Redskins vs Vikings Offensive Review: In Which Problems Are Accepted as Realities

Washington Redskins tight end Chris Cooley makes a diving first down catch against the Minnesota Vikings at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland on November 28, 2010. UPI/Kevin Dietsch Photo via Newscom

In 2005, I believed that the Redskins were good enough to make a push for the postseason sitting at 5-6 at the end of November.  In 2007, I didn’t know that the Redskins were good enough, but believed that only a single team on the remaining schedule provided a real issue in terms of making the postseason.

It’s different this year.  Those were good football teams who had underachieved to be sub-.500 at the end of November, and so while it was difficult to see how so much could go right down the stretch, I was able to point out that those teams were at least good enough to push for the postseason.  This 2010 team isn’t in the same class as those teams.  The cold truth is that both Jim Zorn teams likely had better defenses than last season, and we’re looking at a potential reality where both offenses in the Zorn era were better than this offense.  The special teams units generate as many points as the offense this year, which is why the defense has more points to work with than last year.

Right now, the 2010 Redskins offense ranks above the 2009 offense.  Barely.  2010 Donovan McNabb ranks above 2009 Jason Campbell.  Barely.  Two meetings with the Giants await.

I’ll say this: in terms of an all or nothing scenario, this 2010 team has an opportunity to do something amazing and end up winning the NFC East because the division leaders both have four losses.  Neither the 2005 or 2007 teams had any opportunity to reach that level.  For this team, 5 wins and just a bit of help from a pair of Eagles opponents down the stretch put the Redskins in the postseason.  Put as simply as possible: at 10-6, the Redskins would hold all tiebreakers within the division (Philadelphia cannot hold the common opponents, conference, or divisional tiebreakers against Washington in any outcome where the Redskins come back to tie the Eagles).  What the Giants do in their other three games is irrelevant if the Skins win out.

So that’s how a team inferior to both the 2005 and 2007 teams could end up hosting the game.  As the Vikings game tape shows, there’s not enough talent here to make a push for the postseason.  At least not when looking at the big picture.  There might be enough to beat the Giants on Sunday.  Then we can talk.

The Redskins offense was dreadful in the second half of this game.  They got 45 yards to Anthony Armstrong on a blown coverage — Donovan McNabb did almost everything he could to throw it out there, unfortunately, he just waited a bit too long to throw the football.  If he had seen FS Madieu Williams from the snap, he would have seen his eyes on the flat and his feet standing flat footed and would have been able to anticipate Armstrong being wide open.  As it was, we should be satisfied that McNabb saw Armstrong in time to make that completion with Kevin Williams bearing down on him.  I can’t tell you where Armstong was in the QB progression.  My suspicion is that he was the second guy.  McNabb got the ball to him and got 45 yards on the play.  Hard to complain that you didn’t get more than that when the offensive line didn’t execute a simple stunt pickup and that the QB didn’t see him running open immediately.

Outside of that play, the Redskins had two gains over 4 yards in the half, and collected one other first down.  That was a 3rd and 3 play where they managed three yards on a mismatch: K. Williams on a corner.

What was the difference between the first half (when the offense was good) and the second half?  It was the much-maligned third down offense.  The Redskins were bad on first and second downs all day, which is completely predictable when your longest run goes for four yards.  The average third down attempt in the first half came from 4.25 yards shy of the marker.  In the second half the average third down attempt came 8 yards shy of the marker.  While that’s a significant reason that the conversion rate was so low in the second half, the Redskins averaged 10.1 yards per play on third down in the first half, and then 1.3 yards per play in the second half.  Of the seven first half plays of 10 or more yards, 5 came on third downs.  Of the two second half plays of 10 or more yards, none came on third down.

The other difference between the halves is that the tight ends were very involved in the first half.  In the second, Minnesota took away Cooley and Davis first, and put pressure on McNabb second.  The Redskins didn’t complete a pass to a receiver more than five yards down the field in the second half, with the exception of the Armstrong play.  You have to credit the Vikings for taking away the things the Redskins were doing well in the first half.  Then blame the Redskins for not coming up with something else that would work.  The number of receiver drops (4) in this game created an ugly result, evidenced by the numbers above.  The Redskins offense, blocking and all, would have produced excellent results in the first half if not for the drops.  In the second half, the drops simply compounded an offense that couldn’t find anything that would work.

Offensive Line Play

The interior offensive line did a really poor job generating any lanes in the rushing game.  Lichtensteiger, Rabach, and Hicks were all equally responsible for this issue.  Will Montgomery came in for an ineffective Hicks after just two drives.  He did pretty well at right guard again, but didn’t exactly solve the lack of push in the middle.  The edge blockers — Cooley in particular, but also Trent Williams — did a nice job getting push on the edge to open up the cutbacks.  The backs, specifically James Davis, did not execute and take advantage of these lanes.  Jammal Brown missed multiple run blocks, sometimes not getting the linebacker even with good position.  Consequently, the Vikings were able to shut down the run with just their front seven.

Kory Lichtensteiger was the weak link in pass protection (at least, after Artis Hicks went out) allowing a sack and a half, and a number of additional pressures.  What wasn’t the fault of Lichtensteiger was the missed stunt pickups, where Letroy Guion and Kevin Williams did nearly all of their damage.  Oftentimes, Trent Williams and Jammal Brown just weren’t aware that their outside shoulders were about to be attacked by looping defensive tackles.  That led to late chases around the outside, and swinging gates in both B gaps, hanging the guards out to dry.

Receiver Play

DL stunts, by their nature, give the quarterback time to hit his drop and throw off a hitch step.  It’s not the fault of the offensive line that the Redskins couldn’t get open from their three receiver sets.  Santana Moss played well in the first half up until his bad drop and made a number of good adjustments on the ball, but after the interception that hit him in the face, Moss definitely mailed it in on more than one occasion.  On one hand, it demonstrates how important Moss is to the pass offense.  But on the other hand, it shows that Moss can still get disinterested and just not work hard enough to help his team.  In the second half, Anthony Armstrong was open whenever he wasn’t doubled, and it just didn’t matter.  When Moss isn’t doubled, teams have problems with him.  Schematically, Armstrong is tougher to get the ball to.

I can’t begin to answer why Moss came out of the half so unwilling to sell his routes to the defense, I can just tell you how much it hurt McNabb’s performance.

Quarterback Performance

Donovan McNabb made a couple of bad throws on his first throw of the second half (forcing a throw across his body to Cooley through Kevin Williams), and the final throw of the game (deep pass to Armstrong which he threw to the safety).  More or less, the rest of his day was pedestrian and efficient.

I continue to feel that the way the Shanahan’s corrected the reads system at the bye has helped McNabb.  Whatever we were running in the first half of the season…I was confused as how that was supposed to work.  That wasn’t a professional passing game, that was a gimmick passing game.  I feel like we have a much better offense now, and that McNabb is playing a lot better and is throwing more accurately because the passing game has an engine: we use the tight ends in so many different ways over the last three weeks that it’s taken some pressure off of both the offensive line and the quarterback.  That’s good.  That’s very good.

The pressure on McNabb in the second half broke down his game a little bit.  It didn’t force him into his mistakes, but he was caught looking at the rush once or twice — and who can blame him?  McNabb was pressured, hit, or sacked on 7 of 14 dropbacks in the second half, and on two of the other seven, McNabb missed a downfield opportunity by giving up on the downfield action to try to find a spacier part of the pocket.  That made for a very rough half for McNabb, while at the same time, the Redskins defense was doing a lot of Brett Favre’s job for him.

Overall, I thought McNabb played well, but a disproportionate amount of his plays were made in the first half.  Chris Cooley could have gone for 100 in the first half easily, but clearly, the Vikings took his presence more seriously in the second half.

Rest of Season Outlook

Although the raw efficiency of the first half offense could have fooled me, this still looks like a team that is trying hard to find something it can do really, really well.  Despite Keiland Williams’ recent success, the coaching staff doesn’t appear sold on him as a runner, using Brandon Banks as a wildcat back and giving James Davis twice as many carries with half the playing time.

The offensive line has played at a better level than it did in this game most of the year.  Stunts have given our tackles issues.  One of them is young, so it’s okay.  The other isn’t under contract past this season.  The nice thing about this game is we executed better with just the five guys up front than we have in past games, and that allowed the Redskins to do a lot of empty backfield stuff for the first time this year.  Minnesota adjusted to it in the second half, but I think those empty backfield sets might have some promise in the last five games if our line can hold up.  We’re going to need to develop some better route combinations out of them to use them to the extent of their promise.

The dropsies shouldn’t be an issue going forward because they weren’t an issue coming in.  They were just an example of another way the Redskins have failed to execute offensively when their season was on the line.

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