Wednesday, October 17, 2012

That's What I Like To See.

A few days ago, in the typical Redskins-fan manner, I predicted years of doom, gloom, and heartbreak if the Redskins did not follow a specific course of action on Sunday. In so doing, I fully expected them to let me down in spectacular fashion, either by outright refusing to start Robert Griffin III or, even if they did start him, handcuffing him with a super-conservative gameplan that kept us from getting any real traction or moving the ball at all. I went into Sunday's game just waiting for the Redskins to crater, to give me an excuse to run howling back to this blog in a shredded burlap sack and a dirty loincloth, waving a broken shepherd's crook over my head and proclaiming the arrival of the end times. After all, I've been reading Neil's posts for long enough to understand exactly how these things are supposed to play out. To instead receive the gift from the gods that was bestowed upon myself and all of Redskins nation on Sunday afternoon was bounteous good fortune, and lo, there was much rejoicing. No garments were rent, and I headed over to a friend's house to catch the night game with a smile on my face and a song in my heart.

But now, writing about the game has me a little wrong-footed. If what I wrote last Saturday is really true, a referendum on the future of the Redskins, at least over the next few years, has been handed down, and we're headed for a brighter tomorrow. And yet, I still see some problems not just on the horizon but in the very gameplay that we saw on Sunday during what was, for 2.5 quarters at least, a glorious beatdown of a relatively worthy opponent. So as much as I'd love to spend 1500 words giving you a really verbose version of "RG3! WOOOOO!" there are some less than positive elements of Sunday's game that we need to discuss.

First of all, where the Vikings are concerned, I'm not really sure whether the game validated my theorizing about them really just being a perennial second-tier team or not. Novelist Jim Shepard wrote a feature-length article for SBNation last week about how hard it has been to be a Vikings fan over the course of his lifetime, and went to great lengths to detail the manner in which the Vikings always manage to underachieve, pointing out that they've been to four Super Bowls but never won any of them and that in 1998, Randy Moss's rookie season, they managed to go 15-1 and still not win their conference's championship. I'm sure that's a very bitter personal history with football fandom to live through, and therefore Shepard and other Vikings fans see it as a far worse history than it is in any objective sense. Still, it feels to me like a confirmation of my theory. And yet, I didn't feel that way at first. One of the first notes on the page of my notebook that I scribbled on while watching the game last Sunday reads, "Jesus Christ. Maybe I was wrong about the Vikings." This was after I spent the first quarter watching their offense move down the field without any real difficulty, while their defense shut our offense down so thoroughly that we didn't get a first down until the last minute of the first quarter. The only thing that gave me any hope during the first 15 minutes of the game was that, whenever the Vikings got into the red zone, the Redskins defense would tighten up and hold them to a field goal, so that when RG3 finally got a drive going with a couple of over-the-middle passes to Fred Davis, we were little more than a touchdown behind.

But the issue with the defense needs to be addressed. It's a problem for us, and will doubtless remain so for the rest of the season, at minimum. This, as far as I can tell, is the problem: while the front seven is strong against the run, and can rush the passer reasonably well, the secondary is weak enough that, assuming the quarterback isn't sacked or pressured strongly enough that he has to throw it away, he'll have open men when he throws downfield. It's hard to stop a driving opponent on third down and long when receivers are being covered loosely enough that they can catch a 5 yard pass and run the rest of the way to the first-down marker, and usually several yards past it, before any tacklers show up. Our secondary is playing very deep so as to avoid getting beaten by double moves--perhaps Haslett still has nightmares about that prime time home game back in 2010 when the Eagles started the game by scoring on several long-bomb touchdown passes in a row, and ended up hanging nearly 60 points on us. It was a masochistic nightmare of a viewing experience, I can tell you that, and I certainly don't ever want to see its like again. However, when your secondary has to focus all its energy on taking away the deep pass and leave the underneath area wide open, all you're really doing is slowing a team down, not stopping them. This did, however, explain why the Vikings had to settle for field goals on the first four of their seven trips to the red zone. Once the field shortens enough to the point where there really aren't separate deep and underneath pass route zones, the Redskins are able to cover the field thoroughly enough to prevent much success with any sort of passing game. This is a better situation to have on our hands than we could have, but it isn't good enough.

Never again.

Let's talk about our secondary. Who are our clearcut starters? The first name that stands out is DeAngelo Hall, the VT alumnus who was, even in college (according to my best friend, who pretty much bleeds burnt orange and maroon), locker room poison. He's the highest paid man in our defensive backfield (shit, unless Brandon Merriweather is, but I can't imagine), he's got a big mouth, a reputation for whiffing on tackles and having trouble in man-to-man coverage, and he's made quite a few high-profile interceptions over the years, upon which he's pretty much built his career. I'm seeing more good things from D. Hall this year than I'm used to in the past--he has a sack, for one thing, and he's got two interceptions so far this year, which for him is not amazing but isn't bad either. He's still not a shutdown corner by any means, but he's decent. He probably deserves to be a clearcut starter, at least when compared to the group he's in. But who else in the defensive backfield can you say that about? Brandon Merriweather was a big free agent acquisition, but he still hasn't made it to the field during the regular season this year. Madieu Williams had an interception this week and I've seen him make a few good tackles as well. Dejon Gomes hasn't looked terrible out there, and even Reed Doughty, the bad penny of our secondary over the past several years (which is to say he always turns up in the starting lineup at some point), hasn't done anything as blatantly awful as his fourth-down coverage of Andre Johnson in week 2 of last year. But do any of them stand out to you as reliable? They don't to me. I don't think they do to Haslett either. I saw third-string safetyman Jordan Pugh spend quite a few snaps on the field during the second half of the Vikings game, while supposed starting safetyman Dejon Gomes was on the field on special teams as often as he was during defensive plays. All of these guys are capable of good plays on occasion, but when we see as many converted third downs as we do, we can't consider any of them to be the kind of consistent starters we need in order to build a world-class defense.

This realization actually helped me to understand what Haslett has been up to with the stacking-the-box defensive plays. At one point near the end of the game, when the Redskins were up by two scores and just needed to force the Vikings to have a time-consuming drive in order to salt the game away, I texted a friend of mine about how the time had come for us to slow down on the pass rush and take away Ponder's midrange passing game. I noticed that there were less defenders in the box during that drive, so I figured Haslett had the same idea--but then I noticed that short passes were still getting completed often enough that the Vikings were moving down the field. Now, as I said, they needed two scores, and the drive took long enough that they weren't going to get them (plus it ended with a D. Hall red zone interception anyway), but it was still a bit worrying to see how many successful pass plays the Vikings had on that drive (7, out of 17 total plays), and how quickly they got them (drive started with 2:43 left in the game, ended with :22 left). If we'd had one less touchdown and D. Hall had missed that final interception, we might very well have lost on the last play of this game. The secondary isn't good enough to take the passing game away from Christian Ponder, who is having a good year but is by no means one of the NFL's elite quarterbacks. What will happen when we face Joe Flacco and the Ravens on December 9? Unless things change a good bit between now and then, I won't be betting on a win.

But see, that's why I say that I'm starting to understand what Haslett has been up to. Our defense was most successful on Sunday when we were able to get to the quarterback--if not sack him, at least pressure him and drive him out of the pocket, take away the time he needed to find his (doubtlessly open) receivers. This was what was going on during the second and third quarters, when the offense was racking up 24 unanswered points. The interceptions during the second and third quarters were also a result of QB disruption--Ponder getting hit and losing the ball caused Lorenzo Alexander's whatever-you-call-it (league says it's a fumble, but you may as well call it an interception since the ball went straight from Ponder's throwing arm into Alexander's hands without ever touching the ground), and Madieu Williams's interception came from an inaccurately thrown and possibly tipped pass delivered under pressure. Haslett has to have realized at some point that, no matter game plan he goes with, he'll have to give up the short pass in order to avoid giving up the deep pass. Therefore the only hope for total play disruption will come from an aggressive front-seven attack in the passing game. Considering that our front seven are no slouches at stopping the run either--at one point in the first quarter I wrote "Adrian Peterson is scary" in my notebook, but by the third quarter he'd been pretty much neutralized--a successful blitzing attack can help the Redskins form the illusion of a complete defense. Now, if we fail to create pressure on the quarterback, we're fucked. But it seems that if we don't try, we're just as fucked, so there's little to lose at this point. Therefore, I'd like to announce that, until further notice, Haslett and I are cool and I ain't mad at his defensive game planning. The man's just trying to make lemonade out of a lemon-filled secondary, and I respect that. However, I reserve the right to flip-flop like a Massachusetts politician on this particular position later in the season if the circumstances warrant my doing so.

OK, so enough about the defense. What happened when the Redskins were on offense? Well, for starters, RG3 ran for a 76-yard touchdown to put the game away for the Redskins. That's not all there is to discuss from the offensive performance, but it's AWESOME, so let's go ahead and talk about it for a little bit. If you didn't see it live, there's a video of it on the NFL's website, complete with the original commentary from the announcers during the game, which you can watch here. Now, at one point during the replays, the announcer says something about the play having been a designed run. I take issue with that--watching the offensive line's blocking at the beginning of the play, that looks to me like they're trying to set a pocket for Griffin and it just breaks down so bad that he has to abandon it by stepping up, between the center and the left guard. At that point, rather than continuing to try for a pass, he notices that he's got running room, and just takes off. Almost any other quarterback in the NFL right now would have stepped out of bounds once they got the first down, but when RG3 saw that he had a clear path down the sideline, he took it and ran fast enough to make it all the way to the end zone untouched. That's the first time any NFL QB has pulled off something like that since Kordell Stewart of the Steelers in 1996--and apparently the time before that was 1940, back when the distinction between passing quarterbacks and single-wing tailbacks (more on that in a minute) was still a bit fuzzy. The fact that RG3 is capable of such a thing is rare and valuable, and it's a big part of the difference he makes to our offense all by himself. Jason Campbell might have been able to make that first down, but he would have gone out of bounds afterwards, and Rex Grossman's terminal lack of pocket awareness probably would have gotten him sacked in a similar situation.

The Redskins have had a lot of those late-game barely-holding-on-to-a-lead drives in past years that went three and out and left the opposing team to drive down the field in the waning moments of the game, taking the lead and giving us something like 45 seconds with no timeouts to try and make some desperation play at the end of the game and eke out a win. Most of the time it didn't happen. RG3 has now shown us that he has the ability to seal away a game for us in these same situations, and I'd like to see him do more of that--but honestly, regardless of how fast he can run, I'd rather not risk him out there doing stuff like that if we can avoid it. I was glad to see him looking over his shoulder with obvious plans to step out of bounds rather than getting tackled in the open field--he clearly learned a lesson from his concussion last week, and that's great. But the issue here, if I may briefly look at a 76-yard touchdown run and find reason to complain (thank you for the horse--let me check its teeth), is that our offensive line is still not where it needs to be on pass-blocking. I noted their success last week with run-blocking--and we saw more of that in the Vikings game, with Alfred Morris and RG3 combining for 185 yards (109 if you ignore the 76-yard TD run, which, as I said before, I am convinced was a busted play, but that's still pretty good). Morris was not as dominant against the Vikings as he was over the last two weeks against the Falcons and Bucs, but some of that might very well be due to the Vikings' formidable front four, starring Jared Allen and the remains of the Williams Wall, who were noted for their strength against the run back when both of them were still there. It's just Kevin now, but he's not to be counted out by any means. I feel confident that the line will do a decent job of blocking for Morris, Royster, and whoever else we get to carry the ball for us, but the pass blocking has to improve before we can truly become a dominant offense.

I do see some interesting decisions being made to cover the weaknesses on straight-up pass plays, though. If you were watching the pre-snap formations the Redskins were using, you may have noticed that they were starting a lot of plays with three players in the backfield in addition to RG3. Now, I don't know a ton about the nuts and bolts of football play diagramming--the "X's and O's," so to speak. However, as a nerdy pre-pubescent child who loved football and books with an equally overwhelming intensity, I used to seek out and read as quickly as possible every football-related book in any library I was given access to. At one point I found a book that related the history of American football, back to its very earliest days as a version of rugby played by Ivy League schools. The book traced the evolution of game play all the way from the early wedge formations (which literally murdered people) up through the kinds of plays that still dominated college football in the early 80s--the T formation, the single wing, etc. I never had much time for any of that stuff as a kid; I'd occasionally watch college games on Saturdays, because hey, it was football, but it seemed boring compared to the fast-action pro game of the era. And if it seemed boring then, it would come across as totally prehistoric now. And yet, from dutifully slogging through that book, I learned some interesting things, like the fact that position names like "quarterback" and "halfback" originally represented how far behind the line of scrimmage a player was lined up before the snap, rather than anything relating to their roles in the offense. In the single-wing offense, the player behind the center who received the snap was generally the tailback, the farthest-back player. It was the evolution of this role, with the arrival of 1930s-era players who were skilled at passing the ball (Sammy Baugh, Sid Luckman, etc) and the dominance of the teams that recruited said players, which led to the redefinition of backfield positions to correspond to offensive roles, and the evolution of offensive football into what we generally see on the field today.

I don't want to go through all of that in any kind of detail, because god knows I will bore the pants off of you, but I did notice a bunch of different offensive formations during the Vikings game that featured RG3 in a role analogous to the single-wing tailback, with as many as four other players lined up in the backfield with him. The formations I noticed the most were a zigzag-looking thing that featured a tight end lined up just behind the offensive line in the traditional "quarterback" spot, only inbetween the guard and the tackle in what is known in modern terms as the "H-back" position. Then RG3 would be under center in the "fullback" spot, about where a quarterback would stand in the shotgun formation, with a "halfback" a couple yards in front of him, staggered towards the side of the line without the H-back tight end, and a "tailback" a couple yards behind him and staggered towards the side of the line with the H-back. Another formation that was often used was a modified T-formation, with RG3 moved from under center to the same level as the left and right T-backs, and a third running back behind him in the position a tailback takes in the pistol formation. After reading a reference to the wishbone in a discussion of the Skins-Vikings game by my favorite football-nerd website, Football Outsiders, and doing some google image searching, I discovered that the second of those two formations was indeed a modified wishbone, as popularized by University Of Texas coach Emory Bellard in the late 60s. Meanwhile, the former turned out to be the wing-T, a formation first employed in 1907 by Pop Warner's Carlisle Indians, starring Jim Thorpe!

I'm real proud of you boys.

OK, that was some serious nerdery, huh? Sorry--I'll try to keep that kind of thing to a minimum from here on in. My point with going through all of that was to make clear that I did see the Redskins doing things in this game against the Vikings to work within their limitations by stressing fundamentals and keeping their playcalling away from the weaknesses of the team's current personnel. To some extent, as with all teams on the pro level where 55-gallon oil drums full of hundred-dollar bills are at stake, I see a team still hamstrung by the current expectations of a 2012 pro football audience, and these expectations will continue to hamper our performance going forward (though, with RG3 springing from busted pockets like the ghost of Gale Sayers, maybe not as much as they could). But there's a lot that can be done out of the wishbone, the wing-T, and other old-school backfield formations that don't show up in the NFL that often anymore, so as long as the Redskins keep using them as change-ups, they'll probably be able to squeeze 8 or 9 wins out of the team this year and lay some solid groundwork for a more well-rounded offense built around our speedy rookies in future years.

But I still don't see us making the playoffs in 2012. And you can accuse me of trotting out the traditional doom and gloom of the long-suffering, pessimistic superfan--hell, you may be right. At the same time, I think it's important to manage expectations and avoid getting carried away. We all saw what happened after the week one victory over a Saints team we now know is basically wandering in the wilderness without their gifted coach. To go from that to blowing a heartbreaker against the Rams in week two was a huge crash, tantamount to the sorts of meltdowns I've seen teenage girls go through while coming down off their first cocaine high (don't ask, I don't want to talk about it). Too many of those in too short of a time might very well send me permanently off the rails, and the last thing any of us wants is for me to get arrested naked behind John Riggins' woodpile, cradling a shattered Redskins helmet and blubbering. Right? It's Wednesday afternoon by the time I'm posting this, because my job is loading me down like a pack mule and I've been working 12 hour days that end with me feeling like my brain is leaking out of my ears. I hope by now we've all chilled out and started to prepare for our foreboding trek to the hinterlands of New Jersey, where our boys will face the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants. Because let me tell y'all, I am not feeling confident about that game right now.

But we can talk more about that on Saturday. See all of you then.

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