Washington Redskins vs. Dallas Cowboys: Takeaways from Washington's 16-31 Loss
Washington's offense had some bright moments, but its inability to consistently run, or at least commit to it, undermined the unit's best work.
The root of the problem was a feeble display by an offensive line that was routinely manhandled by the Dallas defensive front. The struggles derailed quarterback Robert Griffin's best performance of the season, a performance that included glimpses of his awesome dual-threat talents.
Defensively, Washington leaned on the blitz but did not make enough plays at key times. But if the defense suffered, that was nothing compared to the nightmare endured by the special teams.
Inconsistencies in all three phases form the takeaways from a bitterly disappointing 31-16 defeat for head coach Mike Shanahan's team.
The Running Game Continues to Regress
Just what has happened to the rushing attack that dominated the NFL in 2012? Washington again consistently struggled to impose its running game on a defense.
Workhorse back Alfred Morris was hamstrung by two negligible factors. The first is a play ratio that is skewed to the pass.
As a natural zone runner, Morris relies a lot on rhythm. But that can only be established with consistent carries.
For the game, the Redskins threw 39 passes and ran the ball 33 times. But nine of those runs came from Griffin, with at least five being scrambles as a result of the original play breaking down.
Perhaps offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is wary about trusting the run, because of struggles up front. The O-line is simply allowing too much penetration inside.
The interior trio of guards Kory Lichtensteiger and Chris Chester, along with center Will Montgomery, are the main culprits.
Without a steady ground game leading the way, the Shanahan offensive system is rendered impotent. The play-action passing game and the moving pockets don't fool defenses unless the offense is wearing down fronts with stretch runs.
This is a run-first team, and the sooner the coaches return to that dynamic, the better.
Robert Griffin III Is Inching Closer to His Best Form
An inept rushing display wasted the best performance of the season from Robert Griffin III. He looked a lot more like his rookie version in Dallas.
In particular, Griffin's mobility, the thing that scares defenses the most, was impressive. His footwork in the pocket was excellent, enabling him to avoid rushing linemen and make plays with his arm.
But what was most reminiscent of the way Griffin terrorized the league in 2012, was his speed as a runner. More than once, he demonstrated an impressive turn of speed around the corner on scrambles.
Griffin's better movement skills clearly bred confidence in the Shanahans. They felt brave enough to actually call a handful of designed quarterback runs and trust Griffin's surgically repaired knees to hold up.
Sadly, Griffin's heroics were drowned out by the lack of a rushing attack and failing pass protection. That led to some ugly mistakes in the fourth quarter, including Orlando Scandrick's interception.
But if Griffin can continue to be as decisive as a passer and this nimble as a runner, he could soon be back to lighting up scoreboards.
Too Many Penalites Continue to Plague the Team
The Redskins continue to commit too many bonehead penalties. They were guilty of 12 violations against the Cowboys, giving away 104 yards.
The team is lacking both smarts and discipline at the moment, and that is costing it points and games.
On the opening drive, outside linebacker Rob Jackson was flagged for illegal hands to the face, giving the Cowboys the chance to sustain a drive deep in Washington territory.
Dallas would score its first touchdown just a few plays after Jackson's folly. But that was nothing compared to the gaffe committed by the special teams in the second quarter.
Having downed a punt at the Cowboys 16-yard line, a penalty meant Washington had to kick again. The result was an 86-yard scoring return by Dwayne Harris.
That was compounded by a bizarre 15-yard penalty on coordinator Keith Burns for making contact with an official on the sideline. Burns' gaffe put Griffin and the offense in poor field position, as they attempted to answer Harris' score.
Shanahan has often talked up discipline and character since he took over in D.C. But right now, both attributes are in short supply for the 1-4 Redskins.
Special Teams Remain a Mess
The special teams continued its so far unbroken streak of undermining the team. As well as surrendering a scoring return to Harris, the Redskins also let him run a kickoff back 90 yards, producing a crucial momentum shift.
Unfortunately, Washington's own return game could not muster anything close to matching Harris' efforts. The problems extended to the kicking game, where Kai Forbath missed a field goal that would have put the Redskins within two points.
The performance of the special teams so far this season has been one long nightmare. There is essentially nothing that this unit currently does well, aside from aiding the opposition.
Perry Riley Jr. Is Coming into His Own
Claiming 38-year-old London Fletcher has lost a step has become a popular narrative recently. But the player who occupies the inside linebacker spot next to Fletcher is starting to blossom.
Fourth-year pro Perry Riley Jr. was a rare bright spot for a game but overmatched Washington defense. He was in on five total tackles and looked dangerous on the blitz.
Riley notched a sack, but he was also guilty of incurring a needless roughing the passer penalty in the first quarter. Despite that blunder, though, Riley hardly put a foot wrong all night.
With Fletcher maybe on the wane and other members of the linebacker corps not doing enough, Washington can at least count on Riley to stay productive.
Jordan Reed Is Ready to Become a Star
On Friday, I wrote about how rookie Jordan Reed is rapidly emerging as a dynamic "move" tight end. He continued to showcase his potential for stardom in Dallas.
Reed tallied four receptions for 58 yards and again made plays from multiple positions. He consistently displayed excellent flexibility and moves to outwit coverage from the slot.
He also showed off his ability as an open-field runner on a nicely designed screen play in the first half.
The next step for Reed is to be given more plays in the offense. The Shanahans must find as many ways as possible to create favorable matchups and get their budding star the ball.
Wide Receivers Need to Make More Plays
The need to involve a tight end more often is further emphasized by some underlying issues at wide receiver. In short, Washington's wideouts are displaying inconsistent effort and not making enough key contributions.
Against the Cowboys, leading flanker Pierre Garcon epitomized the problems. He recorded some solid numbers, making six catches for 69 yards.
But Garcon also allowed himself to be taken out of the game too easily by press tactics from Dallas corners Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne.
They played him tough, but Garcon could have done more to gain separation. He was anonymous for large periods of the game, and he was not the only one.
Youngster Leonard Hankerson has the attributes and skills to be this team's leading receiver. But he still drops too many he should catch and doesn't use his size to win physical battles on the outside.
If they are content to let Griffin put the ball in the air 39 times, then the Redskins need more from their wide receivers.
Lack of Red-Zone Efficiency Is Becoming a Major Concern
At times, Washington's offense moved the ball without any difficulty against the Cowboys. Unfortunately, the problems usually came in the red zone.
It is tough to pinpoint exactly why the Redskins were so dire inside the 20. They made three trips to the red zone and had to settle for a field goal each time.
It was not necessarily a case of running out of ideas, or deviating from what had been working. Instead, poor execution blighted Griffin and Co. the most inside the 20.
Whether it was a dropped pass, like the one by Morris in the first quarter, or a missed block, something would go wrong the closer the offense got to the end zone.
Of course, lacking a reliable running game, or at least the credible threat of one, is a major reason why a team can find life hard inside the 20.
But these woes must be fixed soon, because Washington's defense is not capable of letting the team win field-goal battles.
Shanahan and his coaches can simply add red-zone efficiency to the list of problems the Redskins face after five games.