Zac Boyer will be entering his third season covering the Washington Redskins for The Free Lance-Star this fall. Make sure to follow Zac on Twitter (@ZacBoyer) for the latest updates or e-mail him with any questions at email@example.com.
Game Balls, Gassers & Observations: Redskins 19, Titans 16 (OT)
Here’s my review of the best and worst performances from the Redskins’ 19-16 overtime win over Tennessee, plus some observations from re-watching the game:
TE Chris Cooley: This probably was Cooley’s best game of the season. His seven catches for 91 yards in the fourth quarter and overtime provided a much-needed boost, especially on third downs. But more importantly, he had a successful afternoon blocking. He helped out in pass protection some, especially after the musical chairs game began, but I noticed him more in the run game. He set the edge on numerous running plays and effectively kicked out into space on others. On Clinton Portis’ 11-yard run on Washington’s third series, Cooley went in motion to the right and occupied OLB Gerald McRath long enough for Portis to get past him and into the secondary. On RB Keiland Williams’ 12-yard run around the left edge in the third quarter, Cooley sealed Titans FS Michael Griffin inside the formation and drove him more than 5 yards off the line of scrimmage. Cooley sprinkled a couple bad blocks in there, but he was quite good overall. As for his pass-catching, he broke a tackle to get an extra two yards for a first down on third-and-7 in the fourth quarter. It extended the game-trying drive.
WR Santana Moss: Moss is a great route runner, and he proved that again Sunday. His legs are so strong that he can get in and out of his breaks at top speed. His hard cut to the inside and then back outside separated him from the defender on his touchdown catch. He also helped out the running game in the first half with several key blocks. He got off the line and took out the safety on RB Clinton Portis’ 11-yard run around the left end on the Redskins’ second series. If Moss had more than three touchdowns this season, he’d be at the front of the Pro Bowl discussion. As it stands, he at least deserves mention.
C/RG Will Montgomery: I’ve been extremely critical of the Redskins’ offensive line in this and other spaces since I began covering the team last season. The way I see it, how well the unit played Sunday under such adversity bordered on the impossible. Montgomery was an important part of that. He wasn’t perfect, and neither was RG Stephon Heyer or anyone else. But they did a very good job even if you don’t consider the circumstances. Montgomery handled a variety of defensive line stunts extremely well. Tennessee tested him on both sides with blitzes and stunts, and he passed. He appeared to clearly read the Titans’ pass rush, and he anchored as well as I’ve seen him over any extended playing time. Montgomery is a natural center, and I’m sure he was glad to work in at the position. It appeared that he was more comfortable with the timing in there. He gets bonus points for coaching Heyer up at the guard position on the sideline.
CB DeAngelo Hall: Hall was a big reason why Titans WR Randy Moss did not have a catch. Moss didn’t appear to run all of his routes with, um, enthusiasm, but Hall stuck with him. He was close by on the third-down throw into the end zone that QB Vince Young overthrew. He ran stride-for-stride on a deep fourth-down pass to Moss in the second half and drew pass interference. He started baiting backup QB Rusty Smith late in the game, and it almost netted him an interception. On the slant that he almost picked off, he watched Smith for the first couple of seconds off the snap before finding Moss and making his break on the ball. He knew he could get away with that against the rookie. Hall also made a potential touchdown-saving tackle on RB Chris Johnson in the third quarter. Hall aggravated his ailing back on the play but returned and finished the game strong.
RG Stephon Heyer: I alluded to this earlier, but no one ever could have convinced me that Heyer would fill in at right guard as well as he did. He wasn’t perfect, and Mike Shanahan made it pretty clear on Monday that Heyer isn’t a future option at the position unless it’s an emergency, but he was better than serviceable. And keep in mind that he had never even taken a practice snap at the position.
On Keiland Williams’ 6-yard run late in the first half, Heyer fired off the ball and sealed the nose tackle out, allowing Williams to burst upfield behind him. Two plays later, he and Will Montgomery seamlessly picked up a stunt by the left defensive end and left defensive tackle, allowing QB Donovan McNabb to wait comfortably in the pocket for 4.5 seconds before throwing an interception. Heyer also worked well with RT Jammal Brown in picking up some twists. In overtime, he picked up a blitzing linebacker trying to come through the ‘A’ gap (between center and guard). Like I said, though, he wasn’t perfect. On third-and-5 early in the fourth quarter, Tennessee linebacker Stephen Tulloch blitzed the ‘A’ gap and Heyer didn’t block anyone. McNabb covered for the mistake, though, by sliding left and getting the ball out quickly. It was a collective effort up front, to be sure, but Heyer made several positive contributions.
LG Kory Lichtensteiger: Again, not flawless but pretty good. You expect a higher level of play from Lichtensteiger by now because he’s been a starter for half of the season. However, he showed improvement in one of his major weak spots—handling stunts and delayed blitzes. For example, on first-and-10 midway through the first quarter, he and C Will Montgomery picked up a stunt by the Titans’ two defensive tackles, allowing QB Donovan McNabb an easy drop and an in-rhythm throw to WR Santana Moss for 18 yards. DT Jovan Haye lined up over The Steiger, and he engaged Haye when the ball was snapped. But he passed him off to Montgomery inside when DT Tony Brown looped behind Haye. Lichtenstiger’s biggest contribution to the win probably was whatever he did to tick DE Jason Babin off and draw that personal foul penalty in overtime. He did have his poor moments—he whiffed on a block in space on a screen to RB Keiland Williams in the second half, and he stepped on McNabb’s foot on a late third-down sack—but overall Lichtensteiger helped fortify the interior of the line.
NT Ma’ake Kemoeatu: The Redskins played their base 3-4 for more than half of the game, so Kemoeatu had a big impact on the run defense. He generally anchored well and didn’t give up a lot of ground while moving laterally, which has been a problem for him and the other defensive linemen in this scheme. Perhaps his length strength really is coming back. He missed a tackle on the first play of overtime, allowing RB Chris Johnson to gain 15 yards. However, he rebounded on the next play by shedding his blocker and tackling Johnson for no gain. Overall, Kemoeatu didn’t dominate, but he gets a game ball in large part because he’s the one who knocked Titans QB Vince Young out of the game. We haven’t seen him generate much of a pass rush this year–or anyone in the 3-4 front, for that matter–but he disengaged from the center on a first-down pass late in the third quarter and changed the course of the game.
RB Keiland Williams: Williams’ numbers weren’t flashy (23 carries, 68 yards; 6 catches 27 yards), but he was effective enough to help balance the offense. He showed at times a Torain-ian ability to break tackles—Williams gained 12 yards around the left end in the third quarter after a linebacker got his hands on him two yards behind the line of scrimmage. On one 8-yard run, he pressed the cutback lane near the line of scrimmage and waited for C Will Montgomery to seal his defender to the left. He also made a big play at the end of the first half by breaking a tackle near the sideline to get out of bounds and stop the clock. Williams wasn’t the cause of any pass protection disasters, although he did allow pressure one time when he prematurely left the pocket for his pass route and couldn’t recover in time. Still, it’s easy to see why coaches have faith in him.
CB Phillip Buchanon: Buchanon was responsible for two takeaways, and in an overtime game that gets you on this list. He recovered QB Vince Young’s fumble in the red zone in the first quarter, and he accepted QB Rusty Smith’s gift of an interception in the fourth. As for his coverage, he has played better. Titans WR Nate Washington (5 catches, 117 yards) got off, and he went against Buchanon for much of the game. I’m not sure if it’s because the Redskins were in zone (he’s generally better in man-to-man) or what.He also slipped at the point of attack one one of Chris Johnson’s big second-half runs. However, Buchanon changed the game with his two big plays.
*This is the shortest gassers list of the season. Maybe it’s because Thursday’s dinner on my mind, but I’m in a good mood. I considered putting one or two others on the list, but no. After all, the defense gave up only three field goals. Special teams gave up a punt return touchdown, but one of the gunners tore his ACL on the play and the Titans got away with an illegal block. The offense scored only 19 points and struggled to finish drives, but it dramatically improved on third down and the line survived a bunch of injuries.
LS Nick Sundberg: Sundberg was a bit off with two snaps that contributed to missed field goals. His snap was higher than holder Hunter Smith’s head on the 51-yarder that K Graham Gano missed wide left at the end of the second quarter. His snap on the missed 47-yarder at the end of regulation was a bit low. It appeared to me that his snap affected the first kick; I’m not so sure about the second one. On the potential game-winner, the wind had more of an effect than anything. Still, a long-snapper’s margin for error is non-existent, especially in an overtime game. Fortunately for Sundberg and the team, his snap was good on the game-winning kick.
Before we get to the game observations, let’s discuss a few players that didn’t make either of the above lists:
After re-watching everything, I came away feeling mixed about QB Donovan McNabb’s play. He did some good things but he could have been so much better. First, the good: He was solid on third downs, a quarterback’s money-making down, according to Mike Shanahan. He completed his first five third-down passes and finished 8-for-12 with 106 yards. He efficiently ran the hurry-up offense at the end of both halves and positioned the Redskins to score both times. He also had more high-quality throws in this game than in recent weeks. I’m thinking of his low, perfectly-placed 20-yard bullet to WR Joey Galloway on third-and-16; his escape of a sack and throw to TE Chris Cooley near the right sideline for 26 yards in overtime; the 15-yarder in the second half to Cooley on third-and-5, on which he froze the linebacker with a pump fake that allowed Cooley to separate. That’s what the Redskins need—and expect—from McNabb on a consistent basis.
But there’s a significant list of negatives, too. If Titans MLB Stephen Tulloch had caught McNabb’s ill-advised red-zone pass intended for TE Fred Davis in the first quarter, the Redskins probably would have lost the game. It should have been an interception that ended Washington’s only touchdown drive. McNabb also didn’t see the field well his throw that was intercepted; he missed Galloway wide open for a good two seconds in the middle of the field and threw to him late. He overthrew a sure touchdown to Santana Moss on Washington’s second series. He led Galloway and Cooley too much on separate fourth-quarter incompletions. Those mistakes are what separate elite quarterbacks from the rest of the pack.
You know by now what you’re going to get from SS Reed Doughty, so it’s no surprise that he did well in run support but struggled at times in the passing game. TE Bo Scaife outran him across the middle of the field for a 30-yard reception. On the play QB Vince Young hurt his thumb, Doughty committed to the ‘go’ or ‘flag’ route deep, but WR Nate Washington broke back inside to make an uncontested catch for 37 yards. On the plus side, Doughty helped LB London Fletcher break up a potential touchdown pass to Scaife. He shaded to Randy Moss’ side of the field at the snap but sprinted back to the middle in time to push Scaife out of the back of the end zone.
In run support, Doughty made one of the biggest plays of the entire game. Tennessee had the ball at the Redskins’ 45-yard line with little more than 2 minutes left in regulation in a tie game. At that point the Titans were just outside of field-goal range. Doughty sold out against the run on first down, shot through a gap untouched and—with the help of DE Adam Carriker–stuffed RB Javon Ringer for a 1-yard gain. It set the tone for the entire set of downs. The Titans committed a false start on the next snap, followed by a short completion, an incompletion and a punt.
Andre Carter had one of his best games at outside linebacker filling in for Lorenzo Alexander after Alexander went down in the first quarter with a hamstring injury. He set the edge on several running plays by getting low and driving his blocker back. He kept his backside contain responsibility on a couple of play-action roll-outs; that was a problem for him early in the season. He didn’t get a game ball because he didn’t make any game-changing plays, but he made sure there was no noticeable dropoff when Alexander left.
RT Jammal Brown is one I considered adding to the gassers list. Titans DE Dave Ball sacked McNabb in overtime when Brown simply didn’t block Ball coming off the edge. He missed LB Gerald McRath in the first quarter when McRath stopped RB Keiland Williams for a 3-yard loss. Some positive moments offset some of those mistakes, though. He blocked well in space on the successful screen to TE Fred Davis in the first half. He and RG Stephon Heyer and C Will Montgomery picked up several stunts without much problem. Considering that Brown’s contract expires at the end of the season, he needs more of those positive plays to show teams that he’s healthy and worthy of a roster spot next year.
Immediately after the game, I expressed surprise that the Titans didn’t test Washington’s patchwork offensive line with more stunts and blitzes. Well, after watching it again more closely, it’s clear that Tennessee did try that.
McNabb dropped back to pass 51 times (excluding plays negated by penalties, his spike to stop the clock in the fourth quarter and the two times he tripped over an offensive lineman). The Titans rushed more than four defenders on 21 of those 51 dropbacks (five defenders 13 times; six defenders seven times; seven defenders once). The blitzes were varied, too: they blitzed both ‘A’ gaps one time; they brought linebackers off both edges, etc. And by my count, the Titans stunted in some form on 16 of those 51 plays. They did everything from twisting the two defensive tackles to looping linebackers from the outside in. The Redskins’ line simply did a great job of matching the pass rush.
I don’t want to take anything away from the what Washington’s linemen did, but it appeared to me that Tennessee’s defensive line either isn’t very good or collectively had a stinker of a game. Their linemen lacked the explosion and quickness with which opponents gave the Redskins problems through the first nine games. A lot of Tennessee’s stunts were too slow to develop, allowing McNabb time to get rid of the ball before the linemen could take advantage of any confusion. It’s clear why the Titans haven’t been able to generate sacks for the last month.
Joey Galloway began the game as the third wide receiver after being demoted in the middle of the Monday night loss to Philadelphia. His three catches tied a season high, and he might have had another in overtime if McNabb had seen him. On the Redskins’ final play from scrimmage in overtime, third-and-15 from Tennessee’s 30, Galloway beat Titans CB Alterraun Verner deep down the middle. It could have been a walk-off touchdown if McNabb saw him, but the quarterback locked in on WR Anthony Armstrong down the right sideline and overthrew him. Galloway threw up his hands in frustration.
The Redskins have had timing problems on screens dating from the preseason (remember the play against Baltimore when McNabb hurt his ankle?). However, their screen game on Sunday was excellent. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan wisely got TE Fred Davis the ball on a couple of first-down screens. They’re a great way to keep an aggressive pass rush honest. Plus, Davis and Chris Cooley are excellent with the ball after the catch. They’re tough to bring down. It’s an asset the Redskins should continue to exploit.
Another creative touch on Sunday: the bunch formations used on third downs. The Redskins’ offensive brain trust found one solution to their third-down woes. By using bunch formations involving some receivers and TE Chris Cooley at least three times, the Redskins were able to free some targets for McNabb. They allow for misdirection and prevent defenders from pressing at the line of scrimmage. For example, Armstrong’s delayed release out of the back of the bunch on third-and-3 in the first quarter helped him sprint to the flat without obstruction. McNabb hit him for an easy 4-yard completion to extend the drive.
The Redskins’ were quite unlucky on Tennessee’s punt return for a touchdown, the only touchdown they surrendered in the game. S Anderson Russell tore the ACL in his right knee on the play, and he went down in a heap. Return man Marc Mariani used Russell as a pick of sorts. LS Nick Sundberg was in decent position to tackle Mariani or at least slow him down, but he had to jump over Russell and ended up arriving too late. S Reed Doughty also appeared to be illegally blocked in the back on the play; he concurred with that assessment on Monday. Of course, if the Redskins hadn’t been flagged for illegal formation on the play before, Tennessee wouldn’t have gotten a second chance to return the punt.
I disliked Kyle Shanahan’s play call on third-and-goal from the 2 in the second quarter. The Redskins’ handed off to fullback Mike Sellers, who was positioned as the up-back in the I-formation. Sellers had little momentum as he approached the line of scrimmage, and he had no lead blocker. I believe the Redskins always are better off with Sellers lead blocking instead of carrying the ball. Blocking is what he does best. They’d have been better off moving the pocket and letting McNabb throw or even getting WR Brandon Banks the ball and using his shiftiness. Anyway, the play failed because C Will Montgomery was knocked on his backside, allowing a lineman to penetrate and stop Sellers for no gain. Knowing that, the play might have been doomed no matter who got the ball.
RDE Kedric Golston took a snap at nose tackle in the base 3-4 during the second half. Remember, he, not Albert Haynesworth, is the backup to Ma’ake Kemoeatu. Golston held his ground as the defensive line shifted left, and he helped string out RB Chris Johnson’s run for only a 1-yard gain.
How about WR Brandon Banks’ catch over the middle in traffic late in the fourth quarter? The way he went up and got the ball and absorbed the hit was impressive. His ability to withstand contact is going to be a question because of his size, but he gave coaches reason to believe in him with that catch. One thing that helped him on the play was his clean release. The cornerback tried to jam him at the line, but Banks got underneath it and freed himself to the inside. That’s something he did well all summer in training camp.
…That’s it for now. Let me know what you think. Leave a comment, shoot me an email or hit me on Twitter @Rich_Campbell.