Tim Hightower, Rex Grossman, and the rest of the Redskins are off to a 2-0 start. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
After a long and literally painful four game road trip, the Dallas Cowboys become the last team in the NFL to play their home opener of the 2011 season. They host the Washington Redskins in this week's Monday night game, renewing one of the longest standing and most bitter rivalries in the NFL. And after years when neither team was extremely relevant, Washington is 2-0 to start the year, while the Cowboys are 1-1 and would be the statistical leader of the NFC East if they win, based on tiebreakers. It is early in the year, but you can't call this a meaningless game even if it is just September.
I watched the video of the Redskins' 22-21 win over the Arizona Cardinals. It was a reasonably entertaining game as the score would suggest. But you don't care how much fun I had. You just want to hear about how the Redskins look and what their strengths and weaknesses are.
I'm going to try and discuss the kinds of formations and plays they use first, and then describe a few plays in more detail. First I'll look at the offense, then the defense.
The good stuff is after the jump
The offense Mike Shanahan is running looked fairly simple as far as formations go. They basically run three sets, a single back/single tight end or 11 set, an I formation, usually a 12 package, and a shotgun with one back. There were some variations, but they don't often motion a back, especially with the quarterback under center (although sometimes I did not see the offensive set due to the cameras not showing the set and the ball already being snapped before they gave a long view). Most motion was from a wide receiver, although they did occasionally use a second tight end who would go in motion.
What they did out of those fairly vanilla formations was control the ball, particularly in the first half. Just before halftime, there was a graphic that showed the Redskins had already held the ball 20:45, At the end of the game it was 38:30 to 21:30. Their style was to use a good mix of runs and passes (36/43 mix for the game). It gave their play action passes a lot of credibility.
They were going against a Cardinals team that was using a lot of five and six defensive backs, with pressure generated mostly off of blitzes. To me it seemed as if the Redskins set up their offense with the running game, which often seemed to take advantage of the heavy reliance on defensive backs. Tim Hightower had an excellent night rushing against his old team, getting 96 yards, and his relief was rookie Roy Helu out of Nebraska, who had a very impressive 7.4 yard a carry average on 10 carries. They benefited from good blocking up front, with some big holes opened between the tackles or the edge getting sealed off and the receivers making blocks downfield.
As with most quarterbacks, Rex Grossman was pretty effective when the protection held, not so much under pressure. He had passes picked to end the first two possessions (although the second one was more on the receiver). He also had four balls batted down, which usually means good penetration, and one pass was tipped but caught by the receiver anyway.
His favorite targets were TE Fred Davis and WRs Jabar Gaffney and Santana Moss. One thing that the Redskins seemed to like was to stack two receivers, or to bunch three on one side, to try and confuse the coverage. They only had one three and out, I believe, and that was from the Arizona 20 and resulted in a FG attempt. However, they got a lot of help from Arizona, with five first downs coming on penalties. (Arizona had 10 flags, Washington only had three for the game).
To give you a flavor for the game, here is the touchdown drive in the fourth quarter for Washington, as I saw it.
The offense gets the ball on the 27 after the kickoff.
- 1-10 Shotgun (one back in shotgun unless otherwise noted). 3 WR right. Grossman throws incomplete looking for TE Chris Cooley, just looked like he missed it.
- 2-10 Shotgun. 3 WR left, motion one to right. Four man rush gets good pressure, Grossman throws it away and takes a hit.
- 3-10 Shotgun. 4 WR (3 to left). Gaffney finds a soft spot in coverage over middle and Grossman hits him for 20 yards to Washington 47.
- 1-10 Shotgun, empty backfield, 4 WR (2 and 2). Arizona blitzes a safety but Rex has enough time to find WR Donte Stallworth crossing underneath for 9 yards to Arizona 44.
- 2-1 Shotgun, empty backfield, 4 WR (2 and 2). Screen right to Helu, he gets tackled for maybe half a yard on a good defensive play.
- 3-1 I formation, 2 TE. Use a quick handoff to fullback Darrel Young (his only carry of the night) for 7 yds over left guard to 37.
- 1-10 Single back set, Grossman under center. Draw play to Helu up middle for 9. Ball at 28.
- 2-1 Same set. Grossman drops to pass, Arizona rushes 6, under pressure Rex throws incomplete over the middle.
- 3-1 Under center, empty backfield (did put back in motion here), has three receivers to right. Hits Davis in left flat to 25, enought to move the sticks.
- 1-10 Single back/single TE (11 set), under center. 4 man pass rush, ball batted in air, Grossman executes volleyball spike to make sure it is incomplete.
- 2-10 11 set again, trips right. Handoff to Hightower who runs around left end for 5 to 20.
- 3-5 As far as I can tell, same set, same handoff, tried to hit same hole, only got 2 yards. This was the second time I think I saw Mike Shanahan call the same play twice in a row that day. He had better success in first half.
- 4-3 Decide to go for it. Shotgun, trips right again. Arizona rushes 4, Moss shakes CB, there is no help over the top, and he catches 18 yd pass for TD in the right rear corner of the end zone. Two point conversion would fail, but had no effect as later field goal wins it for Washington.
Not the most imaginative offense. The danger is when they get the running game cooking and can then exploit the defense when it cheats up. Grossman was competent mostly. I think Dallas' best bet is to knock him down a lot while the linebackers meet the running backs at the line. Sean Lee needs to continue his performance, and Keith Brooking needs to stop getting pushed around. Also, Rex is not as good with quick passes, I think. And the 'skins bogged down a bit in the red zone.
Defensively, Washington runs a 3-4. They don't seem to get too cute with it. Mostly they vary the number of players on the line. I saw everything from 3 to 7 lined up on the line of scrimmage. Blitzing was pretty much one or two linebackers, again nothing exotic, more Wade than Rob in their approach. Looked like man to man on the receivers, although the network camera work doesn't often show that clearly. They got some good penetration, with 3 sacks and 3 batted balls of their own. Pressure seemed to get better as the game went on. LB London Fletcher was around the ball a lot, although he didn't get a lot of tackles. Rookie LB Ryan Kerrigan was impressive, getting 3 tackles, 1 sack, 1 tackle for a loss, and 2 passes defended. DeAngelo Hall was called the best CB by the announcers.
Here are two sequences towards the end of the game, one to show how they can be beat, and one to show them going strong.
This is after Wasington kicked a field goal to get within 1 at 14-13, and just before the offensive sequence I talked about above.
Arizona has the ball on their 27 with a 1-15 following a false start. The Redskins three DL put their hands down, the OLBs are standing. At the snap, the ROLB makes it a four man rush, then the RILB comes on a delayed blitz. The blitz is picked up, Larry Fitzgerald runs past Hall, and goes 73 yards for the score. It looked a lot like the 53 yard TD to Miles against San Francisco. When Fitzgerald got the ball, he was deep enough (or the secondary was shallow enough) that he just blew past them.
The next series, Washington has pulled within two, 21-19. The ball is on the 20 following a touchback. It's getting late, and the 'skins need a stop to get the ball back and score.
- 1-10 I count five of the front seven with a hand on the ground and CB Kevin Barnes up tight and looking into the backfield. They expect run, and get it. Arizona runs over RG for 3.
- 2-7 The whole front seven is right on the line, even thought the Cardinals are in a shotgun with 4 wideouts. Pressure gets to Kevin Kolb as all seven come. Oshiomogho Atogwe is right in his face and the pass goes incomplete, helped by some good coverage in the secondary. There was an illegal motion penalty, but it is declined.
- 3-7 Shotgun again, all seven come again, and Kerrigan, unblocked, goes up and bats the ball. Washington will take the punt and drive for the winning field goal.
They brought pressure and ate Kolb up. The coaching staff and the O line will have to come up with an answer for this.
The only note on the special teams was one missed field goal from short range. Like for the Cowboys, the kicker redeemed himself and won the game.
Hope you get some info out of this. I'm still trying to figure out the best balance of general observations and detailed play analysis, and feedback is always welcome.