Some mid-season Sunday Morning notes on the Redskins coaching tape

Hello, all.  Long time, no see.  As the Redskins get ready to take their talents to Pittsburgh, here are a number of observations I made off the coaching tape from earlier this season:

The Redskins special teams units are abysmal (except the punt team) and it's not just Billy Cundiff's fault

Brandon Banks is not having a good year on kickoff returns.  He didn't have a good year last year on kickoff returns.  What's the deal with Banks?  He may not have the rare explosiveness he flashed as a rookie, but the Redskins do an awful job of setting up blocks for him.  This is somewhat excusable on punts, but on kick returns, this is inexcusable.

When Cundiff was in town, the Redskins struggled with their kicking game, but were sound on actual kickoffs, arguably a more useful skill given the red zone efficiency of the offense.  Now with Kai Forbath doing the kicking, the Redskins have a kicker they believe will kick the ball between the uprights (that's good!), but it exposes some outdated schemes on kickoffs (that's bad).

It's only a matter of time until NFL teams start going to the spread punt formations that are popular in college right now, since its an easy way to prevent returns by the opponent on punts.  Therefore, since the Redskins' only strong unit on special teams is the punt group, the long term future of the special teams is even hazier than the present.  In theory, these are units the Redskins can improve over the course of the year.  Pittsburgh is not the opponent that is most likely to expose the Redskins special teams as they have their own issues there.  But in the second half of the season, the difference between a special season that results in a playoff run and just another last place finish likely has to do with the progression of Danny Smith's underperforming units.

Alfred Morris has the same physical skill set as other backs the Redskins have struggled with, but he's a much better player

Morris, not RG3, has been the biggest surprise for the Redskins offense this year.  Essentially, he started the year on top of the depth chart because of injuries to Tim Hightower, Evan Royster, and Roy Helu, but he's there now because of performance.  Morris has a great feel for the zone running game, and he's versatile enough to run the man blocking plays that Kyle Shanahan prefers as a change of pace.

My fear with Morris making the team in September was that we'd just watch the Ryan Torain era unfold all over again, as physically, they are similar players.  But Morris' vision and feel for the offense is much more similar to Terrell Davis and to late-career Clinton Portis than it is to Torain.

The weird thing is, it sure feels like the Redskins are underutilizing a better player in Royster, but Morris has proven durable in the unique rushing attack the Redskins use every week.  He's the player (other than Trent Williams and maybe Fred Davis before the injury) most responsible for taking the pressure off of Robert Griffin, and was an excellent find in the sixth round by the Shanaclan (like Royster before him).  And I'd like to officially apologize for not buying in sooner.

So many of the Redskins issues in 2012 are problems that could have been fixed two, three, or four years ago had only they paid better attention

Before we entirely excuse the early season results as a phase of rebuilding, the Redskins issues in 2012 are very similar in nature to issues the Redskins have had in 2008, 2009, and 2010.  You can't excuse making the same mistakes again simply because the Redskins fixed many of their self inflicted issues from the 2011 season.

In 2008, the Redskins enjoyed the benefits of a strong season by a young quarterback and a productive running game, much as they are doing right now.  In 2009 and 2010, they combined to win 10 games.  They never reached their defensive potential, and took their offensive improvement for granted.  Four years later, the Redskins sit at more or less the exact same crossroads.

The good news is that the Redskins were considerably older in 2008 than they are in 2012.  Jason Campbell was 26, Robert Griffin is 22.  Clinton Portis was 27, Alfred Morris is 23.  Santana Moss was 29, Pierre Garcon is just 26.  But the Redskins also had first round picks each of the next two years, which became Brian Orakpo and Trent Williams.  Can you imagine what would happen if the Redskins made the same mistakes over the next two years and couldn't make up for it by adding two top five draft talents?

Obviously, what they need to do is avoid making the same mistakes.  The passing game cannot develop if the Redskins continue to run Jammal Brown and Tyler Polumbus out there every week.   They need Leonard Hankerson, Aldrick Robinson, and Niles Paul to be more productive than Fred Davis, Devin Thomas, and Malcolm Kelly were.  They need to throw the ball to the sticks on third down every once in a while.  And most importantly, when they find something that is working (like Zorn's three receiver spread package in 2008 or Kyle Shanahan's pistol offense in 2012), they need not to phase it out simply because football isn't "supposed" to be played like that.

And they need to get rid of the weak players, not hang onto them for reasons like "leadership."  Or offer them contract extensions in their thirties.

But the number one takeaway from the 2008 team is that there is no law that says a good quarterback like RG3 cannot struggle over the course of a half season (see: Newton, Cam) or even a full season.  And if you don't build around him to win on a rainy day (see: 2008 Ben Roethlisberger), you will not make it to another season.

The Redskins defense is overachieving, and the offense is probably underachieving

This is highly counterintuitive because the Redskins have been so much better on offense than on defense this year, but the Redskins offense still leaves drives on the field by being hyper conservative late in the series (third and fourth down), a problem they don't have early in the series when they are typically very aggressive.  It's nearly impossible to stop the Redskins offense if they need just a yard or two, but the Redskins typically stop themselves by deciding to punt and max protect on third downs so RG3 doesn't take a lick.

But the Redskins defense has had very good results for the kind of talent they run out there every week.  They've managed to be very strong against the rush this year, which given the personnel that has come through Washington in the last couple years, is certainly not a given.  And as bad as they are against the pass, they aren't as bad as they could be because they have a bunch of individuals who make plays against opposing quarterbacks.

Kerrigan needs to develop an effective counter move.  Teams shut him down by running shorter drops and allowing him to come up field.  Previously, the counter move's name was "Brian Orakpo."

Think about this: the Bengals had a great day through the air against Washington.  But if Andy Dalton had that kind of game every week, he would be labeled inconsistent at best.  Ditto Drew Brees.  And Matt Ryan.  The problem with the Redskins pass defense is personnel, sure, but it's also the number of snaps that opponents get against them relative to their weaknesses.  This is just another reason the Redskins shouldn't punt or kick field goals on fourth and short.  By leaving those points on the field, the Redskins are giving points to the opponent in roundabout fashion by giving them more chances to pick on known defensive weaknesses.

The biggest single difference from last year on defense is that 1) Madieu Williams can't run, and 2) the Redskins do not have a consistent pass rush now that Ryan Kerrigan is the type of force that teams double on every snap.  Rob Jackson has been underwhelming, as has Josh Wilson.  DeAngelo Hall has been himself, unfortunately.  But Perry Riley and Reed Doughty, who both struggled last year vs the pass, have largely been two of the better contributors this year. If the best defense is in fact a good offense, the Redskins should start acting like it.

Despite unit performance, this is going to be an offensive-minded team for the balance of the Shanahan era.  Fixing the Redskins defense should be easy.  Keep the top performers, get rid of the underperformers.  Don't sign everyone elses underperformers.  Why the Redskins broke all three of these rules the last four years is beyond me.

The Redskins play action game is a better weapon than any other team in the NFL enjoys

And its not really the stretch-boot game that everyone expected.  But that game is effective because Robert Griffin doesn't ever give up on a play.  And in the play action game, the Redskins can use the whole middle of the field to throw the ball.  Because their running game is too hard to stop while playing straight up.  I never thought I typed these words, but you can't stop the Redskins on a first or second down when they have the run pass option.  Only the Redskins can stop themselves.

In the second half of the season, Griffin and the Redskins need to focus on beating themselves less often.

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