The Washington Redskins offensive line is a mess. A group that was fairly reliable in 2012 has become one that is blighting every phase of the offense.
The issues are extensive and range from losing individual battles to collective communication failures. The feeble front five is also not always being helped by some play-calling decisions that are putting them under increased pressure.
A look back at the 31-16 Week 6 loss to the Dallas Cowboys shows all of these problems in action, beginning with how penetration is killing the running game.
Too Much Penetration Against the Run
The zone-based scheme that is supposed to drive this offense relies on a clean backfield to let runs develop. Sadly, too many defensive linemen are finding their way into the backfield and wrecking zone runs at their source.
One notable example came with the Redskins at their own 49-yard line preparing to run their trademark stretch play against the Dallas defense.
The left side of the O-line was ready to lead a shift that way to open up a cutback lane for Alfred Morris. But defensive tackle Jason Hatcher would soon destroy the play.
Guard Kory Lichtensteiger would attempt to execute a trap block on Hatcher. But the Cowboys interior lineman would soon beat Lichtensteiger at the point of contact and break through the line before attacking downhill.
Licntensteiger was too easily beaten by a quick swat-and-swim move from Hatcher.
That put Hatcher in the cutback lane the Redskins were trying to create. His presence kept Morris running laterally, and Hatcher soon dropped him for a four-yard loss.
This kind of negative play has become a frequent sight in the running game this season. The line is losing its individual battles and allowing too much quick penetration.
Without a consistently productive running game, Washington's play-action passing attack loses a lot of credibility. The Redskins are then forced into standard dropback passing and straight protection, something that has been a major problem for the group up front.
Struggles Maintaining the Pocket
Because this line is struggling to win individual battles, quarterback Robert Griffin III is regularly being trapped in a shrinking pocket.
A fourth-quarter sack by the Cowboys is the perfect example. The play began with both defensive ends winning on the edge.
Both tackles would soon do the same on the inside.
Once the ball was snapped, the Dallas D-line encircled Griffin before closing in around him.
Griffin was left with nowhere to run. Linebacker Sean Lee (50) was filling his only possible escape lane.
The collapsing pocket, along with initial pressure from the left defensive tackle, forced Griffin to readjust his feet.
But he was unable to step up into a clean throwing lane because of the double-team occupied by Nick Hayden (96). Even two Washington linemen could not move Hayden back and give their quarterback more room to throw.
With Griffin now a stationary target, both defensive ends closed in. George Selvie attacked from the side, while Kyle Wilber stalked Griffin from behind.
It was Wilber who eventually made the play. He sacked Griffin and jarred the ball loose for a critical turnover.
This decisive play was simply the result of a collective failure to win matchups in the trenches. Tackles Trent Williams and Tyler Polumbus could not hold off edge pressure.
Interior trio Lichtensteiger, center Will Montgomery and right guard Chris Chester could not prevent a push up the middle.
This is a prime example of the kind of basic protection breakdowns that are plaguing Washington every time the offense is in an obvious passing situation.
But it is not just dealing with a four-man rush that is causing problems. The Redskins are also having trouble reacting to additional pressure.
Problems Picking Up the Blitz
In the second quarter, the Cowboys showed an A-gap blitz look. They put linebackers in both gaps either side of the center.
Any kind of A-gap pressure immediately turns the running back, in this case Roy Helu Jr., into a pass-blocker. Dallas planned an overload pressure to target Helu and the interior of Washington's front.
Lee would blitz off an inside stunt, while fellow linebacker Bruce Carter would drop into coverage on the tight end side of the formation.
Lee would be followed by cornerback Orlando Scandrick. Their blitz lanes would be cleared by Wilber taking a wide rush and drawing left tackle Williams to the outside.
The Redskins would have major issues reacting to this blitz. Lichtensteiger and Montgomery would be most at fault.
The Cowboys ran a stunt, with Hayden going across the face of Montgomery. Lee looped behind on a twist at Lictensteiger.
This is where the problems began. Helu was ready to come across and make a block as Lee attacked the gap between Montgomery and Lichtensteiger.
But instead of turning to trap Lee inside, Lichtensteiger focused on Scandrick's delayed blitz. That left Helu to deal with Lee.
A running back on a downhill blitzing linebacker is an obvious mismatch for an offense. Lichtensteiger should have taken Lee, leaving Helu to come across and meet Scandrick in the hole.
Instead, Helu soon lost out to Lee. The linebacker hit Griffin as he threw, forcing an incomplete pass.
This failure in blocking could have easily been avoided with better communication and smarter adjustments up front.
Montgomery should have made the call to adjust the protection and put Lichtensteiger on Lee. That would have left Helu free to help double-team inside or pick up any late blitz like the one by Scandrick.
Defenses have had a lot of success blitzing Griffin through the middle this season. The errors on this play show why.
Given the issues the line is experiencing in every area of protection, it is surprising how often Washington's schemes put the group at risk.
Questionable Play Designs Increasing the Pressure on the O-line
Coordinator Kyle Shanahan is making some questionable play-calling decisions that are not always in the best interests of his ailing offensive line.
Most notably, Shanahan is emptying the backfield and spreading receivers too often on a team that is struggling up front.
In the red zone against the Cowboys, he used a flex tight end and a running back in motion to create a five-receiver look that put a lot of pressure on the O-line.
The play began with Helu going in motion from the backfield. He would split out as a wide receiver.
Shanahan also had tight end Fred Davis line up in a flex alignment, detached from the main front. Instead of staying in to block, Davis would release on a pass pattern.
That left an overwhelmed line to deal with the Dallas front four on their own. At the snap, the protection soon broke down.
Williams was forced back into Griffin by Wilber's bull rush. On the other side, Polumbus was also being pushed back.
Had Helu or Davis stayed in, they could have helped their tackles by chipping the defensive ends.
The Cowboys also ran a twist inside between Hayden and Drake Nevis (70).
With Wilber pushing Williams right back into his quarterback and Hayden and Nevis closing in, Griffin had to throw from another collapsing pocket.
The result was an incomplete pass, and another opportunity for six points was wasted.
The Redskins have endured major issues in the red zone so far season. The root of the problems has been failures along the front.
This play showed how poor individual performances, and questionable schematic choices are affecting the blocking.
The offensive line is currently being let down by mediocre displays from key figures like Williams and Lichtensteiger. But there also communication problems, particularly against the blitz.
Repairing these weaknesses should be a major area of focus this week. As luck would have it, the Redskins face a Chicago Bears defense that poses a lot of the same problems the Cowboys did.
The Bears rely heavily on four-man pressure from base looks, but they also feature a third-down package built almost exclusively on A-gap pressure.
In tomorrow's game-plan preview, we'll look at some of the things the Redskins can do to avoid a similar horror show to the one the O-line has experienced so far.
All screen shots courtesy of NBC and NFL.com Gamepass.
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