Ryan Torain should be the Most Valuable Player of the Washington Redskins through four .
Now that I have your attention, I can point out that I'm not making any serious push for Torain to win that award above, or frankly, any other award. Torain didn't play in two of four games this year (he wasn't even on the roster until Week 3), he can't pass block, and he hasn't been particularly valuable in any capacity, as most of his damage was done against a Philadelphia run defense that has performed on the wrong side of 'poor' this season. Ryan Torain is not a particularly special player or one that is hard to find, granted that Torain was "discovered" in 2008 by Mike Shanahan, and was freely available as of this September.
He's also a player the Redskins cannot do without.
The reason that he had so much success against Philadelphia is because there's a common thread in all recent victories against the Eagles. The Eagles defensive coaching staff -- from Jim Johnson to Sean McDermott -- respects the abilities of WR Santana Moss perhaps a bit too much. We beat them in Philadelphia in 2008, and Moss was coming off a 130 yard day against the Dallas Cowboys. So the Eagles will scheme to take Moss away, who they believe to be our most dangerous player. It always comes back to bite them. But hey, Moss didn't have a catch in this game, so it's not that their intended defensive scheme was unsuccessful.
Their desire to contain Moss resulted in three long coverage breakdowns in their secondary where Anthony Armstrong (twice), and Fred Davis got downfield largely uncovered against the zone coverage preference the Eagles play. It was also a big reason we were able to dictate to them in our stretch running game, but when you put on the tape, it was clear that aside from any mistakes and timidness that Philly's LBs had in this game, we just outexecuted them for four quarters on the lines. The last time we had a rushing attack this dominant, we were playing at the Linc back in 2008.
Torain's emergence is not to say that Portis' groin injury doesn't make him a significant loss. Torain is not good enough to replace Clinton Portis in the line-up. But one thing that will happen due to Portis' injury is that this team is going to start to more closely resemble a Mike Shanahan coached football team where there is no lead back, and there is great productivity out of relative unknowns. I know this because I see our run blockers finally getting after the opposing team's fronts with an aggressiveness I haven't seen in years, and, well, all of our backs are relative unknowns. Hence, productive running from unknowns is more of an observation than a prediction.
Still, even with that aggressiveness and dominance up front, there were only 17 offensive points scored in this game. Donovan McNabb has been a liability in our last two games, one that we've had to overcome rather than win due to his play. McNabb made a number of good plays in this game, two with his feet whenever Philadelphia's contain broke down, and he correctly diagnosed man coverage with no deep safety and beat an Eagles blitz to go up 14-0 in the first quarter. Those were the good plays. They were greatly exceeded by the poor plays. It's a rare luxury to be able to run 2/3 of the time in the modern game, but we were able to. I'd give McNabb an A- in this game at avoiding sacks, but a C- for the other facets of his game. He hit the first deep throw to Anthony Armstrong, but his read on that play was easily defined (if not by the coverage, then certainly by Moss falling down). It's not his fault that Armstrong didn't score on that play, sometimes, the turf monster will get you.
McNabb -- and I don't feel like I'm criticizing here, though I may be -- seems to make some easy plays look hard. There was a third down and three play in the fourth quarter, where we needed to extend a drive. I would have run it from that distance, but Kyle Shanahan called a play action bootleg pass. We do a lot of those, you know. The Eagles brought double unblocked pressure off of the weakside. McNabb wouldn't have a lot of time to throw this -- but he didn't need a lot of time. Chris Cooley was the first read on a frontside drag/window route, and he was open. McNabb stepped up to threaten the line of scrimmage with an impressively athletic change of direction, threw on the move, and bounced the ball in to Cooley. Fourth down.
That's not a particularly difficult throw to make. Only an incredibly skilled passer could have made the move McNabb did and still delivered the ball, and I don't doubt that McNabb could deliver that ball 5 out of every 10 times. But it's a drive ender on what should have been a routine conversion.
If you look at McNabb's numbers for the season, they are really pretty good. Most of his attempts came in the Texans (woo!) and Rams games, and while McNabb might be hard pressed to throw for 15 offensive touchdowns this year (on pace for just 12 in 16 games), he's going to throw more TDs than INTs, and he's completing 58% of his passes, which is only about two completions below expectation, and he's brought a bunch of big plays, throwing for 7.9 yards per attempt with a lot of the same talent that Jason Campbell threw for just 7.1 yards per attempt. McNabb has only been sacked 6 times in 4 games, and that's mostly because of McNabb's sense of timing of plays. He's a ball holder, by nature, but the action doesn't appear to be unnecessary, and this system offers excellent timing mechanisms to plays, where as McNabb was more on his own in Philly. If this is the "system quarterback" version of Donovan McNabb, I'm pretty happy with it, all things considered. We've had just eight negative plays in the passing game in four games (6 sacks, 2 INTs), which is great efficiency.
But our passing TD rank has tanked since last year: almost 4.0% for Jason Campbell in 2009, and just 2.5% for McNabb in 2010, and scoring per game is down as well (despite having just 7 rushing TDs all of last year). With the offense generating big plays at a much better rate than last year, it's interesting to point out that the reason all of our efficiency measures are up isn't because of any increased offensive production, it's because we've become more fundamentally sound and have limited our mistakes. Right now, the passing game is big downfield plays, and little else. Third down efficiency was improved against Philadelphia, this is likely just a product of regression to the mean. The Redskins converted 6 of 12 third down passing attempts, which includes one McNabb scramble. We'll probably be closer to this figure for the season than to what the troublesome figure of the first three games was.
All of this up to this point is fodder for the big point of this article: we need to be able to run the ball, still. Look, a lot of offenses in the NFL can get away with just highly efficient passing games, and running essentially to kill the clock. I hope to someday be in that class with Indianapolis and San Diego. This Redskins team needs it's ground efficiency in order to win the NFC East. We can go 7-9 on the back of our big play passing game. 10-6 is going to require a systematic efficiency to grabbing four to seven yard chunks on the ground. Right now, we're an average rushing team, up from league-worst since Ryan Torain entered the lineup. We can do better than that, I believe, even with our most efficient per-play runner sidelined for 4-6 weeks.
It's going to be a new era in Redskins' football next Sunday, which means it's hard to make a prediction for the Packers game. The defense is going to give up passing yards in chunks. We know this to be true. Think about Aaron Rodgers' performance against the Bears. That's the kind of performance we can expect to see against us. We'll limit big plays, and they are going to go up and down the field against us. If we can run the ball on their defense, and there's no reason to believe we can't, we can control the game and hold a lead for most of the game, even if the scoring totals get into the 20s and 30s per side. I think it will be a lot like the Texans game. At some point, we're going to ask the defense to stop Aaron Rodgers and win the game for us. I really want to believe in them, but I'm going to cop out and suggest that no, we won't stop Rodgers at any point, but we'll be bailed out by a strip-sack-recovery trifecta by Brian Orakpo in the final minute and a half, saving victory.
Offensive Line Performance against the Eagles
Stephon Heyer showed in this game both how far he has come as a player (did you remember Trent Cole playing in this game?), and why we'd be foolish to buy into him as a long term solution (2 false starts, 1 holding penalty to take a TD away from us and the second false start give Philly a final possession). I do think he doesn't make those mistakes at right tackle, but again, when we need him at left tackle, even if you can get him up to speed mentally and get a great game out of him, he still makes team killing mistakes in the fourth quarter and red zone.
Will Montgomery played RG in the second half of this game and was surprisingly not a complete disaster.
Casey Rabach had his best game of the season as a run blocker and a pass protector. He usually plays pretty well against the Eagles: it's the Cowboys and Giants who have his number.
Artis Hicks had a good first half, but did not appear in the second half. Derrick Dockery appeared only on special teams.
Kory Lichtensteiger did not have a good game, with multiple blown blocks and mediocre results in the rushing game.
Jammal Brown had a strong game in run blocking. His pass protection was a mixed bag, which is an improvement.