Redskins at the Break: a general, wide-ranging analysis

You probably heard: the Washington Redskins did not get off to the kind of start they had planned.

Washington had not begun any season 0-3 in more than a decade, and any start that has anyone making sunny day comparisions to the 2001 Redskins is not an ideal situation.

With the start out of the way, the Redskins were able to get into the win column on the road, which should not be taken for granted.  The Redskins have played well enough to win both of the last two weeks.  This is a very aggressive turnaround from the quality of the team's performance in the first two weeks.

And while you can't just pretend like Weeks 1 & 2 never occured, they are far enough in the past to maintain proper perspective on the rest of the season.  The Redskins are playing right around the level established by last season.

Here are some of my major observations through the first four weeks, with an emphasis on Weeks 3 & 4:

Robert Griffin III has improved his play from the pocket, in sharp contrast to how his season has been percieved to date.  Despite being one of the most blitzed quarterbacks in 2013 (one of the biggest changes from 2012 where he had all day to throw), Griffin is being forced to process more information and throw under durress more often.  There has certainly been an adjustment period to how defenses are playing him, but Griffin has managed the pocket better every week.  Oakland sacked Griffin just once on a safety blitz.

Meanwhile, the velocity on Griffin's passes has been there all along.  He's still a nightmare for defensive coordinators, who have to defend the whole field and try to get pressure on Griffin at the same time.

Griffins ability to maneuver and create space to throw in the pocket has really assisted his offensive line, which has done a pretty good job at handling the blitzes.  Better than running backs Roy Helu, Alfred Morris, and Darrel Young have done, at least.

Griffin's inconsistent start has been a function of many issues, chief among them a general lack of preparedness on the part of the Redskins.  And while Griffin has become more efficient throwing from the pocket, he's been far less consistent outside of the pocket than he was a year ago.  Against Oakland, Griffin did show some positive signs, but he has not constrained defenses in a way that would allow him to be a dual-threat outside the end.

The speed isn't much the issue, as Griffin has shown both acceleration and elusiveness at times.  The issue is more about rushed or just forced decisions.  In other words, Griffin isn't so much dealing with a health issue with his knee as he's dealing with a lack of confidence in exactly what his employers want from him as far as protecting that knee.  Obviously, there is some responsibility on Griffin to not do all the same behaviors that got him hurt in the first place, but you force him to slow down too much and now you take away Robert Griffin's decisiveness, one of his best assets as a player.

And of course, the Redskins did not open the season with a sense of urgency that matched the one that being 0-3 will create.  They did not do a ton of hard player evaluation during the preseason, and did not open with maybe the best offensive gameplans or the most effective reciever rotation.  They've also gotten very little contribution from a running game.  Let's look a bit deeper at that.

The running game has not been able to carry the team as it did last season, mostly of course, because the score of the games has necessitated a pass-heavy approach to offense.  But the last two weeks, the Redskins were in the game at all points, and still didn't rely a ton on the running game to move the ball.  Truth is, this is a Kyle Shanahan preference, going back multiple quarterback eras.  Last year's complete ditching of the passing game down the stretch was the aberration: a reaction to having a running game so dominant, it made no sense to ever put the ball up.

The Redskins aren't quite as dominant on the ground as they were a year ago because they're struggling to sustain blocks the way they did a year ago.  There were positive signs on this front in the Oakland game: guys sustaining blocks on the edges allowing for Alfred Morris and Roy Helu to get upfield.  But with the OL getting manhandled a lot on the interior, the backs have been left to cut back into holes that are closing too quickly.

The Redskins still feature a good rushing attack that they might want to lean more on early in games.  But I don't know if we're going to see the rushing attack from last year back anytime soon.  On this team, the running game is going to be a purely complementary endeavor.

One major offensive issue yet to be solved is the abscence of big plays in the passing game, because it was nice last year to be able to pull out a 30+ yard pass in a critical situation to flip a game.  This year, of course, the early deficits have affected the kind of coverages that would allow the Redskins to take a bunch of shots down the field and try to force their way to big offensive totals, but they have also missed opportunities the last two weeks to Aldrick Robinson (dropped) vs Detroit and Santana Moss (overthrown) vs Oakland.

Their overwhelming success in the short and intermediate passing games have taken the sting out of the lack of a big play passing game, but with all the improvements the passing game has made, RG3's yards per attempt are down a full yard from 2012 (8.1 -> 7.1), which is not an insignificant number.

The Redskins offensive coaching staff has been slow to adjust, which is a lot better than failing to adjust completely.  They've taken it on the chin from some really lacking defenses through four weeks, which is problematic given the quality of offenses that the Redskins defense has been facing.  Frankly, they've just needed to come in more prepared and get off to better starts against teams with known weaknesses.  It's not reflected in the team's win-loss record, but the 'better late than never' caveat applies and the Redskins have not failed to score on these defenses, they've just had to come back from large deficits every week.

No production whatsoever from the tight end position has hurt, because the tight end is a very important role in Kyle Shanahan's offense.  Logan Paulsen and Fred Davis have struggled greatly with their opportunities.  Jordan Reed has shown a lot more than either Paulsen and Davis, but he has been unavailable the last five quarters.  Niles Paul continues to leave a lot to be desired.  Kyle Shanahan has said very recently that he thinks the TE group is one of the deepest on the team, but perhaps adjusting to the fact that the group has been underwhelming will help create some better results in the future.

Defensively, the Redskins have a top-heavy three man unit, because the top three projected talents on the defense before the season have all performed above expectation.  Nose tackle Barry Cofield, and Outside LBs Ryan Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo are really causing problems up front for defenses.  The three are off to excellent starts.  And…the rest of the defense has been a complete wasteland.

It's going to take a full season to find all the answers on defense, but you don't have to strain your eyes to see Cofield, Kerrigan, and Orakpo leading a very strong defense in the near term future.  There just has to be a week to week zero tolerance committment to mistakes from the other players.  It's a unit that needs a great deal of turnover.  I think rookie CB David Amerson is very close to solidifying one of the CB positions.  He struggled at times in his first four games, but may be the Redskins best cover corner moving forward.  Getting Jarvis Jenkins back off of suspenion could easily fill another hole in a quickly improving defensive front seven.

Perry Riley's season to date has been very disappointing, and he's simply the best option the Redskins have at inside linebacker, which has become a position of great weakness.  Riley makes a fair amount of mental errors for a player who is twelve games from hitting free agency for the first time.  Physically, he moves well and hits well and looks like a starter.  But you'd like the middle player in your defense to be in proper position a bit more often than Riley is.  I don't think that's too much to ask.

The corners have been…okay, but safety is a war zone, even considering Brandon Meriweather's strong effort in Oakland.  The corners give up way too many yarda and miss too many tackles, but are close enough to competent that if a guy steps up here, you replace a weakness there, it's salvagable.  It seems like the Redskins are going to be riding the Meriweather roller coaster at safety the whole year, which is great news for their opponents.  Bacarri Rambo played his way off the field after two dreadful weeks.  The Redskins have been playing much of the season with just one safety in the starting lineup, and three corners.  This strategy would work a lot better if the one safety was a better player.  Jordan Pugh got some defensive snaps against Oakland, and didn't get over in time to prevent the Mychal Rivera TD.

Safety and inside LB are positions where the Redskins are going to have to go outside the organization as soon as possible to get help: there just isn't enough on the roster now to get the Redskins through the season.

And of course, London Fletcher…ugh.  There are no historical comparables on a 38 year old linebacker.  This is because there aren't any 38 year old linebackers.  You're seeing why this season.

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The good news is that there's a chance the Redskins will play for first place in Week 5 at Dallas.  They're also playing for their whole season in many ways: 1.5 out with 11 to play and down 2 games in the divisional tiebreaker is going to be too difficult to make up.  But the Redskins have to take it one game at a time anyway.  And the Dallas game should be very winnable, given a couple of tweaks during the bye week.

The issues demonstrated on offense over the first four weeks are likely correctable in short time.  And the defensive issues have been largely overstated — although they will take much longer to correct.

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