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As The Second Half Begins, Five Redskins Storylines Worth Watching

By ZAC BOYER | @ZacBoyer

ASHBURN – The record isn’t exactly the greatest sign of progress for the Washington Redskins – at 3-6, they’re the same place they were at this time a year ago – and there are many issues for the team to still iron out as it leaves its bye week and begins the final seven games of the regular season.

There have been bright spots, such as the strong play of rookies Robert Griffin III and Alfred Morris. There have also been problems, most notably on defense and in the secondary. As the unofficial second half of the season begins Monday for the Redskins, here are five things to keep an eye on:

1. The Secondary: When Mike Shanahan researched the factors that help a quarterback achieve success in his first season, he realized nearly all teams who have been able to quickly usher in a new era have done so with the benefit of a strong running game and a strong defense. Washington’s defense was supposed to be its strength, but instead, it entered the bye week allowing 397.9 total yards a game, the fourth-worst average in the league, and 301.7 passing yards a game, putting it only ahead of Tampa Bay. Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett finally admitted last week he does “the best I can with what we’ve got,” partially referencing the loss of four starters, but also understanding that there’s only so much the Redskins can do to stop opponents from throwing the ball this season.

2. The Quarterback: Griffin has done plenty remarkable things during his first nine games, showing an advanced mastery of his responsibilities as both a runner and a passer. What he’s starting to find, however, is that his versatility can no longer allow him to sneak up on teams. He’s gained more yards and scored more touchdowns on the ground than any other quarterback, and until two weeks ago, had the highest completion percentage in the league. If he were still at Baylor, his season would be winding down with two, maybe three games left until a potential bowl appearance. Griffin instead will be playing each week until the end of December, and how he can hold up until then as he makes that transition will be seen.

3. The Coaching: Part of what has made Griffin so successful on offense has been through the team’s adoption of an option-based running game and the use of several short-yardage passes. As defenses begin to prepare for that style of play, they’ve begun to adjust – and perhaps no team made a bigger statement that it’s possible than Pittsburgh did in a victory two weeks ago. How offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is able to mold the playbook to keep defenses guessing will be important – and so will Haslett’s role on defense, for as much as he has harped on execution, not scheme, the limitations of the players he has is becoming increasingly apparent.

4. The Receiver: Signed before the season to be the Redskins’ top passing target, Pierre Garçon has played in three games because of a torn plantar plate in the second toe of his right foot. Garçon said last week the toe is taking even longer to heal than even he expected it would, and whether he is able to return this season is starting to look in doubt. Garçon’s ability was in perfect display during his 88-yard catch-and-run touchdown reception against New Orleans – the play on which he injured the foot – and he could breathe life into the Redskins’ offense if he can get back on the field.

5. The Schedule: For as dismal as the Redskins looked in losses to St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Carolina this season, the five opponents they will face over their next seven games are also far from perfect teams. Entering Sunday, those five teams – Philadelphia, Dallas, the New York Giants, Baltimore and Cleveland – had a combined 20-22 record. The Redskins also have the benefit of playing five of their six games against NFC East opponents – they’ve played only the Giants thus far, a 27-23 loss that came on a 77-yard touchdown pass with slightly over a minute remaining – and can certainly vault themselves back into the playoff picture, and perhaps playoff contention, by taking care of business against their rivals.