get out of the pocket which was pretty good all night.

Any success the Redskins had in the running game usually involved one of their tight ends beating either Ware or Spencer and opening up a lane to run the Shanahan stretch play.  Sometimes, Dallas overpursued the front side, in which case just one good backside block by Jamaal Brown or Artis Hicks or Derrick Dockery could open up a running lane.  Neither Portis or Johnson appeared to be a better back in the first game of the season, as the failures were mostly on the interior OL and when Sellers, Davis, or Cooley got killed on the outside.  For Sellers, that was every play. Getting him out of there in the second half was a big reason that the Redskins started to break longer runs.  DeMarcus Ware’s injury didn’t hurt.  Clearly though, this running game figures to be much more like the Kyle Shanahan running game that struggled most of last year in Houston.  We just have to hope that Keiland Williams is our Arian Foster.  Neither Keiland Williams or Larry Johnson is much of a pass protector.  Williams was confused on what he was seeing a few times, but was willing and able to block.  Johnson didn’t appear willing to hit anyone, usually running right past defenders to release into the route.

Only two receivers caught a pass in this game: Moss and Anthony Armstrong.  Armstrong was thrown at five times and only caught one ball.  That would be a bad day.  Roydell Williams and Joey Galloway were thrown a ball each.  Williams’ was pretty uncatchable.  Galloway, being a veteran, probably should have adjusted his route depth to help out his quarterback.  He ran the play as designed, and McNabb badly underthrew him under dire pressure.  Ultimately, when it came down to the end of a close game and there was no hiding intentions any longer, the Redskins had Galloway on the bench and went with Anthony Armstrong, Roydell Williams, and Santana Moss as the three receivers in the game for McNabb.  Remember, Devin Thomas was active and available.  Brandon Banks was inactive and unavailable.  It’s just one week, but when you look at the two receivers that Kyle Shanahan trusts the least when he needs a first down, Galloway and Thomas are probably them.  Though Armstrong and Williams did little to suggest that they should continue to be trusted in big situations.

There was not a major difference between Jammal Brown and Stephon Heyer at right tackle.  I think Brown was a little bit better in this game, but it’s splitting hairs.  We ran at Brown’s side, but never at Heyer’s.  Both were beaten in protection one or two times, but for the most part, won their individual match-ups.  Trent Williams was not a significant player in the run game this time, but boy, was he the man on that one screen.  He drove Gerald Sensabaugh to the airport.  Dockery and Rabach were Dockery and Rabach.  Hicks wasn’t good, but he proved to be more versatile than I thought he would be.  He and Dockery were each given a chance to pull and lead a power play.  If anything, Kyle’s playcalling makes greater use of man blocking concepts than Jim Zorn’s did.  The only time a linemen ever pulled under Zorn was on a toss play.  This team is still primarily a zone blocking one obviously, but the only place where this team looked any different from last years was in terms of pulling guards.  Hicks missed a few blocks, but he also made some difficult ones.  He got lost in space on one of his two pulls, wasting a block where Cooley just stoned DeMarcus Ware.  Casey Rabach was typically good at the second level, when the play developed that far.

Kory Lichtensteiger played some at left guard for Dockery, and did fine.  Not great, just fine.  He was driven back into the backfield once or twice.  Made a nice block or two.  He’s a very different player than Dockery, his one pull was the most successful play that we pulled a lineman on.  Mobility is one of his strengths, whereas lower body power is a weakness.  That was the biggest difference.  Oh, and he can probably catch better than Sellers.

Meaningful Statistics

I was going to do a plus minus on the pass blockers, but it would probably be so inaccurate because at some point I stopped noting great blocks by Williams and Portis and started expecting them.  That didn’t actually mean they were blocking worse in the second half than the first, it was completely a perception thing.  And Portis and Williams blew away everyone else.  Just imagine a list where I praise them and everyone else ends up pretty close to 0, give or take.  Then subtract seven for Mike Sellers.  Bam!  That’s your plus/minus chart for Dallas.

Here are the receiving stats on Moss and Cooley, who mattered in this game:

  • Moss: Targeted 10 times.  Made 6 receptions.  Drew illegal contact on a seventh. 3 intended incompletions, one dropped.  One completion unsuccessful (quick screen).  77 receiving yards plus 5 yards attributed for penalty = 8.2 yards per target.
  • Cooley: Targeted 9 times.  Made 6 receptions.  Two completions unsuccessful. 3 intended incompletions  80 receiving yards = 8.9 yards per target.
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