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Redskins vs. Texans Offensive Review: McNabb busts out

Washington Redskins quarterback Donovan McNabb is sacked by Houston Texans Mario Williams during the fourth quarter of their NFL football game in Landover, Maryland September 19, 2010. REUTERS/Molly Riley (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

This experience on Sunday was no different than the Redskins’ 2008 season, if condensed into just one game.

The early results were astounding.  At the half, the Redskins led 20-7.  McNabb would throw for 426 yards on this day, and was in the shadow of 300 by halftime.  Everything the Redskins threw at the defense was working exactly like it was designed.  It was a beautiful sight.  In the first half, even the Texans’ most successful stunts and most highly disciplined defenses could not stop Donovan McNabb.  Pressure in his face was just that element that made the defense think they were close to a stop before he exposed a terrible mismatch in their secondary with athletic ease.

McNabb played a majority of this game at a superior mental level to his opponents, but even though he nearly doubled his passing yardage totals in the second half, the bottom line of this game from an offensive perspective is that:

  1. The Redskins squandered a 17 point lead with playcalling (and execution) that was both gimmicky and a bit pass-happy
  2. On the play where Trent Williams got injured (Mario Williams second sack), the Texans ultimately forced Kyle Shanahan into a shell comprised entirely of three step drops
I felt there was a disconnect in playcalling logic at the end of the game.  On one hand, the Redskins called 7 runs in the second half and overtime, compared to 27 passes.  Two of those runs combined to lose 18 yards.  On the other hand, when Williams got hurt and gave up the sack — Heyer was called for holding on the next play, the last deep drop of the game — the Redskins quickly moved into an exclusive three step passing attack.

With McNabb at the controls, that passing game was still quite efficient: the Redskins had spent the whole game running the Texans deep and chucking the ball downfield, so there wasn’t an instantaneous adjustment for the Texans.  The Redskins’ strategy without Williams was plain as day.  Here’s the playcalling after the Heyer hold for the rest of the game:

  • 3rd and 30: Screen to Moss
  • 1st and 10: 5 step drop, sack, (Fred Davis on Mario Williams) [unnecessary roughness on A. Smith, who leveled McNabb after sack]
  • 1st and 10: Quick slant to Moss
  • 1st and 10: Short option route to Cooley
  • 2nd and 3: Short in to Moss
  • 1st and 10: Ball deflected at line by Mario Williams
  • 2nd and 10: Quick hitch to Keiland Williams (split right)
  • 3rd and 7: 3-step fade to Moss

Keep this sequence in mind for next week if the team is without Trent Williams.  With the game in the balance: zero rushing attempts.  One play action pass.  Quick timing throws.  Limited pre-snap motion.  The ghost of Jim Zorn lives on!

It was a far departure from the beautiful part of this game, offensively, because the play design used in the first half was tremendous.  All of the Redskins big plays to their tight ends (there were three of them) happened on the same basic play, and it was the perfect play for the Texans defense.  It’s almost as if someone on our coaching staff was inside their defensive meeting room recently. Odd.

This awesome MS Paint diagram is of the first quarter toss to Cooley:

The blocking scheme is pure, 100% old school Mike Shanahan.  The three interior linemen in this solid front are trying so hard to catch their gaps as they run away from them that they can’t do anything to deter McNabb.  The Redskins don’t worry about Mario Williams on the front side, as it’s up to Mike Sellers to put him on the ground, if momentarily.  He needs to do this or they will not have time to run the play.

Speaking of time, Cooley is going to do a double move on the backside, with a fairly standard conservative route combo on the front side.  Moss is just in a standard pivot route to the outside.  Notice how the Texans have both their corners to the defensive strength: that’s why this play works.

Cooley’s initial move is to the middle of the field: remember, Mario Williams isn’t accounted for in the protection.  In this tampa-two varient, Adibi (52) has the flat responsibility, Pollard (31) has deep half, and Ryans (59) has the middle of the field.  No one is pressuring Adibi’s zone except Portis, so he stays shallow.  Pollard breaks on Cooley when he goes over the middle, figuring the ball has to come out soon.  He’s wrong.

Normally, I’d recommend to McNabb that he should take Sellers or Moss and live to fight another down.  But McNabb anticipates Cooley being open on the post-corner and gives him time to make his break, then makes the touch throw over the top.  It’s a 35 yard play setting up a short field goal.

The Redskins would run this play again many times, but would do it with Fred Davis as a second TE instead of with a fullback.  The concept then was similar: backside post corner from the tight end, and on the front side, instead of being a chipping fullback, the second TE would come accross the formation as if to be part of the stretch blocking scheme.  Once he’s lost in the shuffle, the Redskins ran the second TE on a wheel route.  This his how Fred Davis got uncovered on his 62 yard catch and run at the end of the first half.  The play design was fantastic, and really, when the Redskins had confidence in both their tackles, the entire offensive scheme was brilliant.  The key was to use Donovan McNabb’s unique physical gifts to do something that no other passing offense in the NFL or at any level could accomplish.  This is just a sample of how they can succeed at that goal.

However, the running game can be summed up in a word: a waste.  Kyle Shanahan’s 2009 Texans team struggled to run the ball all season, and to date, the 2010 Redskins are not at all an exception to that expectation.  I mentioned above that I thought the playcalling at the end of the game lacked any semblence of logic.  That might seem like a criticism of the man calling the plays, but it’s really just an observation based on the fact that our running game actually has taken a step back from last year.  I am calculating lineman yard average again this season, however, we’ve run so little in the first two games that I’m not going to bother with a preliminary average until after week three.

No back besides Portis has enjoyed even a single moment of rushing effectiveness.  Anecdotally, I can say that this team seems to be more efficient at running between the tackles than last years team, at least pre-Portis injury.  Artis Hicks has proven to be at least an adequate run blocker on the interior, and he’s capable of making the difficult blocks that allow Rabach to get to the second level where he is an asset and not a liability.  But the only time the Redskins have been able to run the ball in open space so far has been when they have gotten on the edge quickly, utilizing multiple fullbacks and tight ends on opposing LBs.  Some creativity in the rushing game has allowed us to overcome some talent deficiencies, at least on a couple plays.  Mostly, the running game has been a waste of time.\

Big Plays

There were a bunch of them.  Above, I explained how the Redskins generated big passing plays to their tight ends, using both their best, most explosive receiving options, and the unique strengths of Donovan McNabb to attack a Texans defense that came in determined to shut down our rushing “attack.”  But the Redskins also gained big plays to Mike Sellers, Joey Galloway, Anthony Armstrong, and Roydell Williams.

The Redskins made great use of checks at the line of scrimmage to get out of bad running plays.  This is a new thing in Washington.  Jason Campbell would often change receivers routes at the line, or move a running play to a different running play, but I don’t specifically know if runs became passes and passes became runs.  We certainly never ran “smoke”, which essentially doesn’t let the offensive line and backs know that you aren’t going to run the ball, and just throw it out to a receiver instead.  The Redskins are aligning Santana Moss deeper in the slot to account for this.

The play they came out with specifically for the Texans defense was a rub play, Moss going inside and trying to run into as many defenders as he could (which isn’t legal, it just has to be done right), and Sellers running into the flat open to catch a pass.  Sellers’ hands didn’t fail him on Sunday, which is probably not something the Redskins should continue to count on.  Sellers got 23 yards on the game’s first play to set the tone.

Galloway’s 62 yarder was a single receiver play action pass where the Texans managed to bust a coverage somewhere.  It was max protect, just a few short guys in the pattern for check down purposes, and McNabb was likely told to just launch it over Galloway’s head if he wasn’t open.  He was.

Anthony Armstrong caught a 20 yard dig route on 3rd and 20 from McNabb.  It’s notable because McNabb really didn’t receive any protection here, which is supposed to be a death sentence on third and ten.  Amobi Okoye (who was a monster in this game — though because of McNabb, you didn’t know that) came free over Rabach, Armstrong got out of his break increadibly fast, and McNabb threw it behind him because that was the only window in the coverage.  He caught it anyway.

His throw to Roydell Williams on the lone third quarter possession was probably even better.  Williams found a void in the coverage between the linebackers and the safeties over the middle.  That’s good, but Jammal Brown and Kory Lichtensteiger didn’t block anybody.  On top of that, McNabb didn’t really have a window to throw between the linebackers, and with more alert linebackers (I’ve never been particularly impressed with Demeco Ryans, personally) it’s probably an INT.  But McNabb was able to throw a rope between them and hit Roydell in stride, and he got plenty after the catch.

McNabb simply won’t be able to perform at this level week in and week out: if he could, he’d already be hall of fame bound with multiple NFC Championships and a Super Bowl win or two.  But while he’s proven susceptable to pressure from the edges, McNabb has shown an impressive ability to tune out pressure that comes up the middle.  This is what this Redskins team needs: we simply don’t have interior players strong enough players to consistently ensure a clean pocket from the front.  But as long as the tackles don’t allow rushers to get to McNabb’s upfield shoulder, the offense will stay on track.

Pass Protection Unit

Jammal Brown had a bad game.  He says he’s still adjusting to the right side.  I say: fine point, but Trent Williams is addressing to an entirely different level of competition and he’s been, if anything, a team strength.  Two blown blocks for Brown, and a fairly inexcusable false start penalty at home that arguably cost us the game.  Through two games, Stephon Heyer has been the more efficient right tackle.

Rabach made a really good adjustment on a 3rd and 8 inside stunt by Mario Williams.  Trent Williams did his job and picked up Okoye while passing Mario Williams inside to Lichtensteiger.  Lichtensteiger wouldn’t have been able to handle him on his own, and Rabach alertly (for anyone, but especially for him) got there in plenty of time, they both made contact at the same time killing his momentum.  McNabb coverted the first down to Moss, keeping a scoring drive alive.

They allowed lots of hits on McNabb in this game.  It didn’t matter in the final score, but it’s certainly something to watch for.  Portis spent much of the second half on the sideline.  When he’s on the sideline, being Donovan McNabb isn’t fun.  This team needs both a healthy Portis and a healthy McNabb to have any semblance of a passing offense.

Receiver Stats

  • Santana Moss — 10 receptions, targeted 12 times, 89 receiving yards, 7.42 YPT. Two unsuccessful completions (both screens).  67% success rate.
  • Mike Sellers — 4 receptions, targeted 6 times, 38 receiving yards, 6.33 YPT.  One unsuccessful completions. 50% success rate.
  • Joey Galloway — 3 receptions, targeted 6 times, 88 receiving yards, 14.67 YPT.  No unsuccessful completions.  50% success rate
  • Chris Cooley — 3 receptions, targeted 3 times, 64 receiving yards, 21.33 YPT.  No unsuccessful completions.  100% success rate.
  • Anthony Armstrong — 2 receptions, targeted twice, 36 receiving yards, 18 YPT.  No unsuccessful completions.  100% success rate.
  • Keiland Williams — 4 receptions, targeted 4 times, 15 receiving yards, 3.75 YPT.  Four unsuccessful completions.  0% success rate.
  • Fred Davis — 1 reception, targeted once, 62 receiving yards. No unsuccessful completions. 100% success rate.
  • Roydell Williams — 1 reception, targeted once, 35 receiving yards.  No unsuccessful completions.  100% success rate.
  • Clinton Portis — 0 receptions, targeted once. 0% success rate.

Clearly, the backs are used in a “last resort” target scheme, with no meaningful plays designed to go to the running backs.  Very high percentage game, with only Joey Galloway accounting for more than two incomplete passes (he doesn’t run very good routes for a veteran — at least in this game).  Cooley, Roydell, Armstrong, Keiland Williams, and Fred Davis combined to catch all 11 of the passes thrown at them, meaning that in the next game, you can imagine that they’ll get more than just 11 passes thrown at them.  10/12 is a great day for Moss catching the football — he was used more in underneath routes today — but I also threw out two passes intended for him that were tipped by Super Mario at the line.

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