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Redskins 28, Cowboys 18: Ten Observations

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Redskins Confidential,Sports,John Keim

1. I’d love to provide great insight into this seven-game streak. Sometimes that’s tough to do, but one word sticks out: confidence. This team and the staff didn’t waver in its belief that they could do something special. Oh, there were tough moments and when you’re 3-6 you need to fight hard to keep the doubts away. It would be naïve to think none existed. But the coaches didn’t panic, the young talent kept improving and the defense started making more timely plays. The offense’s ability to protect the ball remained consistent, another key factor in the turnaround. But when you start to win, the confidence grows and when a hard-working team starts to get rewarded, they’re tough to stop. They honestly believe they’re outworking teams in games and I won’t dispute that notion. Sometimes the best course of action is to stay on the path that you believe is right. The Redskins did that; they knew they had the talent and so they kept working at what they do. Next thing you know: NFC East champs.

2. I don’t know what the Redskins will do in the postseason, but I do know they’ll be a tough out. And keep in mind that while Seattle looks great right now, the Seahawks were just 3-5 on the road during the regular season. If this game were being played in Seattle, I’d say the Redskins made a good run and anything else is a bonus. But at home? You’d be silly to think they don’t have a chance. Having said that, it will be difficult to beat the Seahawks. And I also wouldn’t harp heavily on the 3-5 mark. The Seahawks have allowed 20 points or less in six of their eight road games. And their offense has seen marked improvement on the road: 51 points in the first four games combined; 118 in the last four games combined. Still, the Redskins, I don’t think, will be a team that’s just happy-to-be-there. They made it clear they weren’t pointing to just making the playoffs; they want more. Again, some teams say that and their body language suggests something else. Don’t think the Redskins are blowing smoke when they make that declaration. This is a coach who has won Super Bowls; the quarterback didn’t come to the league to win an NFC East title; the linebacker/veteran leader is desperate for a last run. The young players who do play have a mindset that never will be happy-to-be-there. That’s why they’re in starring roles in the first place. The Redskins have yet to let up; if they lose now it’s because they were outplayed not because of their mindset.

3. Here’s why the Redskins should be considered dangerous in the postseason: They’ve won in very different ways the past three weeks. Against Cleveland they didn’t have Robert Griffin III, yet still scored 38 points by scrapping the zone read game and using play-action and bootlegs. And another rookie quarterback. Against Philadelphia, Griffin’s legs weren’t a big issue at all yet they scored 27 points (albeit against a team playing poorly) because they threw the ball well enough and ran it effectively. And they won vs. Dallas because the passing game wasn’t working, but the Cowboys couldn’t stop the run.

4. So, in other words, they haven’t had a big game from Griffin in the past three games yet have averaged 31 points a game. They are a run-based offense that can hurt you with various looks in the run game. It’s not as simple as saying, ‘Stop Alfred Morris and you stop their run game.’ Not even close. Besides, you have to figure out exactly how they’re going to use Morris. It’s not just their offense that isn’t one-dimensional, it’s the run game. Griffin’s ability to run is factored in, but also how they use Morris.

5. For example, Sunday night, the Redskins altered how they used the zone read game. In the first meeting they usually just went basic zone read and Griffin’s fakes fooled the edge rushers – or at least that’s what they hoped they would do. It didn’t always work. But Sunday, the Redskins used their tight ends to block from the backside and if nothing else obscure the end, often linebacker DeMarcus Ware. On Morris’ 17-yard touchdown, Niles Paul blocked in that way and took care of Anthony Spencer. On Griffin’s touchdown run, Logan Paulsen came down the line and slowed Ware. The Redskins threw more at Ware and Spencer, cutting them, using shifts. It’s harder on the road for these ‘backers to get a jump off the ball and the Redskins disrupted them even more with the game plan.

“It gives them one more thing to look at,” tight end Logan Paulsen said. “You’re not used to seeing that, especially with the zone read. You obscure the action for the guy so he can’t see if Robert has it or the back has it so he’s making an educated guess.”

“To throw a wrinkle at them may not seem like a lot,” said guard Kory Lichtensteiger (who left in a walking boot over his left foot), “but it’s something they practiced all week and to get a different look messes with them.”

6. Give the defense a ton of credit for how they handled the Cowboys. They used DeAngelo Hall on Dez Bryant  in man coverage, something they did not do in the first game, and they had Josh Wilson play in the slot. They wanted to trap and double team Jason Witten and while he did have seven catches for 56 yards and a touchdown, they were able to keep him from being a dominant factor in the passing game. On his touchdown catch, you can’t blame the coverage. They opted for a three-man rush –without showing more at the line of scrimmage as they’ve done in the past when effectively using three – and Tony Romo held the ball for around eight seconds. That allowed Witten to wiggle free from linebacker Perry Riley for a catch. But that was on the rush or the play call (yes, I know the Cowboys didn’t appear to get the play off in time).

7. The Redskins were aggressive all game vs. Dallas, unlike the first game when they blitzed less in the second half because of their big lead (vs. 4-man rushes in the first game: 8.6 yards per pass attempt; vs. 5-man rushes or more: 4.5 per attempt). But they were blitzing from start to finish vs. Romo and it worked. In the first game much of the pressure came off the edge or from stunts. But Sunday they tortured Romo through the A gaps between the center and guards. And they relied on the edge rush to keep Romo contained in the pocket. On the non-intentional grounding call, the Redskins blitzed two up the middle, but Romo could not get wide because Ryan Kerrigan was on the outside. So he had to throw the ball away.

“[Romo] does a good job of keeping plays going,” linebacker Perry Riley said. “He kind of scrambles around and gets out of the pocket. We wanted to give him pressure up the middle and have the d-linemen contain him. That gets him throwing it quick and gets him off rhythm. It worked out great.”

8. That pressure worked on the first series when Romo, with Riley in his face, hurried a throw to Kevin Ogletree that sailed over him and into Richard Crawford’s arms. The pressure worked on Rob Jackson’s interception as, once again, Riley was in his face and Romo (unwisely) tried to dump it over Jackson’s head to running back DeMarco Murray. Jackson did a good job playing his man and made an athletic play. It’s amazing; Jackson doesn’t make much noise but he always comes up with a big play. The pressure helped, but he also made an athletic play. There are things he can’t do that Brian Orakpo can, but there’s little doubt that he’s made more huge plays than anyone could have anticipated. This is a playmakers league. Anyway, back to the pressure.  Romo also made a terrible throw on a deep ball that Josh Wilson intercepted. Romo tried to let Miles Austin make a play because he was in man coverage, but his throw let only one guy make a play: Wilson. Of Romo’s six interceptions in the last nine games, five came vs. Washington. Sunday, you can credit the rush for a big assist.

“They were killing [the rush],” Crawford said of the front seven. “He was throwing the ball away, errant throws. I mean, it speaks for itself.”

9. The defense doesn’t work if corner DeAngelo Hall doesn’t shut down Dez Bryant, who entered as one of the hottest players in the NFL and managed four catches for 71 yards. Hall positioned himself well and trusted his help throughout the game and was all over Bryant when it was just one-on-one (as it was often). One of Bryant’s catches came on a slant in a cover-3. But Hall set the tone for the coverage by mostly taking the most dangerous player out of the equation. I also liked how Barry Cofield played at times. He was sometimes blocked to create openings for Murray. But Cofield showed his versatility again by dropping into coverages or sliding along the line and spying backs. Not many nose tackles can do that; the more comfortable he gets the more they ask him to do.

10. One of the happier players in the locker room? Linebacker Brian Orakpo. Says a lot about him to see how genuinely happy he was for his teammates. And, yes, he’s ticked that he can’t be part of it. But nobody had a bigger smile. He could be upset that he’s not a part of it; he could be paranoid because the guy who took over for him continues to make big plays and impact games. He shouted out the records of the past three years and yelled out, ‘I can’t believe I’m missing this…’ Then quickly added, ‘I’m feeling really good!” This is a rather close group and it’s why someone such as Chris Cooley, a former star here, can accept a reduced role and have one catch on the season yet call this year a highlight for him. Again, it speaks volumes about the players they’ve assembled and the atmosphere that’s been created. Players thrive in these situations as we’re seeing. I think we’re also seeing the value of players such as Lorenzo Alexander and Reed Doughty, who has played well during this stretch. You win with guys like that as backups because they prepare the right way and they make big-time plays on special teams.

Plus one: I can’t believe this happened. Maybe a better way to look at it now is that I can’t believe they were ever 3-6. What separates this team is how hard the star players work. Said it before that I loved watching Clinton Portis play, but it’s tough to win titles when one of your best players doesn’t like to practice and openly admits that being the case. You have to be supremely talented all over to win like that. But this group’s mindset is probably more akin to the Marty Schottenheimer teams, but with more talent. They have a chance to do something in the playoffs. But even if they don’t, this is merely the start of something bigger. You know who knows that best of all? The players and coaches. That’s why some members of the organization will be choosy about going to another team in order to get a promotion (whether coaches or front office members). They know if the right job doesn’t come along they can be patient because when you have a talent such as Robert Griffin III on your team, you hang around maybe win some titles and then pick your spot.

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