Washington Redskins vs. Atlanta Falcons: Takeaways from Washington's 26-27 Loss
The focus was firmly on Kirk Cousins, as he stepped in for Robert Griffin III. The 2012 fourth-round pick responded brilliantly, reviving a sluggish offense.
Sadly, seven turnovers and some dubious coaching decisions undermined Cousins' best efforts. Those issues are the main takeaways for Washington after they slipped to 3-11.
Screen shot courtesy of Fox Sports and NFL.com Game Pass.
All statistics via NFL.com.
Kirk Cousins Helped the Offense Look More Like Itself
The key to Cousins' success was how he stayed within the confines of the Shanahan offense. The system is built on heavy doses of zone-running to set up play-action passes from moving pockets.
That is just what Redskins fans saw for most of the game in Atlanta. Cousins was willing to let the rushing attack lead the way and wait to pick his spots off play action.
He did the latter very well, releasing the ball quickly and staying decisive in the pocket. For the first time in a long while this season, this offense looked the way it is supposed to look.
Cousins Needs Alfred Morris to Be at His Best
As well as Cousins performed, there is no doubt his job was made easier by a revived Alfred Morris. The bruising tailback has been shut down in recent games but was back near his best in Atlanta.
Morris powered his way to 5.4 yards per rush on 18 thumping carries. He finished with 98 yards but would easily have hit the triple-figure mark had he been used more during the second half.
When Morris runs well, the play-action game works. Cousins routinely saw single coverage behind the linebacker level and was able to throw against some eight-man fronts.
He will need Morris to be just as good in the final two games.
Spreading the Ball Around Makes the Passing Game Better
It is hardly rocket science, but spreading the ball around makes the passing game better. Cousins connected with nine different pass-catchers in the Georgia Dome.
The result was 381 yards through the air and three scoring passes. In previous weeks, defenses have been able to swarm all over primary receiver Pierre Garcon to stunt the aerial offense.
But the Falcons didn't know who would strike next in Week 15. While Garcon still caught seven passes, there were eight more receptions from Santana Moss.
Even Aldrick Robinson and Josh Morgan combined for seven catches. This offense has a plethora of weapons, but an unwillingness and inability to use them all has been a problem.
Cousins should continue relying on a more collaborative approach to see out the season.
Big Plays Are the Key to This Offense
This offense is clicking when it produces yards in big chunks. The big-play potential was back with a vengeance in Week 15.
Cousins completed two passes of over 50 yards. One was his 53-yard scoring strike to Garcon, while the other was a 62-yard heave to Robinson.
He also exceeded 20 yards on his first quarter touchdown pass to forgotten man Fred Davis.
On top of the fireworks through the air, Morris compiled some big gains of his own. A 37-yard burst was the highlight of his strong rushing effort.
These are the kind of big plays the Washington offense manufactured for fun in 2012. That knack for the spectacular has deserted them this season, but its return this week is evidence of a system working again.
Whenever the Redskins find big plays in any phase, it puts defenses in a bind. They can't over-commit to the run because of the threat off play action.
But they also leave themselves exposed whenever they present Morris with undermanned fronts.
Expect more points and more yards next week if the offense can match its latest big-play efforts.
There Is Still Not Enough Running in the Second Half
The reason will probably remain unknown, or at least take extensive scientific analysis to explain, but the Redskins just don't run the ball enough in the second half.
It has been an issue all season, and one usually covered with the party line about facing too many large deficits. That has been true on some occasions, but not always.
Against the Falcons, the Redskins came back after the break trailing by just four points. Yet, Morris barely touched the ball in the third quarter.
Not at all surprisingly, Cousins and the offense stumbled without Morris challenging the Falcons.
There is no credible excuse for wasting arguably the most important playmaker on the offense, as well as other talented runners such as Roy Helu Jr.
Brian Orakpo Is Becoming Elite
To all those who want to ditch the 3-4, why would you junk a system that is helping Brian Orakpo approach elite status?
The prolific pass-rusher has come to life since Week 10 and has now amassed double-digit sacks for the first time since he was a rookie in 2009.
Orakpo gave the Falcons major headaches all game and felled quarterback Matt Ryan for 1.5 sacks. That makes it seven sacks since Week 9 for a player who is dominating from his outside linebacker position.
Rather than ditching the 3-4, Orakpo needs more opportunities to rush from a standing position and greater freedom to attack from multiple angles.
Multiple Turnovers Are the Sign of an Undisciplined Team
When a team gives the ball away seven times, a lack of discipline has to be blamed. A well-drilled team puts a premium on efficiency and ball security.
The Redskins obviously haven't valued those traits during the 2013 NFL season. They coughed it up with alarming ease and regularity in the Georgia Dome.
Those mistakes cost the team the comfortable win the rest of their play merited. The Washington Post's Dan Steinberg put the issue and its poisonous affect on the team into perspective:
Washington set an NFL record by turning the ball over every single time they touched it on Sunday. Ok, not quite. But there were an amazing five lost fumbles and two interceptions. That was the most turnovers Washington has committed during a season lousy with turnovers. The Redskins now have 29 turnovers this season, after turning it over just 14 times in 2012.
It's not hard to identify what turns a playoff franchise into a losing one in the span of a single season. The difference in how the Redskins looked after the ball in 2012, to how they don't this year, says it all.
Bad Coaching Is Holding This Team Back
It should be clear by now that a change in coaching is needed ahead of the 2014 season. Mike Shanahan and his staff are routinely failing to put this team in positions to win games.
In fact, they are actually doing the opposite. Shanahan's decision to go for two instead of tying the game was appalling, no matter how many flimsy arguments are offered in its defense.
That followed allowing the offense to move away from the run in the third quarter. That choice destroyed the rhythm of a unit that was working smoothly during the previous quarter.
It is not the first time this season coaching decisions have derailed what has been working. But it should be one time too many at this point.