Short-yardage passing had a good year, except at the end of the Super Bowl. We look at the return of quarterback runs, the rise in pass-happy strategy, and 2014 success rates for offense and defense.
21 Apr 2013
by Andy Benoit
The 2013 "State of the Team" articles will run daily through the NFL draft. These offer a snapshot look at a team’s roster, with players classified by color based on how they fit their role. My analysis is based on film study, not statistics, although we will try to note when my judgment differs significantly from FO's advanced stats, and explain a little bit why. Starters are in bold, and you will notice that many units are listed with 12 starters rather than just 11. This denotes the extra playing time that nickelbacks and third receivers usually get in today's NFL.
Some players colored pink as "just a guy" are younger low-round picks who just haven't seen much playing time, but keep in mind that 99 percent of the time, there’s a negative reason why such a player has rarely seen the field.
Players colored red as "upgrade needed" are not necessarily bad players. Sometimes, this simply means the player is a decent backup who should not be starting.
Since I generally don't do analysis on special teams, those categorizations are based strictly on FO stats, with any comments written by Aaron Schatz. We're only listing kickers and punters, as most teams go into training camp without specific players set as return specialists.
Mike and Kyle Shanahan have expanded their system, which is predicated largely on zone-running and play-action, to include the read-option and pistol formation concepts that revolutionized the NFL in 2012. Last year the natural deception and disguises brought forth by the "pistol option" had the desired effect of simplifying the game for Washington’s young backfield and ho-hum receiving corps. As Washington’s offensive players continue to mature, this system will continue to grow. That is, of course, assuming the franchise quarterback is available.
QB: Robert Griffin, Kirk Cousins, Rex Grossman
RB: Alfred Morris, Evan Royster, Roy Helu, Darrel Young (FB)
Everything hinges on Griffin’s health. His recovery from knee surgery is just part of the equation; the rest of it pertains to him adjusting his style of play. The dazzling young star won’t ultimately amount to anything more than the next Michael Vick if he takes the kind of hits he took as a rookie. Griffin doesn’t have the frame to survive that. It's imperative the Redskins take advantage of Griffin's mobility, and it's even more imperative that Griffin do a better job protecting himself. It's not just a matter of sliding, but also taking fewer hits in the pocket, which is often a function of footwork and awareness.
This isn’t to say the Redskins shouldn’t feature his running talents. If Griffin were to be confined strictly to the pocket, the Redskins would have a smart, strong-armed quarterback with a quick release, but they wouldn’t have the game-changing superstar that they traded a boatload of draft picks to get. Just the threat of Griffin’s running does wonders for Washington’s ground game. It’s a ground game that, even without Griffin, is pretty strong. Morris doesn’t have dynamic abilities, but he’s a patient, tough-to-tackle downhill player. He runs with a subtle hint of wiggle and has better quickness through the hole than you’d guess. And he’s very good on the perimeter. The rest of Washington’s backs are third-down niche players who are aided by the zone-blocking scheme.
Cousins will start the year at quarterback if Griffin isn't ready for Week 1. He was solid as a fill-in starter, but he was protected by playcalling when he did play. It was all bootlegs and rolled pockets. A team couldn’t win consistently with him dropping back in a traditional pocket 25 times a game right now, particularly against complex defenses.
WR: Pierre Garcon, Josh Morgan, Santana Moss, Leonard Hankerson, Aldrick Robinson
TE: Fred Davis, Logan Paulsen, Niles Paul; Lost: Chris Cooley
Individually, none of these players have special attributes, save for maybe Garcon with his strength running after the catch. Fortunately, they play in a system that naturally gets them open with simple zone-beater routes off play-action. The system also emphasizes getting the wideouts and tight ends involved in the screen game. As long as you can execute your route and catch the ball (something Washington receivers too often failed to do last season), you’ll have a chance to produce. Also, with so many stretch-run concepts, this system demands good blocking not just from the tight ends but also the wideouts. In that regard, it makes sense that Garcon, Morgan, Hankerson, Paulsen and even the more versatile Davis are relatively thick possession-type targets. Davis must prove he can bounce back from last season’s Achilles injury. (He's "green" if he does.) In the Shanahan offense, he blocks better than you might expect because he understands simple angles on the move.
LT: Trent Williams LG: Kory Lichtensteiger C: Will Montgomery RG: Chris Chester RT: Jeremy Trueblood
Backups: Tyler Polumbus, Josh LeRibeus; Lost: Jammal Brown, Jordan Black
This front five plays well as a unit. The interior, in particular, overachieved last season. That’s a credit to the players, but more to the coaches for putting linemen in a system that masks their weaknesses while highlighting their strengths in short-area mobility. On the edges, Williams’ athleticism has started to show on more of a down-by-down basis. It helps that he’s not asked to handle as many tough one-on-one assignments as most left tackles. Trueblood is essentially what the man he’s replacing (Polumbus) was: a fill-in body at best, and a liability at worst.
Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett asks a lot from his players. He’s willing to roll the dice with unfavorable matchups in man coverage. You’ll see Redskins defenders cover 10-to-20 yards of lateral ground while hunting up coverage assignments out of disguised looks. You’ll see them show a Cover-0 blitz and actually bring it, then show a Cover-0 blitz only to drop eight defenders back after the snap. You’ll see zone coverages behind typical man-to-man blitz looks. Haslett’s aggressiveness last season was due in part to attrition in his pass defense. The loss of Brian Orakpo carried an ugly domino effect that left this defense with an impotent four-man rush. In the secondary, injuries at safety had Haslett toying with different sub-package looks all season. In the end, the Redskins wound up performing better than their numbers indicate, but that doesn’t mean this group has no room to improve in 2013.
DE: Adam Carriker, Stephen Bowen, Jarvis Jenkins, Kedric Golston
DT: Barry Cofield, Ron Brace
Carriker is looking to bounce back after missing all of last season with a torn quadriceps tendon. When he’s right, he’s a sturdy running-down five-technique. Bowen plays with good power in the ground game. Jenkins and Golston offer energetic depth. Cofield is Washington’s best run-stuffer, but he rarely stood out on film last season.
OLB: Brian Orakpo, Ryan Kerrigan, Darryl Tapp, Rob Jackson, Vic So'oto; Lost: Lorenzo Alexander, Chris Wilson
ILB: London Fletcher, Perry Riley, Bryan Kehl, Keenan Robinson
Getting Orakpo back will be huge. He’s a smart pass rusher and underappreciated force defender in the run game. There’s a belief that Kerrigan is a rising star, but if that were true, the former first-round pick would have at least some pass-rushing creativity. As it stands, most offenses feel comfortable blocking him one-on-one with their right tackle, which is unacceptable. Jackson is the definition of a solid player. He can’t quite turn the corner, but he understands angles in the run game and is very good dropping to the flats in pass defense. Fletcher is also good against the pass. And, even nearing the tender age of 38, he’s still great against the run. He makes Riley a better player.
(Ed. Note: Andy and I may disagree more on Kerrigan than any other player, even more than Antonio Brown or Joe Flacco. I don't care how creative his pass-rush moves look on film, I just find it very hard to argue with Kerrigan's production. Kerrigan had 8.5 sacks this year despite not having Brian Orakpo to draw attention on the other side. By our current count, he had 28 hurries, which put him tied for fifth with Aldon Smith. Yes, he faces right tackles instead of left tackles, but I think that makes a good argument to consider him "green" instead of "blue," not to consider him "black" as an average NFL starter.
In fact, Andy and I probably disagree on the Washington front seven more than any other group in the league. I also would have Orakpo "blue" and Cofield "green." -- Aaron Schatz)
CB: Josh Wilson, D'Angelo Hall, E.J. Biggers, Richard Crawford; Lost: Cedric Griffin
S: Brandon Meriweather, Reed Doughty, DeJon Gomes, Jordan Pugh; Lost: Madieu Williams
Wilson brings added value because he can play outside or in the slot. However, receivers too often get by him vertically when it’s man coverage. Hall is even more versatile, which Haslett takes full advantage of. His game charting numbers have never been great, but last year the Redskins defense survived by relying heavily on him in variety of ways (safety in sub-packages, nickel blitzing, man-to-man outside against Dez Bryant in Week 17, etc.). Biggers was never anything special in Tampa Bay. Crawford is young and early in his developmental process. At safety, Meriweather looked excellent in the one game he played last season. But one game, of course, does nothing to quell the concerns about whether he can come back from knee problems. He’ll get a chance to start because he’s a significantly better athlete than Gomes. Doughty isn’t great in coverage but he plays with a lot of speed in the box.
(Ed. Note Part II: At the Sloan conference, I referred to DeAngelo Hall as the most overrated player in the NFL, but I can see Andy's argument that his versatility makes him more than "just a guy." Hall would have a lot more value to Washington if they stopped trying to use him as an outside corner and instead used him the way the Giants use Antrel Rolle, moving back and forth between safety and nickelback. Don't be fooled by Hall's performance against Dez Bryant on national TV in Week 17; it was just one game, and Bryant still caught 4-of-10 passes for 71 yards with Hall listed in coverage.)
K: Kai Forbath; P: Sav Rocca
As a rookie, Forbath was poor on kickoffs and average on field goals, but that doesn't make a definitive statement about his potential. Rocca has declined significantly the last two seasons and was next-to-last in gross punt value in 2012. He's going to be 40 this year, so have fun making a tackle if the return man breaks your coverage, buddy.
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