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Notes & Observations: Cowboys 31, Redskins 16

A variety of notes after reviewing the Redskins’ loss to the Cowboys on Sunday, including observations on the special teams struggles, clock management, DeAngelo Hall and Dez Bryant and more.

BY ZAC BOYER

Some thoughts and observations after reviewing the Redskins’ 31-16 loss to the Cowboys on Sunday:

* The Redskins’ special teams were nothing special during the first four games, but on Sunday, they turned into an unmitigated disaster. Dwayne Harris, a 5-foot-10, 207-pound receiver in his third year out of East Carolina, returned a punt 86 yards for a touchdown and then returned a kickoff 90 yards to set up a touchdown two plays later. Both returns were career longs for Harris, who became only the third player in league history to return a punt and a kickoff for more than 85 yards in the same game.

Looking beyond the two returns, there were breakdowns everywhere. Kai Forbath, who returned after missing three games because of a strained right groin, has now missed field goals in three consecutive games after making his first 17 attempts a year ago to set an NFL record. There were six – six! – penalties on special teams, including one by first-year coordinator Keith Burns when, for some reason, he was in the white area on the sidelines and collided with head linesman Steve Stelljes on Harris’ punt return touchdown. Joshua Morgan, who had not returned a punt in five seasons in the NFL, replaced rookie Chris Thompson, who had not returned a punt since high school.

Add in the blocked punt against the Raiders two weeks ago that was recovered for a touchdown, and the special teams units are a catastrophe. The Redskins could survive – I think – if their units were merely run-of-the-mill. That’s not going to happen at this point. The problems are numerous.

A lot of this is on Burns, who replaced the widely respected Danny Smith after he accepted an opportunity to return home and take the same job with the Steelers during the offseason. Admittedly, it’s difficult for me to critique the job Burns is doing; from what I can see, and from the players I’ve talked to on occasion, there aren’t a lot of differences between the units this year and the last, aside from personnel. I do plan on digging more into this in the coming week.

Some of the miscues can be pinned on talent and execution. Mike Shanahan said cornerback David Amerson, who sustained a concussion on a helmet-to-helmet hit on the 90-yard kickoff return, would have probably tackled Harris if he took the proper angle. Bryan Kehl, who is now out for the season after tearing the ACL in his left knee, believes he could have gotten to Harris on the punt return had the injury not happened on that play. Against the Raiders, the punt was blocked because inside linebacker Perry Riley and free safety Jordan Pugh missed their assignments on a stunt, which Riley later said was something the team had seen on tape.

Shanahan said, unprompted, on Monday that Lorenzo Alexander “is not going to show up, so somebody has got to take control of those special teams.” Alexander, of course, was the highly respected linebacker and special teams captain who signed with the Cardinals during the offseason. It was an interesting comment from the head coach, who was unable to offer Alexander a competitive contract this offseason despite his desire to do so because of the salary cap penalties. It was also interesting when he later said that they’re “still looking for that guy” who can step up and lead the units. Ultimately, though, leadership comes from the coaching staff, and fixing these types of miscues is paramount if the Redskins hope to be competitive.

* That being said (written?), the Redskins lost two of their most reliable special teams players on Sunday because of injury. In addition to Kehl, they also lost long snapper Nick Sundberg, who tore a meniscus in his right knee and will also miss the rest of the season. Center Will Montgomery did a very good job in the three snaps (one of which was negated by penalty) in place of Sundberg, but the Redskins will go with Kyle Nelson, formerly of the Seahawks, to fill his role.

* A week after they gained 522 total yards in a 51-48 loss to the Broncos, the Cowboys were held to 213 yards by the Redskins’ defense. Part of that is regression to the mean; before that game, the Cowboys averaged 340.5 yards a game, good for 19th in the league (the breakout game boosted their average to 377.2 yards a game, which put them 10th). But part of that is the phenomenal work the Redskins did on quarterback Tony Romo, receiver Dez Bryant and the rest of the passing game.

Bryant was held in check by cornerback DeAngelo Hall, who drew the assignment of covering the receiver nearly the entire game. Hall held Bryant to five receptions on eight targets for 36 yards, and on Bryant’s first four grabs, he had just four yards after the catch. Hall also made an excellent play in the fourth quarter while covering Miles Austin, who was held without a reception in his first game back after sitting out two because of a hamstring injury. Romo threw a fade pass to Austin in the back left corner, and Hall timed his leap perfectly to be able to get his fingers on the ball and tip it away from being a touchdown. That was the only time the Cowboys entered the Redskins’ red zone on the afternoon and didn’t score.

As far as Romo, he completed just 18 of his 30 passes for 170 yards. He was sacked just once – this wasn’t going to be the party in the backfield it was in the previous game against then-Raiders quarterback Matt Flynn – but was contained well by the Redskins’ defensive front. The most outrageous breakdown was on Romo’s 15-yard touchdown throw to receiver Terrance Williams with 9:03 left in the third quarter – a drive set up by the 90-yard kickoff return. Flushed out of the pocket by outside linebacker Brian Orakpo, Romo rolled right and nearly into the arms of cornerback Josh Wilson, who lost contain on a blitz and could only get a hand on the quarterback’s foot. Part of that, though, is just acknowledging that a player made a great play.

* It took this long to get to Robert Griffin III, which is a sign that he’s starting to do what’s expected of him. He had run 18 times for 72 yards in his first four games, but ran nine times for 77 yards on Sunday. He was not explosive, but he was much more instinctual, showing his increased confidence in his surgically repaired right knee as he crossed the nine-month threshold. That’s the key: Griffin is faster than nearly every player on the field when he’s fully healthy, and he’s faster than a lot of players even when he’s not. But he doesn’t need his speed to be able to make plays, just his instincts. He gained a few extra yards by cutting in front of defenders on his runs and didn’t show any reservations in doing so. Those were the types of plays we hadn’t seen from him in the first four games.

That being said, his throwing looked to regress, especially late, when he was off target on throws to receivers Pierre Garçon and Leonard Hankerson and tight end Jordan Reed. He and Garçon could not get on the same page all night, though a lot of that was because of the excellent job done by Cowboys cornerback Brandon Carr, who was responsible for Garçon much of the game. Garçon, targeted 15 times, grabbed only six of those passes for 69 yards.

Interestingly, the Redskins increasingly faked screen passes to counter the blitz and help out the running game, but the problem with that tactic is that the defense rarely bit on the fakes and still charged inside, thereby stopping the run.

* That leads to the next point: Griffin’s protection this game, from the offensive line to anyone in the backfield, was not very good and certainly not at the level it had been in the first four games. I heard a few times last year from some of the offensive linemen that they looked good because of Griffin’s ability to escape trouble, but I chalked it up at the time to self-deprecating humor. It seems like, at least in some regards, it may not have been a joke.

Griffin had to escape a lot of jams against what was basically the Cowboys’ second-string defensive line; defensive end Anthony Spencer and defensive tackle Jay Ratliff were out, and defensive end DeMarcus Ware left the game in the first quarter with a quadriceps strain. Defensive tackle Jason Hatcher was continually a problem for the Redskins’ interior linemen, often winning his battles – sometimes convincingly – to force Griffin to scramble out of the pocket.

When it wasn’t Hatcher, it was Ware’s replacement, Kyle Wilber, getting to Griffin for a sack and a fumble, or it was middle linebacker Sean Lee, who had 10 tackles and looked every bit like the run stopper the Cowboys imagined when they gave him a six-year, $42 million contract extension during training camp.

* Some people like to look at numbers. I’m one of them, and I find these staggering: The Redskins totaled 433 yards, while the Cowboys had 213. Griffin threw for 246 yards; Romo threw for 170. The Redskins ran for 216 yards; the Cowboys ran for 48. The Redskins went 8-for-16 on third down; the Cowboys went 5-for-12. The Redskins ran 75 plays over 34:32; the Cowboys ran 50 plays over 25:28.

But here’s the important one (well, besides the score): The Redskins went 0-for-3 in red zone efficiency; the Cowboys went 3-for-4. The Redskins almost had a fourth opportunity in the fourth quarter when they drove to the Dallas 23-yard line, but Griffin threw an interception.

They’ve scored a touchdown on only 50 percent of their trips inside the red zone this season – staggeringly, that’s somehow good enough to rank them 15th in the league; the Jaguars are not surprisingly last, scoring a touchdown in the red zone on only a third of their opportunities. The Redskins were fourth in the league last season, scoring a touchdown on just about 60 percent of their trips into the red zone, but were 29th in 2011. Is that a product of Griffin not being able to run the ball? The Redskins broke out the ol’ quarterback draw Sunday for the first time since early last season, and I certainly didn’t think they’d do it again. In total, they ran the ball six times and threw it four times on Sunday when inside the red zone. There’s no question that their inadequacy within the 20-yard line is costing them games.

* The Redskins offered 11 zone-read looks. Griffin threw the ball twice, Alfred Morris ran four times, Roy Helu ran it once and Griffin four times. That’s 50 zone-read looks on plays this season: Griffin has thrown the ball 26 times, Morris has run it 17, Helu has run it once and Griffin has run it seven times.

* The clock management at the end of the first half, and in the fourth quarter, is a head-scratcher. First, Griffin completed a 3-yard pass to Reed, who stood up at the Cowboys’ 46-yard line with 1:22 remaining before halftime. The Redskins then waited until 44 seconds remained in the quarter to call a timeout, letting 38 seconds pass. Then, on third-and-7, Reed caught a pass for a 28-yard gain, and rather than call a second timeout to compose themselves, the Redskins went without a huddle and ran the next play 17 seconds later. Following two incompletions, the Redskins used a timeout with one second remaining on the play clock, Griffin tried to center the ball on a keeper and then a third timeout preceded a 32-yard field goal.

Then, when the Redskins took over with 8:44 remaining in the game and trailing by 15 points – a situation that required a bit of urgency – the offense took its time. It did not run a single no-huddle, hurry-up play on that drive, and though it’s hard to determine the play clock from when the ball was set, the Redskins went 38 seconds, incomplete, 37 seconds, 34 seconds and 44 seconds in between plays.

Shanahan said Monday that in the first half, the Redskins were trying to prevent the Cowboys from getting the ball with enough time to move it downfield should they had not converted on third down. That kind of makes sense, but shouldn’t the focus be on prolonging the drive and not worrying about contingencies? And in the fourth quarter, Shanahan said the team had to focus on scoring the first time if it had any chance of scoring the second time – but that doesn’t mean taking every single second available between plays to do so.

* A few other thoughts, since we’re dragging on and on here:

1) It’ll be interesting to see how the officials view potential late hits on the sideline when it comes to quarterbacks. Griffin was the beneficiary of two unnecessary roughness penalties by free safety Barry Church, both of which seemed to be quality pro wrestling-style sell jobs by the quarterback. It was Griffin’s intention to get out of bounds on a 26-yard scramble on the first drive of the third quarter, but Church hit him before it appeared he stepped on the white line and was flagged. On the second play, which happened on the final drive, Church was engaged by tight end Logan Paulsen and got a hand up to try to stop Griffin, but the contact the free safety made with Griffin’s head appeared to be inadvertent and Griffin went sprawling to the grass. I remember against the Lions when Griffin tried to get out of bounds and cornerback Rashean Mathis pulled up and let him do so. Where will that line be set?

2) Riley continues to have a heck of a season. He had five tackles – two for a loss, including a sack – against the Cowboys, and also hit Romo two other times. On the first drive of the second quarter, Riley shot the gap and forced the quarterback to rush a throw over the middle to tight end Jason Witten that he dropped. He also made an excellent shoestring tackle on running back DeMarco Murray in the first quarter and covered Witten well enough on an out route on the first drive of the first quarter that Romo’s throw went high.

The toughest part of it all for the Redskins? The fourth-year linebacker is in a contract year.

3) Has the Redskins’ run defense improved, or has it gotten lucky? Consider this streak: After being eaten alive by LeSean McCoy in the season-opening loss to the Eagles, the Redskins knocked the Packers’ starting running back, Eddie Lacy, out of the game in the first quarter; didn’t face the Lions’ starting running back, Reggie Bush, because of injury; knocked the Raiders’ starting running back, Darren McFadden, out of the game in the second quarter, and then on Sunday, knocked the Cowboys’ starting running back, Murray, out of the game in the first quarter. Look out, Matt Forte.

* Pugh and Bacarri Rambo battled during offseason workouts to get the first crack at the starting free safety job. Rambo won, held it the first two games, played only on special teams in the third, did not play in the fourth and was inactive in the fifth. Pugh was inactive the first game, played sparingly the next three, was inactive on Sunday and was released on Monday.

That could be a signal that Jose Gumbs, who played in his first NFL game on Sunday, will be given an opportunity behind starters Brandon Meriweather and Reed Doughty. Gumbs, a hard hitter who signed with the Redskins on the first day of training camp, played nine defensive snaps and had one tackle.

* The snap counts (Includes plays run but negated by offensive penalties; zero plays means the player only appeared on special teams):

Offense (78 plays): Chris Chester 78, Will Montgomery 78, Tyler Polumbus 78, Trent Williams 78, Kory Lichtensteiger 78, Robert Griffin III 78, Pierre Garçon 72, Jordan Reed 55, Leonard Hankerson 52, Santana Moss 50, Roy Helu 43, Alfred Morris 35, Logan Paulsen 20, Darrel Young 19, Fred Davis 18, Joshua Morgan 17, Aldrick Robinson 7, Niles Paul 2, Adam Gettis 0, Evan Royster 0, Tom Compton 0, Kirk Cousins DNP.

Defense (54 plays): Brandon Meriweather 54, Perry Riley 54, Josh Wilson 54, London Fletcher 54, DeAngelo Hall 54, Ryan Kerrigan 53, Brian Orakpo 49, Stephen Bowen 45, Barry Cofield 44, Kedric Golston 30, Reed Doughty 23, E.J. Biggers 20, David Amerson 17, Chris Baker 15, Rob Jackson 12, Jose Gumbs 9, Jarvis Jenkins 6, Darryl Tapp 1, Nick Barnett 0, Jerome Murphy 0, Bryan Kehl 0.

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