Notes & Observations: Redskins 45, Bears 41
A variety of notes after reviewing the Redskins’ victory over the Bears on Sunday, including observations on Robert Griffin III, Brandon Meriweather’s hits, the continuing special teams miscues and more.
BY ZAC BOYER
Some thoughts and observations after reviewing the Redskins’ 45-41 victory over the Bears on Sunday:
* The Redskins sorely needed a victory over the Bears, considering a loss at home on Sunday would have sent them into their game against the Broncos this week, undoubtedly their toughest yet, with an unconquerable 1-5 record. Instead, they’ll make the trip to the Rocky Mountains with a 2-4 record, keeping them in striking distance of the Eagles and the Cowboys in the NFC East.
This was, quite obviously, the finest game Robert Griffin III has played all season, yet it still was not perfect. He engineered a Redskins offense that picked up 499 total yards, including 290 through the air and 209 on the ground – right where Mike Shanahan said the team wants to be. It will still be some time, though, before things are sailing at full tilt. For one, the fact that the Redskins allowed 204 passing yards to Josh McCown, who did not play a game last season, was not very good. And, as a few defensive players said after the game, it’s unrealistic to put the burden on the offense to score more than 41 points to earn a victory.
* I couldn’t help but think that as the Redskins began their last drive, if this were last year, there’d be no doubt that Griffin would lead the team to a victory. Yet, in light of everything that’s happened and his inconsistent play during the first five games, that was never a guarantee for me. Griffin has done a very good job of moving the ball in the two-minute offense since he debuted last season, but he also has forced some passes and tried to fight for extra yards when they weren’t there.
He got it done on Sunday. With 3:57 remaining and facing a three-point deficit, Griffin completed a pair of third-down passes to keep the chains moving and had the advantage of mixing in a running game as well because of the amount of time left on the clock. His throw to receiver Leonard Hankerson on first-and-10 from the Bears’ 37-yard line was ambitious, considering Hankerson was well-covered, and his pass to receiver Santana Moss four plays later, on second-and-4 from the Bears’ 13-yard line, was another tough throw.
It was the 26-yard pass to tight end Jordan Reed on a crossing route that really got the offense going, eating up almost a third of the distance the Redskins needed and, realistically, half the yardage necessary for Kai Forbath to be in field goal range. Still, his throw to receiver Pierre Garçon may have been his best of the day. On third-and-5 from the Bears’ 44-yard line, Griffin rolled to his right after a zone-read play-action fake to running back Roy Helu. Center Will Montgomery was unable to hold a block on defensive end Shea McClellin and nose tackle Landon Cohen was also in pursuit, and before he got to the sideline, he threw a dart past cornerback Tim Jennings and into Garçon’s waiting arms. It’s similar, in principle, to the throw he tried against the Lions on Sept. 22 – a make-something-from-nothing attempt that ended up being intercepted. Garçon was able to fight for the additional few yards to safely get past the first-down marker and keep the drive alive.
* Griffin set the tone early on that he would be running the ball when he gained 23 yards on a zone-read keeper. He actually did the same thing a week ago against the Cowboys, when on the second play from scrimmage, he took off running. There’s no doubt that opposing defenses have now taken note of Griffin’s increased mobility and will start to again plan for his running ability, which will in turn open up a variety of things on offense. The Redskins even ran a straight option play on the second drive of the second quarter, when Griffin gained seven yards with receiver Joshua Morgan running alongside him as the pitch man. These are the wrinkles that we didn’t see earlier in the season and that, as Griffin continues to heal and settle in, will only become more prevalent as the games wear on.
* The Redskins offered 12 zone-read looks. Griffin threw the ball four times, running back Alfred Morris ran it only once time, and Griffin ran it seven times – not only a season-high, but equal to the number of times he had kept the ball on the zone read all season. That’s 62 zone-read looks on plays this season: Griffin has thrown the ball 30 times, Morris has run it 18, Helu has run it once and Griffin has run it 14 times.
* Boy, is Reed going to be a special player. The tight end caught all nine passes thrown his way on Sunday for 134 yards, including a 3-yard touchdown reception on a well-run fade route at the end of the second quarter. It’s remarkable to think back to training camp and the 7-on-7 drills when Reed made catching every pass thrown his way seem like an adventure. He said after the game Sunday that he’s been able to adjust well to the speed of the game, which he had trouble assessing early on and in the preseason. Like any receiver, he’s also gained more confidence knowing that Griffin will give him the opportunity to make a play. And, the variability that Shanahan spoke of in April when he drafted Reed is starting to show through, as he occasionally lined up wide and in the slot against the Bears.
* Some other quick notes on the offense:
1) Helu was on the field for nine of the 11 plays on the Redskins’ final drive, plus the one called back by penalty, while Morris took the other two snaps. While Morris can bowl defenders over and gain yards, Helu offers the breakaway ability and speed better suited for what the team calls its “turbo” offense. Plus, he’s more reliable as a receiver and better in pass protection, making him multi-dimensional in those situations. He was in a great mood after the game – three touchdowns will do that – and said his success this year is much sweeter given that he missed almost all of last season. He’s undoubtedly earned the change-of-pace role that was dangled out there entering the season.
2) The offensive line, tight end Logan Paulsen, fullback Darrel Young and Garçon and Morgan all deserve praise for the way they were able to prevent the Bears from setting the edge on Griffin’s zone-read keepers. The quarterback worked behind very good blocking every time he ran the ball. There still seem to be quite a few lapses on blitzes, especially in blitz pickup, and Morris didn’t have the cleanest lanes to run though often, but that’s a tradeoff.
3) Receiver Aldrick Robinson does not catch that 45-yard touchdown pass without inadvertently colliding with Bears free safety Chris Conte, even with cornerback Charles Tillman out of position. Tillman clearly expected safety help and let up on Robinson when he knew Conte was behind him. In fact, had the collision not happened, that pass probably would have been intercepted. It wasn’t. It was a dangerous throw by Griffin to one of his best friends on the team, especially with Morgan wide open running an intermediate crossing route, but it worked. And, it’ll give Robinson greater confidence, especially after he dropped a ball in the end zone against the Lions in the last home game. He had disappeared since.
* Brandon Meriweather’s hits on Bears receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery – the ones that contributed to his two-game suspension on Monday, which he has appealed – were not the slightest bit clean. There’s no debating that. Meriweather has professed a desire to change his tackling habits, and said after the game that if one were to look at his last three games, it’s clear he has. Here’s the thing, though – if Meriweather had truly changed his tackling habits, why is he going that high on Jeffery in the first place? And what is he doing launching himself into Marshall, especially considering he could clearly see cornerback Josh Wilson tipped the ball away and he had a moment, or at least a step, to lighten up?
It’s a different situation, but consider the tackle Tillman made on Griffin while the quarterback was running with the ball on the final play of the first quarter. Tillman took the right angle, sized Griffin up and hit him, right shoulder to right shoulder. It was a hard hit, but it was a clean play. Tillman has been playing in the league for 11 seasons, showing that he’s mastered the art of adapting to the new safety rules. Why can’t Meriweather?
The hit on Jeffery, in some regard, is ambiguous because the receiver can be seen looking at Meriweather, covering up the football and preparing for the hit. He had taken two steps after the catch. Still, Meriweather drove the top of his helmet into Jeffery’s left cheek, and helmet-to-helmet contact is immediately a non-starter. The hit on Marshall, though, is much more clear. With Wilson running in stride behind him, Marshall had no chance of stopping or protecting himself from Meriweather, who clearly left his feet to deliver a blow with the front of his helmet and his forearms. Marshall had no way to stop that from coming.
We’ll find out this week if Meriweather will be sitting for two games or one.
* One call I don’t think should have been made: The roughing-the-passer penalty on outside linebacker Brian Orakpo on the Bears’ first drive of the third quarter. McCown threw the ball with Wilson coming on a blitz, and Orakpo was unblocked and maybe two feet away from the quarterback when the ball came loose. It was a bang-bang play – the type that normally isn’t flagged in that regard.
Orakpo made waves earlier in the game by returning an interception 29 yards for a touchdown – a play he said was not only his first career touchdown at any level, but his first career interception. I don’t know where on the field Orakpo played in middle school or in high school, but it’s an incredible stroke of happenstance that he’s avoided either an interception or a touchdown over what has to be more than 15 years of organized football. You could tell his joy, too, when he started celebrating 12 yards from the end zone.
* Defensive quick-hitters:
1) Another great game by cornerback DeAngelo Hall against one of the league’s better receivers in Marshall. He didn’t match up with Marshall all game, but he did extensively, and he did a good job holding the receiver in check. Part of that, of course, was the absence of Cutler for parts of three quarters, but even when Cutler was in the game, Hall was able to break up passes and make plays.
2) The Bears’ second-leading receiver entering the game was running back Matt Forte, yet they rarely went to him in the passing game, save the last-ditch final drive. If he wasn’t running the ball, the Bears needed him in protection against the Redskins’ defensive front.
3) A corner blitz by David Amerson in the fourth quarter has shown just how much the rookie has progressed in six games. That’s the first time he’s done that, and though he didn’t get the sack on McCown, he forced an incompletion.
4) Chris Baker has played two very good games shifting back to nose tackle. He has said he likes playing the position, though understood the move to defensive end in the offseason was to take advantage of his quickness. He clearly enjoyed his first career sack.
* Finally, special teams. Shanahan, special teams coordinator Keith Burns and a few players said they saw improvement on Sunday after their debacle of a performance against the Cowboys, but it’s hard to accurately evaluate that improvement when the Redskins were clearly trying to keep the ball away from Devin Hester all game. Four of their kickoffs were squibs, one was short, one bounced out of the end zone and one was fielded in the end zone. Same with punts – Sav Rocca was asked to put maximum hangtime on the ball to allow the coverage units to travel the distance, and he also wanted to punt the ball directionally – out of bounds, if possible.
Hester still broke free for his first punt return for a touchdown in almost two years when he went 81 yards in the second quarter. Tight end Niles Paul looked like he was going to make the hit, but Hester caught him with a strong stiff-arm to slow him enough to be blocked. Once Hester was able to turn the corner, he hit the wall and he was gone.
Is there improvement on that return, considering that the unit swarmed to the ball, fought with the weight of embarrassment on the play and merely ran into a skilled player? Sure, I guess. But the result is that it still happened. The Redskins didn’t get points for effort.
* There was an issue with the league’s imaging at FedEx Field on Sunday afternoon, and therefore, player participation could not be logged during the game, according to Chris Hoeltge, the senior applications developer for the NFL’s game statistics information system. Hoeltge said the information should be updated Wednesday; I’ll edit this post and add the snap counts when they’re available.