Redskins-Colts Offensive Review: Sticky Gloves and Head Trauma

Washington Redskins quarterback Donovan McNabb (5) passes against the Indianapolis Colts during the second half of their NFL football game in Landover, Maryland, October 17, 2010.  REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

Earlier, we looked at some of the defensive lapses that led to the Redskins loss to the Colts, but also pointed out that the Redskins’ pass defense did about as well if not better than expected against Manning and the Colts.  While I would call that realization encouraging, I also went as far as pointing out that if we want to actually raise the expectations for our defense consistent to those of a playoff defense, we were a piece short in the secondary, and would need to address that through means of going outside the organization.

By the same standard, we are about 8 pieces short on the offensive end of the ball.  There is no solution here that could be fixed by adding just one more player to the mix, even if that player were a wide receiver for McNabb.  The problems in this game were everywhere.  However, one unit that clearly did better than last week was the pass protection unit, specifically, the backs Keiland Williams and Ryan Torain, who proved to me that they both have the skill set to be excellent pass protectors in this league.  Prior to this game, that was largely an unknown factor about their skill sets.

The other area the Redskins were excellent against in protecting McNabb was in picking up the line stunts that the Colts love to call.  Those stunts, usually involving twists between the tackles and end, were largely ineffective thanks to some quick thinking by LG Kory Lichtensteiger and both running backs.

The Redskins were not so good at actually winning their one on one match-ups on the OL.  Dwight Freeney proved conclusively to me to be the best pass rusher that Trent Williams has faced this season, and even though Williams got more help with him here than ever in the past, he still struggled to keep Freeney off of McNabb.  Over on the other side, it was Robert Mathis who actually recorded the two sacks from this pass rushing pair on this day.  I thought Jammal Brown really stepped up his game in this one to make Mathis have not-such-a-decisive edge in the pass rush, but he needed a lot of help from the strength of his quarterback’s legs to avoid more sacks.  Clearly, McNabb was comfortable in strong-arming Mathis all day to try to avoid sacks.  Kory Lichtensteiger and Casey Rabach are both liabilities in any sort of one on one situation.  Because of this, the Redskins cannot expect to pick up any sort of pressure scheme while having the same number of blockers as rushers.  Those matchups favor the defense.

Though McNabb saved a number of sacks this way, he also took a pair of inexcusable sacks where the ball simply needed to come out sooner than it did.  He was sacked when the Colts blew up an attempted screen.  He also got sacked on a man-blitz concept where the ball wasn’t even necessarily “hot”, it just needed to be thrown in some semblance of rhythm to Anthony Armstrong who was out of his break in plenty of time over the middle.  All in all, the way the Colts defensive front played, they deserved to have about three sacks in this game, so it could be argued that McNabb was neither a help or a hinderance in pass protection on the day.  The sack he took on 2nd & 5 on the last drive was pretty critical.  McNabb had enjoyed some rushing success late in the game but Keiland Williams was completely uncovered by the soft zone scheme on a swing route, and he should have been in McNabb’s natural line of vision.

More on McNabb

Donovan’s completion % (QB Rating) by game this year:

  • Week 1 vs. Dallas – 46.9% (63.4)
  • Week 2 vs. Houston – 73.7% (119.0)
  • Week 3 at St. Louis – 59.4% (79.7)
  • Week 4 at Philadelphia – 42.1% (50.2)
  • Week 5 vs. Green Bay – 53.1% (75.0)
  • Week 6 vs. Indianapolis – 64.4% (67.5)

Now when you consider that Houston has been one of the worst pass defenses ever, it’s really hard to look at these numbers with any confidence in the process.  But that’s just it: the whole thing is a process.  The Redskins task the quarterback with a lot of responsibility: more than Mark Brunell, Jason Campbell, or Todd Collins ever had within the offense.  Problem is, putting more on McNabb’s shoulders might not be the best strategy.

Why not run more?

This is a legitimate question I had before going to the tape: Ryan Torain had 104 yards in the middle of the third quarter in a one possession game.  How in the heck did Torain finish with just 100 rushing yards against the Colts run defense?  Why did this team rush for just 9 yards on 3 carries in the final 17 minutes of the game.

The answers were actually kind of obvious, and there were four main reasons:

  1. The Colts were winning at the line of scrimmage
  2. The Colts were forcing us into terrible field position
  3. Torain wasn’t running the ball where the plays were designed
  4. Chris Cooley got hurt

Look, that combination of factors is going to kill a running game.  Torain was able to rush for 100 yards on 20 carries (5.0 YPC average) because and only because the smallish Colts front absolutely could not tackle a lick.  They were in the backfield all night long, as the Redskins just couldn’t run block at the first level.  However, Colts lineman were very rush-first in their mindset, had poor gap discipline, and this is a worse tackling team than the Redskins are.  As such, Ryan Torain was able to break a bunch of tackles and run for a number of yards in this game.

Ultimately, however, Torain was disappointing on film, just never seeming to take the play into the best hole, doing a lot of lateral running against a quick defense, and generally not following his blockers.  On top of that, Trent Williams, Kory Lichtensteiger, and Casey Rabach were allowing a lot of penetration.  Also consider: Chris Cooley and the receiving corps were a primary factor in the gameplan for rushing the football.  Cooley left at the end of the third quarrter with a concussion.  That changes the blocking schemes entirely.  Fred Davis is a capable blocker, but certainly can not be used in an identical role to Cooley.

Don’t underestimate what the result of starting a drive inside our own ten did to our gameplan.  There’s a large difference between trying to go 65 yards on the ground and trying to go 93 yards on the ground.  That difference is about three game minutes.  As it turned out, the Redskins would not save those minutes, but that’s not something they could have known at the outset.

Above all, this is a team that is designed to throw 40+ times per game.  We can stay balanced, stay within the gameplan for a good percentage of the game, but at some point, this team is going to try to throw to win.  That’s their identity.  Players like Ryan Torain and Keiland Williams aren’t going to get them to change that identity.  Donovan McNabb is the centerpiece of the offense.

Throwing Inaccuracies

I think there is elements of really good design in our passing offense.  Santana Moss went from an overpaid superstar playing out the guaranteed portion of his contract under Zorn and Cerrato to the engine of the passing offense under Mike and Kyle Shanahan.  Moss is the most irreplaceable guy in the passing offense, and is nearly certain to earn himself an extension before he hits the free agent market.  Moss is 30, but I think he’ll be the primary receiver through age 32 (2012).  A role change has extended his career as such.

The emergence of Anthony Armstrong across from Moss has allowed Moss to slide into this role without creating a major flaw in the downfield passing offense.  Remember now that this is just a two receiver base offense, although the Redskins are doing more 3 WR stuff in the past two weeks than in the prior four.  Those two receiver positions appear to be settled with positive value players.  The Tight End position isn’t an issue, though Chris Cooley has been sub-par as a receiver, he’s earning his keep as a blocker.  Fred Davis starting in place of an injured Cooley will cause us to have to alter our run blocking schemes, but Davis is probably a better receiver than Cooley at this point in their careers.  Someday, I believe he will be a better all around blocker.  That day is not here yet.

There are problems on the offensive line and problems with the receivers, and we need to take those problems for what they are without ignoring them.  But the biggest reason the Redskins are unable to convert their schemes into points is because of subpar play in the offensive backfield.  Ryan Torain has killed two weak rushing defenses, but he leaves a lot of significant on the field.  Mike Sellers is playing better of late, but seems like a poor allocation of resources for a team that has both Chris Cooley and Fred Davis on it.  Keiland Williams has proven useful in a third down role, but so far hasn’t shown in practice that he deserves to have that role extended.

McNabb has just been inaccurate and progressively playing less and less ahead of the opponent from a preparedness standpoint.  At best, the total product of his efforts in this offense have been slightly above average.  7.3 yards per attempt is a decent total, but Kyle Shanahan runs a vertical offense that creates oppotunites for big passing plays.  Jason Campbell’s YPA total was 7.1 last year with a fraction of the downfield opportunties.  That’s not good.  Consider: leaguewide offensive passing efficiences are up this year, thanks to not having to record cold weather passing days.

It’s a fact that Donovan McNabb is surrounded with league average to slightly below average offensive talent, and against below average defensive secondaries, he has very middling offensive numbers.  He’s taking a league average amount of sacks, and has not fumbled, but is on pace to throw for 5 fewer TDs than the Redskins quarterback did last year with the same number of interceptions.  So for those keeping track: we’re turning the ball over less in the passing game last year, but we’re worse on third downs, worse in the red zone, much improved on big plays, but overall completions are down.

Quarterback play is improved from last year.  We just haven’t seen the results show up yet in the quarterback’s statistics, and furthermore, we can’t score at last year’s rates without the benefit of turnovers forced by the defense and special teams.  Having a better quarterback might eventually lead to an improved record in the long run, but clearly, the Redskins are winning no more games because of their offense this year than they were last year.  If there’s a big revelation after 6 games in the Mike Shanahan-Donovan McNabb era, it’s that what’s improved hasn’t improved at the rate anyone had hoped when we acquired an elite head coach-quarterback combo.

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