Notes & Observations: Redskins 24, Steelers 13
A variety of notes after the Redskins’ preseason victory over the Steelers on Monday, including observations on the six injured players, Rex Grossman’s role, Ryan Kerrigan’s big night and more.
BY ZAC BOYER
LANDOVER, Md. – Some thoughts and observations after reviewing the Redskins’ 24-13 preseason victory over the Steelers on Monday:
* The Redskins are fortunate to have survived a moderate scare after quarterback Kirk Cousins, nose tackle Barry Cofield, receivers Leonard Hankerson and Aldrick Robinson and running backs Keiland Williams and Chris Thompson all left the game with some type of injury. Thompson was the only one to return to the game; his left shoulder briefly dislocated, leading to a fumble, when a Steelers defender hit him there with the crown of his helmet.
The impact of Cousins’ injury, which came at the end of a seven-yard scramble in the second quarter, is minimal now that an MRI taken Tuesday has shown there’s no damage to any ligaments in the quarterback’s right foot. For now, it’s considered a mild sprain with some swelling, and Cousins himself said after the game it felt more like the day-to-day type of injury than anything long-lasting.
But the Redskins could have been in much more trouble had Cofield missed extended time with a broken bone in his right hand. Neither he nor Mike Shanahan could make a commitment to Cofield playing in either of the final two preseason games, but Cofield plans to merely wear a hard cast and play through it. He was in good spirits after the game and joked with his teammates that he broke the same bone in his left hand in eighth grade and his middle school team went on quite a bit of a run afterward, so the Redskins are in a good spot.
* Cousins, scheduled to play the first half against the Steelers, lasted only 10 plays and completed two of his three passes for 19 yards. He needs all the time he can get in the Redskins’ offense, so if he’s feeling healthy enough to practice, and the medical staff clears him to do so, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him play Saturday against the Bills.
Teams typically take a regular-season approach to the third preseason game, and Shanahan keeps his starters on the field into the third quarter. Still, it would be a rush to get Cousins back in time for a meaningless preseason game, especially given the uncertainty of Robert Griffin III. It’s likely that game will be a whole lot of Rex Grossman and Pat White.
* As my colleague Steve DeShazo wrote about this morning, this exact situation is why Grossman, for all the consternation from the fan base, is still on the roster. Imagine, for a second, that Griffin isn’t cleared to play in Week 1, Cousins has a more severe sprain and Grossman wasn’t brought back again. That would leave White as the Redskins’ Week 1 starter, and for the excitement surrounding his ability to lead the team to victory in the preseason opener against the Titans, he came back down to earth a bit against the Steelers.
Grossman is, as they say, a proven veteran. He’s in his fifth year in the Redskins’ offense, and while he’s not going to run the zone read like Griffin would, he knows every other little detail. Some teams have an unsteady backup quarterback; the Redskins go three deep.
* One more thing on Grossman: You can tell he really trusts his receivers, and when their timing is off, it can get ugly. His first throw to Hankerson on a post from the right was a bit high because Hankerson was a step slow getting to the ball. The interception he threw, intended for tight end Jordan Reed, happened because Reed bungled his route and didn’t cross in front of the safety. And an incompletion to receiver Lance Lewis on third-and-12 in the third quarter was perhaps the best example of this, as Lewis wasn’t crisp on his cut and the ball arrived at the sideline well before he did.
But when Grossman and his receivers are on the same page, his trust in their abilities can work fluidly. Take his two-minute drill at the end of the first half when he found running back Roy Helu, receiver Santana Moss and tight end Fred Davis in succession for a combined gain of 35 yards. Moss, who has worked with Grossman the longest, knew exactly where that ball was going to be coming out of his break, and he reached up to grab it.
* Hankerson’s 10-yard touchown grab in the second quarter, in which he used only his left hand to pull the ball in over Steelers cornerback William Gay, shows there’s a dimension to the receiver that hasn’t been seen in his two-plus years with the team. Hankerson is 6-foot-2, which, tied with Lewis and Dezmon Briscoe, is the tallest of the 11 players at the position on the team. Gay, at 5-foot-10, didn’t look like he had a chance. Now, part of that is because Hankerson decided to grab the ball one-handed – and with his back hand, nonetheless – and the throw was a bit high. He needs to find a way to use that height to his advantage.
* It was interesting that left tackle Trent Williams decided to go without the hard cast club on his sprained left wrist for the game, and I didn’t get a chance to ask him about that decision afterward. Right tackle Tyler Polumbus was in trouble from the start when he allowed outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley to sack Cousins on third-and-3 on the Redskins’ second possession. Woodley got a quick step on Polumbus and caught him leaning, which allowed Woodley to shed the blocker and get his hands on the quarterback. Polumbus was also guilty of a hold around the 10-minute mark when he grabbed Woodley by the jersey and hung on for the ride.
Nothing in particular stood out about the second-team offensive line, though the group fared well in the run game. Left guard Josh LeRibeus, who had a long night against the Titans, looked fine in both aspects of the game. There was one play in the fourth quarter when center Kevin Matthews was nearly pushed all the way back into White, forcing a quick throw over the middle to receiver Nick Williams, but that’s that.
* If Ryan Kerrigan’s interception and subsequent touchdown return looked like it was well-rehearsed, well, it kind of was. Kerrigan broke up screen passes against the Giants in the first week of the 2011 season – his first game in the league – and against the Falcons last season, and he returned both for touchdowns.
The outside linebacker first heard London Fletcher yelling to watch a screen pass, and when the ball was snapped and the right tackle, Marcus Gilbert, leaned back and gave him space to draw him in, he had a better idea it was coming. It wasn’t until quarterback Ben Roethlisberger turned his head to look for running back Jonathan Dwyer swinging out of the backfield that Kerrigan leapt to try to break up the pass, and he managed to control it enough to pull it in and head the other direction.
* Kerrigan’s other impressive play of the night was his strip of quarterback Bruce Gradkowski with 8:43 left in the second quarter. Kerrigan lined up wide of tight end David Pauslon, who released downfield and gave Kerrigan enough of a start to back Gilbert up toward the quarterback. Gilbert was able to re-establish himself, but Kerrigan, now knowing he can’t get to the quarterback, instead reached in to swat the ball out of Gradkowski’s hand. It ended up in Cofield’s possession six yards in the backfield.
* With Brian Orakpo held out because of a bruised right quadriceps, Darryl Tapp started the game at right outside linebacker. He was disruptive against both the run and the pass, notably when he broke into the backfield to drop Dwyer for a four-yard loss on the Steelers’ third possession and when he beat left tackle Mike Adams so badly on the third play of the second quarter that Adams bearhugged him.
But defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, knowing Tapp’s background as a 4-3 defensive end, hasn’t completely forced the former Virginia Tech standout to get rid of his old habits. Tapp and Brandon Jenkins, also making the conversion to outside linebacker, were occasionally used as down linemen. Tapp even did so early in the nickel package. It’s surprising the team would show such a look in the preseason, and it’s been remarkably effective.
Tapp, for what it’s worth, is a favorite of the coaching staff. With Rob Jackson suspended for the first four games of the season, he’ll make the team.
* To let Titans running back Chris Johnson by him in the first preseason game of his career is one thing, but Bacarri Rambo continued to struggle with taking the right angles and tackling a guy in the open field on Monday. He whiffed on a tackle on a screen pass to running back Baron Batch on the first play of the second quarter, then also came up empty when Dwyer shook him off on a 23-yard gain about eight minutes later. For his part, Rambo restored himself by forcing a fumble on a blitz up the middle on the very next play, but he has to start making the right reads if he’s not to be a complete liability the first week of the season.
* E.J. Biggers was called for pass interference when he tried to intercept a pass intended for Jerricho Cotchery by going over the receiver’s back. He tried a similar move against Joshua Morgan in team drills earlier in training camp, and on that play, he managed to wrestle the pass away from Morgan. Two of his bigger breakdowns came on the same series as the Cotchery play late in the second quarter, when he gave a large cushion to receiver Emmanuel Sanders and Sanders first gained 19 yards, and then 20 yards on a post.
Biggers lined up as the nickel corner guarding the slot receiver with the first team, which is a role he seems well-suited to play. He later moved to the left side with the second-string defense, with Richard Crawford on the right and Chase Minnifield covering the slot.
* Two plays will likely cost safety DeJon Gomes a chunk of money later this week: first, his late hit on receiver Antonio Brown late in the first quarter, and then his hit on fullback Will Johnson midway through the second quarter that forced Johnson to leave the game with a rib injury. Gomes is fighting for a spot potentially as the last safety with Phillip Thomas out for the season, and part of that is trying to play with aggression. The late hit may be ticky-tacky; it’s unclear whether Brown was fully out of bounds. The hit on Johnson, who was judged to be a defenseless receiver, is something Gomes has to be aware of because the league is trying to crack down on such plays. There’s being aggressive and being smart – and it’s also possible to be both.
* It was interesting that the Redskins had Morgan return kickoffs in the second half, because I don’t remember him doing so at all during training camp. The team had several others back there at different points – cornerback Josh Wilson, Robinson and fellow receivers Skye Dawson and Nick Williams, Helu, Thompson, Evan Royster and Jawan Jamison. Morgan hasn’t returned a kickoff in a regular-season game since 2010, and he gained 21 yards at the start of the second half.
The team’s plan was to have Paul, then Morgan, then Robinson return kickoffs, but Robinson left the game with the injury in the second quarter. Crawford, Moss, Morgan, Thompson and Dawson were all told to prepare to return punts as well, but only Crawford and Dawson were given the opportunity.
* John Potter handled all four kickoffs, while Kai Forbath made a 38-yard field goal and three extra points.