It’s not as easy task to find positives from this game. Among the many things that went wrong: the Redskins converted just two third downs in this game, both on the same drive, and both through the air. They ran on only one of 12 third down attempts, and that was not a successful run. Donovan McNabb himself was 2/11 in converting third downs through the air. He was only a 40% passer in those situations, and took a pair of sacks (though one sack was nullified by the Bears being offside. The Redskins went 3 and out 5 times, and 7 more times their drives lasted 5 plays or fewer. They did not have a drive last longer than 5 plays after the first quarter.
However, they did do a number of things well in the passing and the running games, and they did these things well throughout the games, just going unrewarded after the first quarter. The Redskins had 9 plays that moved the ball more than 10 yards through the air, which was fewer than what Chicago had, but is still respectable. They had far more ground success than the Bears did, with Ryan Torain ripping off runs of 27, 23, 20, 11, 10, and 9 yards. Add those 6 runs up: it’s 100 yards.
Torain, though, more than any other player on this team runs hot and cold in the context of a single game. Torain had 15 carries that gained just 25 yards in this game, with 6 of his carries gaining the other 100. Torain is at his best once he is more than 5 yards downfield because he is a mismatch for pursuing linebackers, undersized corners, and all kinds of safeties. That’s a valuable skill, but it does not excuse Torain’s role in stringing plays out to the side, which risks holding situations and can result in 4 or 5 yard losses where there was zero backfield penetration. Torain’s largest loss of the day was actually called back by holding on Jammal Brown, so Brown takes the blame for Torain’s inability to go forward. Because in addition to the “lost yards” criticism Torain also put the ball on the ground twice, he’s a tough nominee for player of the game.
There’s obviously plenty of blame to go around for the turnovers. McNabb threw 2 interceptions, probably should have been charged with a third except his own time-management error prevented it from counting. McNabb fumbled twice on sacks, doubling his season total. That’s five potential turnovers on McNabb alone, but only one was actually costly: the pick six by DJ Moore. Torain’s fumbles were more costly, and Cooley is more of a “fumbler” than we would be lead to believe. Brandon Banks fumbled on the first play of the game, and only got it back thanks to a miracle roll. There was a common thread in the non-McNabb fumbles, and that’s the fact that Chicago CB Charles Tillman matched DeAngelo Hall blow for blow in interceptions with game-changing forced fumbles, and that player of the week award could easily be his — had the Bears been fortunate enough to recover more than one of those fumbles, which of course was recovered by Tillman himself. Tillman essentially turned every one of the Redskins ballcarriers into a mobile version of the Jay Cutler turnover machine.
If you threw out all the fumbles, interceptions, and sacks in this game, and the missed field goal, the Redskins had only one problem all day, which was the inability to convert great field position into points. Keep in mind though that one of the reasons the Redskins were able to start so many drives in Bears territory is because (while the defense got 3 and outs early) the offense had great success moving the ball out of their own territory quickly. Looking at the great field position and only ten points scored as a missed opportunity is one way to think about it, but the alternative is to think about it as playing the game on the other teams’ half of the field where one defensive mistake results in points for the offense. By that perspective, credit the Bears defense for never breaking in this game, because the Redskins offense was able to move the ball in longer fields. I have had a couple of opportunities to study the Bears before this, and I can say that this is not a first time occurance for the Bears: they generally get more aggressive and more successful on defense the closer they get to their own goal. This is to say: our offensive failures were more the Bears defense dictating to us what we could do rather than the Redskins offense shooting themselves in the foot.
Were the Bears 2/11 on third downs dominant? No, they were not. In that down, with an average distance to gain of 7.2 yards, the Redskins have to be better. But the Redskins offense didn’t stall because of a design flaw or because a terrible time in first or second down, it stalled because in convert-or-punt situations, we were punting. The longest 3rd down we converted: 2 yards.
Improving on Third Downs
What to my game notes suggest to be the problem in long downs. I will transcribe:
- 3-2 Tim Jennings had late contact on Moss, with no flag. The Redskins had just run for 13 yards in 2 plays. A quick pass on 3rd and 2? For real?
- 3-10 McNabb had pressure in his face and used a quick release to get the ball to Cooley at the sticks. Cooley drops it.
- 3-2 Moss got wide open in the weakness of the defense (middle) off a rub concept using Cooley.
- 3-1 Effective boot action got McNabb outside of pressure, but Cooley was covered. He stopped his route giving McNabb a place to dump the ball for a conversion.
- 3-8 Moss is jammed hard inside 5 yards by Tinoisamoa and never regains his balance as McNabb anticipated him open over the middle. McNabb was right and Moss just didn’t execute.
- 3-7 Rabach gave up middle pressure off a stunt by Peppers and McNabb launched this one downfield high, missing his receiver by a ton. Two closest players were Chicago’s safeties
- 3-11 The Bears brought one more than the Redskins can block, McNabb took maybe a fraction of a second more time than he had, and couldn’t get it to Galloway who wasn’t going to have the first down anyway.
- 3-10 McNabb beats a blitz successfully, thanks to a big time pickup by K. Williams. Cooley is hit in-stride with a good throw, but gets shoved to the sideline a half yard short of first down yardage.
- 3-9 This was an ugly play from the start, disasterous timing, multiple free runs on McNabb and a tight throw that gets to Moss who comes up three yards short and wasn’t trying to get much more.
- 3-8 The Bears stunt and get the edge pressure on Trent Williams, causing McNabb to pull the trigger a lot sooner than he wanted to with things developing downfield.
- 3-11 Trent Williams is beaten far too quickly and to the inside, and Idonije forces a fumble on McNabb. McNabb had poor ball security in the pocket, but he also was trusting Williams to make that block.
- 3-1 A run with Torain where Rabach and Lichtensteiger get zero push at the line of scrimmage, and Torain cuts it back into them.
A couple of years ago when I was trying to figure out why the 2008 Redskins could move the ball so effectively and not score, I couldn’t pin it all on one fatal flaw, but rather, too many mediocre performances that weaknesses really shined through when the margin of error got tight inside the opponent’s 30 yard line. That’s probably similar to what is happening here on third downs. It would be easy to chalk it up to a small sample and expect our third down performance to reflect our first and second down performance in time, but I don’t think that’s the case.
Rather I think that when you talk about the mediocre players on the offense, it really puts pressure on them in third downs when the defense can raise the level of play on the offense in an attempt to get off the field, you really need every individual to do their job to the best of their ability to be a great third down team. Here’s a complete list of starters who didn’t have a third down gaffe leading to a punt or turnover:
Anthony Armstrong, Mike Sellers.
That’s probably just by circumstance, as neither Armstrong or Sellers was gaffe-free in this game (though I thought Sellers had his best game of the year). And it was Armstrong’s drop that put us in a third down situation we should not have been in, leading to a Cooley drop.
Nothing about the Pass Protection unit?
The thing here is that the Bears’ defensive ends had a whale of a game going against us on stunts and speed rushes alike. Julius Peppers was all over the place on film, as was Israel Idonije. But the Bears defensive tackles, aside from a nice tipped pass or run stop by Matt Toeina here or there, were non-factors in this game from the start to the finish. DT Anthony Adams is having a great season for Chicago, and he was neutralized most of the day by Lichtensteiger, Rabach, and Hicks. Cooley had a great day blocking, both against the run and the pass, sometimes given Peppers in a one-on-one assignment (with help to the inside, as long as he wouldn’t get beaten around the edge).
The Redskins like to use Cooley as a blocker because he is versatile, and expands the edge on the opponent, taking away the ability of teams to stunt and exploit Rabach or Hicks, both of whom really struggle to sort protections and get everyone picked up. On the other side of the interior line, Lichtensteiger is great at sorting protections, but he and Rabach can both be overpowered by skilled linemen on the rush.
The Bears run defense had an issue whenever we could get on Peppers, Urlacher, and Briggs on the same play. They really ask a lot of their stars, and I think Shanahan^2 took advantage of it with a full on assault of rushing concepts, mostly zone concepts but some man, just throwing the whole kitchen sink at a Bears run defense that is among the best in the NFL. We really gave them way too many looks to properly adjust to at halftime, which along with great open field running ability, was the reason for Ryan Torain’s big fourth quarter. That, and securing the football, finally.
Torain and Keiland Williams are both developing excellently as pass protectors. Outside of Trent Williams, the biggest difference between last year’s pass pro and this year’s pass pro is that we really are staying on our guys, making sure that it’s not okay for Torain and Williams to be Marcus Mason and Quinton Ganther on blitz pickups. It’s night and day the kind of protection our current replacement backs are giving compared to what we got from last year’s replacement backs. Torain and Williams are both somewhere near Rock Cartwright in pass protection ability, which is respectably above average. Mason and Ganther might have well been paper cutouts of themselves. We’re also using Cooley more creatively in protection schemes, without really taking away what Cooley does in pass patterns. It also helps the unit that Stephon Heyer is not overextended beyond his capabilities. Heyer was the RT for one drive in this game: the Redskins only TD drive.
The final piece in the protection unit is McNabb, but I’m not sure what kind of upgrade in the protection unit we’re getting from him at this point. He’s hurting, and hasn’t been able to extend plays much since the Green Bay game, and McNabb holds the ball just a fraction of a second too long on some plays. I do think it’s in an honest attempt to make a play happen downfield though, not that McNabb is unaware of his assignments as a quarterback. Like I said, I’m just not sure if we’ve upgraded the pass protection unit at the quarterback position. It seems clear that we’re certainly not any worse off than last year.