Redskins vs Lions Offensive Review: Trying to Figure Out How Much Passing is Too Much

At the end of 141 plays of charting (boy, was this a long one), I can safely conclude that one thing the Redskins did wrong against the Lions was that they did not run the football enough.  Speaking just of designed runs, Ryan Torain had all 8 in the first half, and Keiland Williams had all 6 in the second half.  The leading rusher in the game was Donovan McNabb, who had no designed runs called for him.  A couple of designed runs turned into sight-adjust passes in the slot to Moss, maybe two or three in total.

Normally, when you run the ball this often, it’s because the game situations prevented you from running it.  But that’s not the case here, as the Redskins ran only 6 plays between their last lead in the game and trailing by two scores and being more or less out of it.  The first 55 playcalls of the game came with a lead or with a deficit of one score or less (and after trailing 7-0 for a drive, that largest deficit was 14-13 in the 3rd quarter).  Fewer than 20 called runs in a game this close is poor offensive balance, especially when the Redskins lack any layers in their passing attack.

It seems to me that making the quarterback hand-off would be a nice intermediary step between running your entire gameplan through him and putting him on the bench for ineffectiveness, but I suppose I am where I am for a reason.

There were strategic reasons not to run the football here, namely, that the Lions interior defensive line wasn’t handled all day by the Redskins interior offensive line.  However, one week ago against Chicago, we were able to get on their stars with the same personnel we had this week and threw the kitchen sink at them in terms of different ways to attack a defense on the ground.  This game, the Redskins ran once in their first 8 plays.  Way to set the tone, guys.

All day long, the defensive edge players of the Lions were either on strict upfield attack of the quarterback from a wide position, or they were tighter in a more conventional front to run stunts at the Redskins offensive line.  They were not going to let us have our bootleg passing game.  Kyle Shanahan was unable to adjust to that simple gameplan from Jim Schwartz and Gunther Cunningham, but the Redskins also had a problem with McNabb in the pocket.  McNabb doesn’t always stay in the pocket when the protection is there.  When Jason Campbell was at his worst last season (around October), he had the same issue: the Redskins OL blew some protections, but they could give strong protection and he’d still move around as if there was pressure on him.  McNabb has that problem right now, but instead of running around inside the pocket, McNabb likes to flush to the outside and try to make a play.  He’s putting incredible pressure on himself to make difficult throws when the receivers don’t quite have the scramble drill down yet.  These desperation plays are greatly contributing to Chris Cooley’s struggles as a receiver this year.

So while the Lions were able to consistently and decisively win the battle at the line of scrimmage, the Redskins were able to give a quarterback room to operate most of the day.  I don’t think any of the sacks McNabb took in this game were on him with the exception of the two times he tripped and fell down.  The Redskins missed assignments all day long, in every quarter.

The Lions had a mismatch with Ndamukong Suh no matter where he lined up, because the scheme Jim Schwartz allows is all about Suh getting opportunities.  It’s an aggressive 4-man gap attack-first scheme, but here’s how the Lions free up Suh to do his worst: they let him rush in the B gap on both sides where he was either the responsibility of Artis Hicks or Trent Williams based on how the Redskins matched their protections.  The Lions, intelligently, make sure that the rest of their defensive linemen don’t rush in the gaps next to Suh, so Suh is free, if he needs to, to leave his gap and beat his assignment to the other side.  That makes Suh unblockable without a double team.

The problem for the Redskins were that they couldn’t control Kyle Vanden Bosch, and because they couldn’t handle Vanden Bosch, anytime they doubled Suh, it resulted in disaster.  If Trent Williams neutralizes Vanden Bosch the next time they play, the Redskins only will allow the handful of pressures to Suh, which won’t be enough to win the game.

As it turned out, it shouldn’t have been enough.  The Redskins should have started protecting with six and seven guys earlier than they did, because if they had put the film of the Giants game vs. the Lions, they would have noticed that the Giants made that same adjustment by the third drive of the game.  They didn’t need to max protect it, but they needed to stop sending the backs into stupid pass patterns where they had to get the ball because the defense had a free run on McNabb.  When the backs stayed in, McNabb had plenty of time to make plays, plays he didn’t always make.  When the backs tried to get into routes, they usually missed some obvious help situations where they could have saved their quarterback.  Aside from one or two protections that were stupidly called, those was the problem with protection in this game: 1) Trent Williams needed to play better, and 2) the backs needed to commit to helping their quarterback out instead of hanging him out.  That’s it.

Donovan McNabb’s timing is terrible.  He’s late on any play that requires more than a three step drop.  He lets the defensive pass rush dictate the timing of the play.  He’s underthrowing most of his deep passes.  I’m mildly concerned about declining arm strength, as he really needs to get his body into a throw to get it out in front of his receiver.  Sometimes, he’ll throw to a receiver who has already completed his route.  It’s not like he’s getting to these reads late, these aren’t even routes that require anticipation.  These are usually just longer routes where the ball needs to come out in a reasonable amount of time.  McNabb might not be able to control the rate at which he gets sacked, but if getting sacked or pressured is the issue, he could always speed up his execution so that things work on time.  I do think McNabb’s timing is contributing to the protection woes, but with that said, beat is still beat.  McNabb is late AND the offensive protection is getting beat.  No QB should be getting sacked 7% of the time in this offense, alas, McNabb is.  One or the other could play better, and sacks would cease to be an issue.

By the time Grossman was playing, the Redskins had gotten away from what had been working in the passing game in the middle two quarters.  Neither of the two Grossman drives featured a tight end chipping or a back staying in against the four man rush of the Lions.  So naturally, Grossman didn’t do any better than McNabb under the same conditions, what did you expect?

I think Rex Grossman could have made a bunch of the plays McNabb missed in this game and the last game, but when you play Grossman, you have game-changing errors because he’s not particularly accurate and fumbles a lot and forces throws that have no business of being made in the first place.  In other words, every mistake McNabb made in the first and fourth quarters is a staple of how Rex Grossman has played in his career.

Individual Offensive Linemen

A few players on the OL played well.  We got good production in this game out of the LG position with Lichtensteiger and out of the RT position with both Stephon Heyer and Jammal Brown.  I already mentioned that Trent Williams did not play well, and while you’ll account for the fact that Artis Hicks was in a huge mismatch most of this game and needed help, he still likely underachieved even those low expectations.  Rabach was terrible.  Hogs are dirty.  Soup is wet.  The backs were more of a hinderence on the offense than a help, and it wouldn’t have taken too much more patience for Torain and Williams to be assets in pass protection.  Fred Davis handled Vanden Bosch a few times on upfield rushes and arguably was a stronger match-up than Trent Williams was.

Some of our protection schemes were just too flawed to give the passer a chance, namely a couple of play action schemes where the back off PA was responsible for a gap on the backside in protection.  Sure, Portis can get across the backfield and stick a linebacker at full speed, but I’m not sure how many other backs in this league can.  The Lions weren’t buying our play action plays, and were instead daring us to run the ball.  All those plays actually lost was timing with the receivers.

Mike Sellers really deserves some credit for improvement in the way he’s seeing his assignments in this running game.  He still plays too much for a team that throws as much as this team does, but when we run, Sellers is now opening up lanes instead of falling down in the backfield.  From where I’m from, this is an improvement.  Chris Cooley, Santana Moss, and Anthony Armstrong continue to be great pieces in the rushing attack, with Moss now taking on a role in picking up safeties and edge setters inside the box.  I can’t overstate how useful that is.  It would be even more useful if the team ever ran the ball.

Skill Players not named McNabb or Grossman

The team is clearly averse to running the ball with Keiland Williams, but I think he’s a better runner than Torain.  Torain ran poorly in this game, not using his blocks and only offering a couple of the hard runs that he has become known for.  Torain, I’m convinced, is not more than a no. 2 RB off the bench, and right now, I think he’s stretched into a role he can’t completely handle.  Kudos to him for stepping in for an injury to Portis and carrying the load at a level that Willie Parker or Larry Johnson could not, but I happen to think Williams might be better.

McNabb got the ball in Anthony Armstrong’s hands deep twice on two Detroit coverage breakdowns.  Armstrong’s emergence means that Moss rarely goes deep anymore.  Moss is a big target in the three step drop passing attack, as he has a good rapport with McNabb, and Moss can quickly help erase long yardage situations in early downs.  That’s something he’s good at.

Some of the Redskins best offensive plays came after holding penalties.  The Redskins did a good job of getting that penalty yardage right back without wasting anything but a first down play.  Of course, that put the team in second and long, but the simple solution to that is to not get any penalties, or at least as many as the Redskins did in this game.  Way too much shooting oneself in the foot.

Generally Speaking

This offense does a number of things well, but fewer things well than it once did.  The Redskins can still create opportunities down the field.  They aren’t converting those opportunities as they were earlier in the season because McNabb isn’t playing as well as he was earlier in the season.  This is evident by the increase in turnover rate in the last three games.  McNabb now has 8 INTs (lets drop that to 7 to omit the GB hail mary at the end of regulation), and 4 fumbles, which he has been fortunate to have recovered.  That’s 11 turnovers in just over 300 touches.

One of the places McNabb was getting that value from in the past was that he himself wasn’t turning the ball over.  His first Redskins INT came in the Rams game.  He had two “game” interceptions in the first five games.  In the last three games, he has five, plus one more dropped interception (three) than he had in the first five games (two).  All of his fumbles have occured in the last three games.  That’s an alarming turnover rate, from best in the league to among the worst quicker than you can say “Mark Sanchez.”

Now McNabb’s only value to an NFL offense the way he is playing was evident in this game: he found Anthony Armstrong deep twice, and he had a scramble for 36 yards, and he’s still a danger to defenses from outside the pocket.  That’s three or four big plays a game versus about the same number of crushing mistakes, and in between, the passing game is a complete waste of our time.

It’s not time to replace Donovan McNabb as quarterback of the Redskins, but it’s time to lean on the 4.5 yard per rush average of our running backs over the Cutler-esque 6.3 AYPA of our QB.  Ultimately, the Redskins are just a little below average as a passing football team, but the trend is in the wrong direction.  To take the optimist’s perspective on the matter: the bye came at a very good time.  To take the pessimist’s perspective: this offense can’t and won’t compete unless #26 is back there making sure the passing operation runs well.

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