Redskins vs Titans Offensive Review: Little to Complain About

NASHVILLE, TN - NOVEMBER 21: Quarterback Donovan McNabb  of the Washington Redskins drops back to pass against the Tennessee Titans at LP Field on November 21, 2010 in Nashville, Tennessee. The Redskins won 19-16 in overtime. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

There’s not a lot to be unhappy about regarding this offensive performance, but all I can promise is that I’ll do my best to pretend I can still get angry.  Remember, it was just three weeks ago that this offense was being shut down in Chicago and Detroit.  That will get the blood boiling.  A little bit, at least.

Getting Clinton Portis back is was a big boost for this offense.  Portis doesn’t bring explosive big plays, and hasn’t for many seasons, but boosted the running game immediately with the first couple of carries.  He was hurt in the second quarter after runs of 11 and 10 yards and a screen reception of 15 in just 6 touches.  But 6 touches is all Portis got before getting re-injured (IR – out for season), and he didn’t even get to pop anybody.  It’s a big blow to the Redskins hopes to do something down the stretch, as are the injuries to the offensive line in this game. 

There are plenty of structural flaws in the way the offense was built.  Rushing effectiveness is a combination of scheme and guile.  The Redskins do really creative things to try to split the defense and create rushing lanes for their backs to run in.  I think they happened — purely by chance — to stumble upon a group of five guys up front who can create opportunities for the backs.  The first change came at the end of the third drive, when Casey Rabach went injured.  Will Montgomery, who was starting at RG, bumped over to center.  I was skeptical over to whether he would even be an improvement over the embattled Rabach because Montgomery was so horrible last season.  Not only did he exceed some relative expectations, he looked…good.  Will Montgomery was the quickest, most decisive player in the front seven on this day, and executed the difficult blocks on the interior line to the best of his ability while doing some major damage at the second level.  Montgomery can’t really anchor at the point of attack (he was overwhelmed on the Sellers FB dive on the goal line), but the difference between him and Rabach is that Montgomery often got the first blow in on the Titans defensive tackle Tony Brown.  Rabach often misses the same kind of block by taking longer to set the point of the block, and then getting overwhelmed by players who are bigger/stronger/faster (i.e. everyone).  Montgomery seemed to have a different plan: the scheme allows him to stalemate his assignment, so Montgomery would often set the block early, lose his feet a bit, and then just when the linebacker thought he had him beat, he would reposition to seal off the path to the ball of the defender.  It was…effective, and its how the zone blocking scheme can make an effective player out of a weaker college-type lineman: technique over power. 

The other thing that mattered in the rushing attack was that the Titans used primarily a “wide-9″ front with their defensive ends: an alignment that places the two defensive ends off, outside the offensive tackles, which creates extra space for the pass rusher to engage.  It’s been an effective strategy against our offense this year, but not because Titans DC Chuck Cecil is some type of great innovator, but because the Detroit Lions caused the Redskins fits when they ran this front and Kyle Shanahan was simply unable to adjust away from his preferred bootlegs and stretch runs to give his team a chance against Kyle Vanden Bosch.  The prevailing theory going into that game was that “Trent Williams would handle it.”  He was wrong then, and clearly came out anticipating a similar look from a Titans coaching staff that bred the Lions coaching staff.  In three weeks, we went from the unprepared party to the team that was dictating all the action.  Kyle Shanahan used these non-bootleg dominated playcalls to attack the Titans defense:

  1. Screens of all sorts
  2. Edge stretches that treated the frontside upfield end as a “backside” defender
  3. Bunch principles to help quickly define McNabb’s reads
  4. Isolation principles to help quickly define McNabb’s reads
The idea was to take the wide-9s and make the advantage the Titans are trying to gain a schematic weakness.  While it certainly helped that there was no Ndamukong Suh type (i.e. Albert Haynesworth) to go and kill the Redskins on the interior, if you’re going to practice defeating the wide-9s all week, you just have to hope that the opposing coaching staff is too stupid to make the necessary adjustments to help their team win.  In this sense, the Redskins got lucky.  The Titans coaching staff really dropped the ball here.

But the response of the Redskins opened up all sorts of big play opportunities for the offense.  They didn’t hit on all of them.  When evaluating the extent to which Donovan McNabb has declined as a quarterback, it’s important to remember that even in his prime, he didn’t make all of the plays available to him in any given game.  This was the man who once, in that Eagles offense, completed 23 throws in a row, so we’re still waiting on some sort of similar hot streak.

I thought McNabb played really well, and the biggest difference was improved timing and precision.  Some of the throws he made in the middle of the field, to Galloway, to Armstrong, etc were among the best throws he has made this year.  I think he’s starting to get erratic with the deep rainbow throws as his arm declines in that direction, but as far as routes thrown over the middle, it’s hard to see a time in his career where he was throwing these balls harder.  And the Redskins receivers, for the most part, did their part in this one.  Even, sometimes, Galloway.

McNabb made a couple of bad mistakes in this game, and his biggest mistakes were thrown out of the natural timing of the play.  The interception and near-interception come to mind immediately.  As bad as that INT over the middle looked when he threw it, there are a couple of things about that play that could justify that throw.  That route Galloway was running is known as a backside window, which is to say: he’s not part of the progression.  Even though that play was designed to go to the right, McNabb is likely to bring it back over the middle before pulling it down and running with it, or throwing it away.  The problem was: Galloway sat down in a particularly spacey spot in the zone coverage and was uncovered at the point where all the linebackers reached their drop depth.  It was a “Tampa 2″ coverage.  When McNabb came back to the middle and saw him, McNabb saw a guy standing by himself, and more than just that, a guy who felt he was completely alone via a blown coverage.

Galloway was open.  He wasn’t alone, and yes, there is a difference.  When MLB Will Witherspoon hit the depth of his drop and there was no throw to react to, he was able to react to Galloway being in a hole in the coverage and drove on the route.  McNabb didn’t see Witherspoon because he didn’t have any idea whether he was going back or coming up.  He just sees an open Galloway by himself over the middle.  For Galloway, it can sometimes be terribly costly if you just assume that no one on the defense knows where you are.  But by not coming back to the ball even one step, Galloway gives Witherspoon the opportunity, and the rule-book right, to go right through his back and play on the ball.  Good play by Witherspoon, but in the NFL, that might as well be realized as let a defender take it away from you.  Joey Galloway isn’t aggressive enough to play over the middle at the NFL level.  And yes, McNabb blew this one too.  You only want to throw this ball if you have a good picture of what the coverage is, and McNabb did not.  He just trusted his receiver to be making a play for him, and that receiver was Galloway.  That combination of failures results in a fairly routine INT for the Titans.

McNabb’s throw on the sideline to Armstrong that was temporarily ruled an interception wasn’t a particularly risky decision, as that was a spectacular pass breakup and making an INT on that ball would have been one of the great defensive plays of the year.  But it was a poor amount of benefit against the cost to make that throw.  McNabb has five yards running that ball, and maybe seven or eight if he completes it?  But that was highly likely to be an incomplete pass.  He should have just tucked it in and picked up what he could.

To credit this now-maligned passing duo, the Redskins’ third down conversion of a 3rd and 17 was the longest such conversion by the team this season.  Galloway ran a really effective route past the sticks and McNabb drilled it in there. 

Stephon Heyer

After Derrick Dockery (who was very ineffective in this game as a screen blocker and a run blocker) was hurt, Stephon Heyer had to come off the bench to play RG.  I thought he was a contributor to our best 5-man offensive line group of the year, if only because Jammal Brown and Heyer are among the five best offensive linemen on the team.  It’s clear by the way he tried to execute his screens that Heyer had never actually taken reps at the position.  I’ve talked at length about how Heyer has improved his run blocking since the start of 2009, and this ended up being a really great effect.  If Kory Lichtenstieger and Will Montgomery are really our best LG-C combo (and hell, they probably are), the Redskins then can’t just put Artis Hicks back at RG and hope for the best.  Heyer looks like an option as a potential long-term RG solution.

I didn’t think he played great in this game.  He gets beaten less often in pass protection than Hicks, but that’s not saying much.  The Titans had no idea that we would be playing a 6’8″ guard, and couldn’t scheme to beat him.  He didn’t make any major mistakes (he played more than a half and didn’t hold, where Dockery played a quarter, and did).  And in the running game he did his most damage, really driving defensive tackles off the ball backwards (also: Titans star DT Jason Jones was out-injured by the time that he entered in the second quarter).

Still, I think the Redskins may need to get creative to fix their RG hole created by Randy Thomas’ decline and only temporarily fixed by giving $3 million/year to Hicks.  Creative may be something like trying to change Casey Rabach’s position when he is healthy.  Or it may be to bring up Erik Cook from the practice squad and give him a look.  Or it could be the three tackle offensive line with Heyer on the inside.  I just don’t think bringing Artis Hicks back when he is healthy is any sort of solution at all.

It’s worth saying: both Trent Williams and Jammal Brown did well in this one.  Brown missed some blocks early in the game, but unlike against the Lions, McNabb was on his game early from a protection-timing standpoint, and many of his 20 incompletions were simply smart throws to save a sack.  McNabb played very well here, and so did his offensive line.

Running scheme

Really, I think that the Shanahan’s have done an excellent job during the week designing ways to attack the defense on the ground.  They haven’t done it every week (we used very base, simplistic looks against the Lions for example), but this isn’t the “zone blocking scheme” attack you’ve heard you were getting.  For one thing, the stretch and go running game was already here under Zorn.  That’s still the bread and butter of the offense, and they’ve been doing it for years.  There are no interior runs between the guards by this team.  None.  When a play goes between the guards, it’s because that’s where the play broke.  It happens a lot, just never by design.

We had trouble moving the upfield ends against the Detroit Lions, so against the Titans, the Redskins decided that they were going to stretch the edge anyway, but instead of trying to hook the defensive end on the playside, it just made more sense to treat it more like pass protection or a backside run, and let him go a couple of yards up the field, then run where he used to be.  The left tackle, many times, was responsible for sealing the end after letting the end run him into the backfield.  It worked well: 10 on 10 football is way less congested than 11 on 11.

The other thing is, while Ryan Torain wants to go outside everybody and wasn’t going to have a good day against the Lions three weeks ago, Keiland Williams and Clinton Portis both do a better job attacking the line of scrimmage while also getting towards the sideline while the blocking is set up there.  The Redskins receivers continue to do an excellent job blocking on the edge.  Even Galloway.

The Nuts and Bolts of Passing

Schematically, we’re best when the coaches stress the running game all week, and go out and try to run to both sides with many schemes and concepts, making the defense guess from the start.  This is because defenses are run-oriented, and won’t be satisfied when they are getting gashed on the ground.  They will keep fidgeting until they can stop you.  And then balanced offense is easy to achieve.

All of that is very true, and why a running game is still important in modern football…but wins and losses come though the air.  You want to win, be good at throwing the ball and stopping the pass above all.  The Redskins throw it better than they run it, still.  And between some smoke passes that we’ve been slow to use, as well as some screens that got the ball in the hands of Fred Davis and let him make plays so McNabb didn’t half to, the Redskins have started to resemble some of the passing machines that Donovan operated with the Eagles.

The passing game also needs to be able to put you in the end zone.  It did that last Monday against the Eagles, not so much in this one.  McNabb’s statline: 30/50, 376, 1, 1, is as good as it’s been since the Texans game in Week 2.  You could argue that this was his best game as a Redskin, and he threw just one TD.

McNabb was most efficient during the “Chris Cooley offensive period” of the 4th quarter and overtime.  Cooley was the intended target on four of five passes to end regulation, as well as the first pass in overtime.  The Titans were weak in the middle of the field because of their coverage preferences for two-deep and the inability of their league-leading pass rushers to ever get near McNabb.  Using Cooley to attack that weakness wasn’t part of the gameplan going in, but was a nice adjustment that did a couple of things: defined reads, and defined timing.  It’s been like this going back 7 years, but when Cooley gets hot, you can’t do much to stop the Redskins passing offense.  In the 4th quarter, Cooley was hot.  They just need to find a way to make him a factor in the red zone, where he has just five total touchdowns since the start of the 2008 season.

This was a good team the Redskins just beat.  They may be just 5-5 now and struggling with their quarterback situation and entire passing game, but the Redskins were dealt ever possible blow going in and still had a really, really good team unable to get on the field to throw a pass.  It was their best offensive performance of the year, to date, and the offense should get a majority of the credit for this victory.

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