Five Storylines To Follow As Season Resumes
The Redskins will return to practice today after their bye week and will hope to build on the momentum they gained with a victory over the Raiders on Sept. 29.
BY ZAC BOYER
The Redskins will return to practice today after taking their bye week, presumably with a sense of determination built heavily upon the failures of the first four games. Between an unspectacular offense and an underwhelming defense, the Redskins know there’s a lot to be improved upon, but they also know that the remaining 12 games offer plenty of opportunity to do so. It will be clear in the coming months whether the expectations of returning to the playoffs were right on target or too lofty.
1. When will Robert Griffin III be Robert Griffin III?
When Robert Griffin III takes the field in his home state on Sunday to face the Cowboys, he’ll do so nine months after undergoing surgery to repair a torn ACL and LCL in his right knee – the far side of the original projections for his return to full health. He’s already starting to show flashes of the player he was last season, when he was named the Offensive Rookie of the Year, but he’s got to do more. Restricted to the pocket much of the first three weeks, Griffin has slowly gained confidence running the football, which heavily changes the dynamic of opposing defenses. His reads, his throws and his accuracy have improved, and now it’s just about the speed. Keep in mind, though, that the Griffin of 2012 may not be back on the field until he’s had extensive time to recover – which would be next season.
2. Will the defense get its act together?
Conventional wisdom seemed to dictate that after a substandard performance by the defense last season, one in which it ranked 28th in the league by allowing 377.7 yards a game, things could only get better. That was quite the supposition. Through four games, the defense had allowed an average of 440.5 yards, edging out only the hapless Eagles. It took a pounding against the Eagles’ offense in the season opener and was thoroughly throttled by the Packers in Week 2, but its ability to stop the Lions on the ground in Week 3 and its seven sacks of Raiders quarterback Matt Flynn in Week 4 were steps in the right direction. Considering the nature of the offenses the Redskins are about to face, the team better hope its first two performances were the outliers, not the last two.
3. At what point will the running game pick up?
Part of the magic of running back Alfred Morris’ record-setting rookie year last season was that it coincided with Griffin’s ability to carry the ball out of the backfield. With Griffin left as a one-dimensional player, defenses know the zone-read option won’t be there, which also greatly reduces the versatility Morris brings as a runner. He’s still getting his yards – his 5.3 yards per carry is actually higher than the 4.8 yards he averaged last season – but his overall effectiveness is down. The rib injury Morris sustained in the Redskins’ victory over the Raiders will be worth watching in the coming days and should leave opportunities for Roy Helu, and the Redskins will need both backs to be productive if they hope to run some semblance of a balanced offense.
4. Are special teams going to continue to be a liability?
New special teams coordinator Keith Burns said last week that he expects each of his units to improve simply because much of his key personnel is still adapting to new roles. A rookie running back, Chris Thompson, has been returning punts and receiver Joshua Morgan appears to have taken over as the primary kickoff returner, but it goes deeper than that. The Raiders blocked a punt because two players, linebacker Perry Riley and safety Jordan Pugh, were unfamiliar with their coverage responsibilities. Tight end Niles Paul, the kickoff returner at the end of last season, is still learning how to read the coverage to give his returner a better idea of where to take the ball. The units aren’t necessarily costing the Redskins any games, but they’re certainly not helping them win.
5. How does the Redskins’ schedule influence their postseason chances?
Heavily. The Redskins had one of the easiest schedules before their bye, facing four opponents who entered this past weekend with a .400 winning percentage. Their remaining non-divisional games won’t be any easier: after facing the Cowboys this weekend, they’ll host the Bears, winners of three of their first five games, and then hit the road to take on the Broncos, who have scored 46 points per game thus far. Games against the 49ers and the upstart Chiefs, who are 5-0, also remain. It was important for the Redskins to win the games they should have before the bye week and they failed to do so. That makes their pursuit of their second consecutive playoff berth all that more difficult.