Thoughts and Observations from Mike Shanahan’s return to Denver

Robert Griffin is right. The Washington Redskins aren't a 2-5 team.  That's not what they play like.

Problem is, when you play like a team with no aspirations for the playoffs the first three weeks of the season, you don't get to shrug off those performances when negativity and criticism collide at Redskins park.  And the stigma of the beginning of the season: the complete abscence of the offense against Philadelphia in the first half, the defense on paid leave against Green Bay, and the special teams disaster against Dallas, and it's hard to argue the Redskins out of 'bad team' territory.

The good news is that the Redskins are not swooning at this time of year in the way that they were 365 days ago.  After spending the morning with coffee and the all-22 tape from the Denver game, I am mostly pleased with where the defense is at after the Denver game.  Each of the last two games has served as a reminder that Washington is still a poor tackling football team, and that's going to cost yards and points at times.  But after watching the Denver offense appear limited for much of the 60 minutes before overwhelming the Washington defense in the final 8 (at altitude, it must be stated), this is more or less who the Redskins are on defense, and you can win with that.

This game was also a good example of the adjustments the Redskins were able to make on special teams.  They don't have the athletes to make plays in space, so they will compensate with directional kicking.  Sometimes, that is going to cause your punter to shank one out of bouds, but for the most part, this strategy is optimal.

On Sunday, the offense was a problem.  The thing that the all-22 showed is that the gameplan was very similar to the one used against Chicago the prior week: run heavy, and absolutely convinced that the defense could be beat over the top.  The biggest difference was that Chicago didn't have Von Miller, although Miller wasn't the only player who was in Robert Griffin's grill on Sunday.

Since the Dallas game, neither of the Redskins opponents have been particularly blitz happy.  Griffin was getting blitzed by everyone early in the season, but since the return of his legs as a viable weapon, the big blitzes have subsided.  Denver rushed five guys a lot, but the majority of snaps, they rushed just four.  This is consistent with how Chicago game planned Griffin last week.

The biggest difference was that while Chicago sold out (ineffectively) against Alfred Morris, Denver was not interested in allowing the zone-boot passing game to define the game in Mike Shanahan's return to Denver.  This is understandable.  What is a little more frustrating is how muddied the pocket was for Griffin given that Denver's gameplan was to keep him inside the pocket.  Denver played with a single high safety most of the game, and eight in the box.  The Redskins never seemed to adjust to Denver's preferred defense.'

It's pretty much universal that if your receivers struggle to create any sort of separation and the offensive line is getting manhandled, you're asking for disaster from your quarterback.  It is from that start that a number of disturbing trends have emerged in Robert Griffin's game.  Griffin is overthrowing the deep ball badly.  This is important, because it is a key feature in Griffin's unique skill set.  Without that skill, you would struggle to separate his skill set from that of Ryan Tannehill's.

Griffin also isn't getting a clear picture of the defense on every snap.  He's working with a partial picture on a lot of snaps.  This is usually plenty adeqate to run the Kyle Shanahan offense: he's seeing the defense well enough to know where the ball should go on any given snap.  Problem is that Griffin has not taken advantage of missed defensive assignments in three consecutive weeks.  Meanwhile, missed assignments absolutely killed the Redskins defense in the first three weeks of the season.  That element of the game has now evened out, but the Redskins have been unable to take advantage of it.

Griffin isn't seeing these breakdowns because he hasn't been taught to see them.  That is a problem.  It is debateable how serious this issue is.  Some would say this comes with the territory with young quarterbacks: Jason Campbell moved on to Oakland before he really made full field reads, even though his best seasons came under Jim Zorn.  Donovan McNabb and Mark Brunell both would routinely take advantage of defensive breakdowns, and yet, those offenses struggled all the time.  It's not a cut and dry issue.  The offense is not bound to struggle simply because of the way Griffin has been taught.

It will struggle, however, if the receivers can't separate and the line cannot protect Griffin.  Because the consistent issue with this offense since game one is the complete abscence of the deep passing game.  This is something I am able to suggest a soution for: the Redskins can create deep throw opportunties by expanding the playbook on some of their more common route combinations.

Denver pretty clearly immersed itself in the Dallas-Washington tape, and noticed how predictable the Redskins passing game has become, particularly (but not exclusively) on third down.  At times, the Redskins will give away their combinations based on formation and alignment.  This doesn't have to be a negative.  If defensive backs are going to bite on the Redskins routes based on a film tendency, the Redskins can show a common look and then use a double move to get behind the coverage.  They haven't shown a willingness to do this yet, but it wouldn't shock me if Kyle Shanahan quickly went in this direction soon.

This will be particularly useful on third downs and with the play action passing game.  If teams are going to sit on the quick post from the pistol + play action, the Redskins can put in a quick post-out.  If the opponent is going to sit on Santana Moss' jerk route to the outside, the Redskins should be able to fake it and go to the inside or up the field on a sluggo (slant + go) route.  They do not have to keep doing what is not working the rest of the season.

And of course, they can go right back to the Jordan Reed well as much as they want to, as Reed continues to impress.

In the aggragate, this team does not play like a 2-5 team.  The offense performance on Sunday was not indicitive of the ability of this unit.  On the positive end, it may be the new normal for the defense and special teams.  Tackling issues and athletic issues are going to prevent the defense and special teams from being strong units, but they are playing well within the scheme, and aren't leaving many big play opportunities on the field.  Meanwhile, the offense has a lot more opportunites than it is taking advantage of.  While the Redskins haven't been good to this point, they are pretty healthy, and they are likely to get better in the second half.

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