I think that deep down, we knew as Redskins fans (at least for the last two years) that they had to get the offense fixed for the team to be competitive again. The Redskins managed to make the playoffs in 2007 with only a functional contribution from the offense. But going though the last three seasons, seeing the early promise fizzle out in 2008, and then the offensive despair of the 2009 and 2010 seasons, it certainly seemed like the defense was never going to be able to drag the offense to glory.
What is surprising after two games: that the Redskins got here so quickly. There wasn't a period of growth necessary for the offense. For the offensive line, there was. Let's call it 2010. This is a group that has played very well through the first two games. Does it have weaknesesses? Sure. Trent Williams didn't win his matchup with Jason Pierre-Paul. Jammal Brown hasn't been good. Will Montgomery's shotgun snaps don't always fit with the timing of the play. Despite those flaws, the removal of Casey Rabach as designated turnstyle, the vast improvement of Kory Lichtensteiger at left guard, and the continuity of having four returning starters from last year has left the offensive line as one of the strengths of the offense.
We knew that the receivers were going to be a strength this year, although the usage of Donte Stallworth over the far superior Terrence Austin (and the inactive Leonard Hankerson, a better player) has been both perplexing and remenicient of last year's slavish devotion to non-contributors like Joey Galloway and Larry Johnson (though Stallworth has far more left than either of those guys). But Santana Moss has exceeded all of my early season expectations. He has been better than last year through two games.
My opinion on Moss was that we should not have brought him back at last years production level (a lot of catches, not enough yards per target, too many fumbles), and we definately paid over the market rate for his services, but he's been so much better than last year that he's got to be in the discussion for offensive MVP though the first two games. The Redskins could not have beaten the Cardinals without him, and it is at least possible they don't beat the Giants either. As long as he doesn't revert to an elderly, injury-riddled player, the Redskins have already got a season worth of return out of him.
And with so much going on around him that is happening exactly as it is drawn up, Grossman is getting a lot of looks that he is familar with, and so he is playing quite comfortably. When the Redskins are forced to deviate from their script, Grossman will look turnover-prone. But as the passing cog in the machine, Grossman is hardly a weakness. He's done an impressive job against the blitz this year, and the more defensive coordinators struggle to get home when they bring pressure, as was clearly the issue with Arizona's gameplan, the more that Grossman tears up the defensive blueprints that the opponents have on him. When those die, we will finally get to see the player that Grossman really is.
So what weaknesses have we seen from the offense thus far? Not many. Chris Cooley has been a flat out liability when he has been on the field this year, but we all know he's not healthy and that he's probably not going to be healthy all year, and that this is shaping up to be a lost year for Cooley. I think it's going to be fairly humbling when Logan Paulsen ends the year with more offensive snaps than Cooley, but the reality of the situation is exactly that: Paulsen offers more as a second tight end at this point in time than Cooley does. Between Cooley and Davis, it's not even close. Davis is playing at a peak-era Cooley level (2005-2007), or possibly beyond that: he must stay in the lineup. He's also represented a significant upgrade over what the Redskins got from Cooley last season.
The other weakness at this point is that Tim Hightower hasn't yet been everything the Redskins hoped for when he was acquired via trade. He's been more like what Tim Hightower was in Arizona. He's not a totally different player in this system, but he's receiving the best run blocking of his career here, which has supported a decent YPC average. Roy Helu is so much more explosive as a back and will be the starter soon enough, but he still needs to improve his run blocking. Helu cannot yet play on third downs. Still, he figures to lead the team in carries at the end of the year.
Still, it says something about the remarkable gains of the offense that our "weaknesses" lead with guys like Cooley and Hightower. Those aren't bad football players. They're actually both really good players.
The defense has much bigger issues, but one thing that is absolutely certain is that our personnel definately fits the scheme. To play a 3-4 defense correctly, the linebackers must be the best players on the field. Brian Orakpo never comes off the field. Ryan Kerrigan never comes off the field. London Fletcher hasn't come off the field in about four years. Rocky McIntosh is the clear weak link, but he's improved his pass defense immensely over last year. And he's not coming off the field either. Because of that, the Redskins have four core players in their defense that stay on the field regardless of personnel and set the tempo. They all drop, they all rush the passer, they all play the run really well.
Kerrigan in particular, has been a stud. I don't need to lecture anyone on how amazing it is that Fletcher is still one of the best defensive players in football at age 36. The way his tenure in Washington has been underrated -- even with the first two pro bowl apparences of his career -- has been criminal. He's still the best player on the field when he's out there, and Fletcher knows it. But for Kerrigan to be THIS good at diagnosing the play at this point in his career is outstanding. Kerrigan is 23 years old. He may already be a better NFL OLB than Brian Orakpo, a 25 year old two-time pro bowler. He has definately been the better of the two in the two games.
And for Orakpo: just enjoy it, man. He's not the only guy in the defense who is able to make a play anymore. He's going to get plenty of opportunity to make an impact on these games. Orakpo has been pretty quiet through two games (by design; he doesn't rush much in non-passing situation) but that hit on Kevin Kolb in the second quarter was devastating.
The problem for the Redskins defense is that they haven't been very good in the front three or in the secondary. The strength of the four linebackers cover a lot of weaknesses, but Barry Cofield hasn't been great as the nose tackle, and Adam Carrkier isn't playing anything like the guy who finished last season as the teams best defensive lineman. Stephen Bowen is having his struggles as well with the new scheme, though he's made the transition quicker than Cofield has. With the way the LBs were flying around, Kolb shouldn't really have enjoyed much success at all, but the DL never made an impact on the game. Rookie Chris Neild is the only guy on the defensive front three who has exceeded expectations to date, and the Arizona gameplan made him mostly a non-factor (as a side note: Neild came around just in time to save his roster spot in camp).
The upgrade from Kareem Moore to O.J. Atogwe at free safety has been evident in the first two games, but the rest of the secondary has struggled. DeAngelo Hall and Josh Wilson were a great tandem in week one, but struggled against the Cardinals and the challege that they presented on the outside. Nickelback Kevin Barnes hasn't impressed me. Reed Doughty has been a known liability and placeholder for the injured LaRon Landry. There are a couple of bright spots here to go along with Atogwe: that Byron Westbrook has actually developed a little bit as a defensive player and can make a couple of things happen when he is out there, that the Redskins are only two games from getting Phillip Buchanon back from suspension, and that Landry's return is getting close. Barnes needs to pick up his level of play, but for the most part, we're not going to have to suffer through multiple weeks of Brandyn Thompson and Kevin Barnes at the starting corners. Plus, unlike last year, if DeAngelo Hall can merely sustain his current level of performance, we're going to be okay. One way to keep him from senselessly gambling on route combinations without any level of discipline is to keep winning games so he doesn't get the sense that he's in it alone.
What worked for the Cardinals on Sunday?
Not much. The Cards never established a consistent element for their passing or running games. They never tried with the run: 3 rushing attempts in a first half dominated by Washington. Their best offensive play was shotgun draw out of four receiver spreads. Rocky McIntosh overran multiple plays, allowing Beanie Wells to run untouched into the secondary. The defensive interior line did not play those plays well, be it Cofield and Golston, or Bowen and Carriker, or whatever combination the Redskins used. They got yards out of those plays, but it was mostly by duping the Redskins into pass defense, then attacking up the gut.
Kolb could never get comfortable in the pocket: too much aggressive play by the Redskins LBs created very few go-to plays for the Cardinals. They won some individual battles in the passing game, but when push came to shove in the second half, the Redskins won the war, comfortably.
The Larry Fitzgerald double move play worked perfectly for the Cardinals in the fourth quarter for a TD, but at what cost? Every team goes into a week with a big play in their back pocket that they have on film study that they know will work vs. a look the defense is giving. The Cardinals knew they could get DeAngelo Hall on a double move with Fitzgerald. But to set it up, they pretty much wasted Fitzgerald on underneath stuff against Hall that didn't amount to much offense. And credit them for calling the play at the right time: getting them out of a 1st & 15 hole, and putting the Cardinals up eight on the scoreboard with 11 minutes to play.
That's a decisive advantage for the Cards, and they probably should have won the game at that point. But in two more drives, the Cardinals failed to record a successful play, and needing only an additional field goal to put the Redskins away, that cost them the game.
Defensively, the Cardinals were in a pressure-heavy mentality most of the game, but in the first half, this backfired on them when Rex Grossman consistently beat the Cardinals blitz. It also backfired because in order to have enough guys to execute an edge pressure gameplan, the Redskins had a huge mismatch vs. the Cardinals in 3 WR sets on the ground. The Cardinals responded to 3 WR sets by pulling out their nose tackle in their nickel package and showing a 4-2 look with standup OLBs on the edge. I have game notes from 2008 that show the Cardinals doing the exact same thing, and the Redskins having no issue rushing down their throats. Arizona's ILBs were roasted all day long by the zone rushing attack. Neither Paris Lenon or Stewart Bradley was a good enough player to handle the Redskins rushing attack without a nose tackle to keep blockers off of them. Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher those two were not, depite the fact that Arizona needed great ILBs to execute their scheme.
Kyle Shanahan changed formations when he got down in the red zone, which took away the mismatch the Redskins enjoyed as they moved down the field.
What changed for the Cards defense in the third quarter? They made good adjustments on the defensive line to have Calais Campbell and Darnell Dockett eat up more blockers and stop trying to be heroes, which in turn created more pressure situations on Grossman out of stunts and keeping strong zone coverage behind the play, confusing Grossman.
Let's be clear here: despite the fact that the running game was unstoppable in the first half (because of bad defense by Arizona), the Redskins won the game by passing. They kept extra players in the backfield, picked up the pressure, and allowed downfield opportunities for Grossman against zone and man coverage. The Redskins did not win this game by running the ball. They won the first half by running the ball. But had they actually been rushing the ball well instead of exploiting an obvious mismatch, the Redskins would never have been trailing by 8 points in the fourth quarter.
The Redskins won with strong defense (they were dominant victors in the field position battle...I love you Sav Rocca!) and fourth quarter passing: Grossman to Gaffney for 20, Grossman to Moss for 18, Grossman to Davis for 40 and 15, and Grossman to Moss again for 12. The Redskins used the passing game to either stay ahead of the down or distance, or to get themselves out of do-or-die 4th and longs.
And Roy Helu was not a player that Arizona could account for in their gameplan. As long as he's the no. 2 back on this team, Helu will be tough to deal with. Compared to Hightower, he opens up the offense consistently.