Here we go, it’s time for that long and storied rivalry against the... err... Football Team? Yup, the team from Washington will host the Cowboys this Sunday so we turn to Hogs Haven for a little info on the fightin’ Football Team.
Blogging The Boys: Talk about the situation at quarterback. It looks like Kyle Allen will be the starter. Should he be? What does he bring to the table?
Hogs Haven: Fans are divided on this question. Haskins wasn’t playing especially well in the first 4 games this year, seeming to have regressed from the end of last season, but many fans would still like to give him the reps and let him learn with more game experience. And honestly, Haskins didn’t seem so bad that fans were expecting him to get pulled. But reports surfaced shortly after his benching that the coaches were unhappy with his work ethic and attitude and a lackadaisical approach to practice. We heard similar reports from Jay Gruden’s coaching staff last year, which lends them extra credibility. If this is true, it would explain why Haskins was demoted not just to backup, but 3rd string QB and won’t even be dressing for games. I think the coaches are trying to send a message not just to Haskins, but to all the players that hard work is rewarded with playing time, while poor attitude or work ethic are not. It’s year 1 of Rivera’s time in Washington, so it’s important to establish that culture early.
That leaves Kyle Allen as the starter and Alex Smith as the backup. Allen started 13 games for the Panthers under much of the same coaching staff, so his familiarity with the system gives him an advantage over the other two. Allen went 5-0 in his first 5 starts with the Panthers, but 0-6 in his last 6 starts, so he’s certainly been streaky. Anyone who wants to know about his background in more detail can see this article, but in short, he’s a mobile, fearless, and hard-working QB with a lot of moxie and competitive spirit. However, he went undrafted for a reason. He doesn’t have a strong arm and doesn’t throw deep very often. He also makes some risky throws or misses open receivers due to not seeing the field especially well, and he needs to learn to slide rather than risking contact for a few extra yards. Based on what we saw week 5 against the Rams, I think Alex Smith sees the field better and makes quicker decisions, but he’s lost a lot of mobility due to his injury and I think that puts him at a big disadvantage behind our OL that is a work-in-progress.
Overall, I think Allen’s familiarity with the system and mobility make him better suited to starting than Alex Smith. If the reports are true about Haskins in practice, I think it makes sense for Allen to be the starter. He was very up-and-down last week against the Giants, with some great plays, but also some turnovers that cost us the game. Still, he moved the offense more consistently than either of our other QBs has done so far this season.
BTB: Besides the QB situation, what other issues have held the offense back and is there hope they will improve soon?
HH: The offensive line was a big problem for the first 5 games, but finally showed signs of progress last week. RG Brandon Scherff was injured week 2 and put on IR. Week 1 starters LT Geron Christian and LG Wes Martin were backups last year and the left side of the OL looked really rough early in the season. However, Scherff returned from IR last week and played pretty well. LT Geron Christian has improved his play as the season wears on, while LG Wes Martin was benched in favor of journeyman Wes Schweitzer, who actually looked pretty good. As a result, although the OL is still not a strength of the team, it may no longer be a liability.
There have also been questions about our OC Scott Turner, who is in his first year as a playcaller. His offense has seemed pretty vanilla so far, though it’s difficult to evaluate with the poor QB play we’ve had as well. We’re hoping with experience as a playcaller and stability at the QB position will make the offense look better, but we’ll see.
BTB: Given the state of the NFC East, are fans of the team still invested in trying to make the playoffs this year, or is this really all about rebuilding?
HH: I think fans are pretty divided between embracing the rebuild and winning the division. On the one hand, we remember how critical it was that we lose out last year to get the draft position to allow us to draft Chase Young. It would be unfortunate to win meaningless games (given that no team in the NFCE looks like they will stand a chance in the playoffs) if it means missing out on the draft position to take one of the top QB or OL prospects in next year’s draft. On the other hand, this year is still important for establishing a winning culture and it is possible to find good QBs later in the draft, so there are plenty of people who want to win. It also sucks living through another losing season and many fans don’t have the patience for it. If I had to guess, I think fans are divided about 50/50 between these two points of view.
BTB: How has Ron Rivera been as the new head coach? Is the fanbase confident that he can get things turned around in Washington?
HH: I think he’s been mostly good, but with a few issues that fans are unhappy about. First, the positives. He has a reputation for being an honest, high-character leader that players look up to, and that is exactly what we needed after the Bruce Allen years. He also pushes his players hard in practice and demands accountability from them, which the players seem to respect. He demands just as much from himself though, and has attended most practices and coached through games despite undergoing brutal rounds of proton therapy and chemotherapy that have left him visibly struggling to stand at times. Ron also seems to have some tricks up his sleeve when it comes to keeping players healthy, as this has been our healthiest season in years at the same time as our division rivals are getting hollowed out by injuries. He also clearly articulated in the offseason a plan to make this year about evaluating the roster and developing young talent, leaving $25M in unspent cap. Most fans were willing to embrace this as a rebuilding year in the offseason. However, that leads us to the bad.
It’s fine to embrace a rebuild in the offseason, but it’s frustrating to live through it and lose games. Fans have been feeling this strain ever since a surprising week 1 win against the Eagles that got our hopes up, and it seems Rivera is feeling the strain of losing too. In addition, I don’t think Rivera anticipated the division to be as terrible (and winnable) as it is. As a result, he has made a bigger point recently about winning the division as the priority in press conferences, though he still hasn’t touched that unspent cap space nor has he traded away draft picks for veteran players. Nevertheless, he’s been criticized by some for his mixed messaging on this as well as a few other issues. Some fans are also unhappy about the decision to bench Haskins after only 4 games, since he clearly has the most upside (in terms of arm talent, youth, and draft investment) of our QBs. I think the most legitimate criticism of Rivera is that the players have not looked particularly organized and well coached in games. Although we’ve seen a reduction in penalties, there have been too many missed opportunities on offense and defense and a lack of adapting the scheme to the players that puts some players in a poor position to succeed.
BTB: Most observers think the Washington defense, especially up front, has the talent to be a solid unit. What are you seeing from that side of the ball?
HH: There have been some great individual performances, but the defense as a unit hasn’t looked nearly as good as fans were expecting. In terms of individual performances, DE Chase Young has been getting double teamed and gameplanned more than any player on the defense, but still is making plays all over his side of the field. Opposite him, DE Montez Sweat has been a force as well, with 3 sacks, 8 QB hits, and 5 TFLs in 6 games so far. Our “Alabama wall” of Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne have done a good job of stuffing runs up the middle, though runs around the edge have been more successful. And CB Kendall Fuller is having a breakout year, with 4 INTs and only 3 receptions allowed in 4 games played (more INTs than receptions allowed). Our other boundary CB Ronald Darby (formerly of the Eagles) has been playing well too. The problem has been the middle of the defense.
Our LBs are all NFL journeymen or late round draft picks and although they have speed, they have shown to be poor tacklers and have poor instincts in coverage. Landon Collins seems to be playing too heavy for safety, he looks like a linebacker, and has trouble matching up in man coverage with more athletic TEs. Our free safety Troy Apke has been missing tackles and making coverage mistakes that give up big plays, although he seems to have recently been replaced with more dependable longtime backup Deshazor Everett. Having a great DL doesn’t help much when you give up lots of short-to-intermediate passes before the pass rush can get home. This might be due to the shortened offseason combined with the change in defense, but they look poorly coached too. DC Jack Del Rio was known for several highly ranked defenses in the past, but he’s been out of coaching for several years and he might be rusty. The defense has been starting out most games flat, but then improving quite a bit in the 2nd half. Although it’s good they are making adjustments, the defense shouldn’t wait until the 2nd half to get going.
Thanks for the knowledge, Hogs Haven.