The New York Giants weren't the only NFC East team to come out of its bye week completely re-energized. After losing three straight prior to their Week 10 bye, the Washington Redskins have played two of their most impressive and complete games of 2012.
Now, Washington plays the Giants in Week 13 with a chance to move only a game out of first place in the division. The 'Skins have been hit hard by injuries this year, but they continue to be smart with the football while also being just explosive enough to outscore teams by making up for their shortcomings on the defensive side of the ball.
In the last two weeks alone, the Redskins have a plus-six turnover ratio, have surrendered only 62.5 rushing yards per outing and have hurried the opposing quarterback 33 times, according to Pro Football Focus. The 22 hurries they had in Dallas on Thanksgiving was a season high, which indicates they've finally found a way to get pressure despite the absence of Brian Orakpo and Adam Carriker.
Here are the keys to success from the last two weeks.
1. Robert Griffin III has hit the opposite of a rookie wall
It looked as though defenses were figuring Griffin out a little as he struggled in Weeks 8 and 9 against Pittsburgh and Carolina, respectively. The bye week, however, seemed to get him back on track. What are the 'Skins doing differently on offense now?
Well for starters, they're being a little more conservative. Griffin has attempted only 21.5 passes per game the last two weeks, which is down from the 29.1 throws per game he averaged during the first nine weeks of his rookie campaign. That's big because they were already drawing defenses in to account for RG3's legs; now it's happening naturally anyway.
As a result, when he is going deep, he's hitting the jackpot. Griffin is 4-for-5 for 207 yards and four touchdowns on passes that traveled 20 yards or more the last two weeks, according to PFF. His one incomplete pass deep was intercepted, but it's pretty amazing that all four of the completions have resulted in six points.
Prior to this stretch, he was completing only 39 percent of the passes he threw at that distance. He also had only two deep touchdowns in nine games (the first of which came in the first quarter of the first game of the year).
His 68-yard touchdown pass to Aldrick Robinson in the second quarter Thursday took place on the fifth play of a drive in which the Redskins had not yet thrown a pass that reached the line of scrimmage. I can only assume that was a big reason why safety Danny McCray bit inside instead of helping Brandon Carr over the top.
Easy as can be...
The exact same thing happened on Griffin's icing-on-the-cake touchdown pass to Niles Paul in the fourth quarter. On that series, the 'Skins ran six straight plays that were either runs or passes that didn't reach the line of scrimmage. But then the Cowboys stacked the box on a 3rd-and-short, with seven on the line and nine in the box and nobody deep. With the safety over the top shaded on the opposite side of Paul, this was an easy touchdown if Paul was going to be running a route, period.
It helped, though, that Ernie Sims appeared to blow the coverage...
A lot of credit has to go to Mike and Kyle Shanahan for taking the pressure off of Griffin with a super strategy and great play-calling. But defenses would be less likely to bite and become so vulnerable if Alfred Morris hadn't become such a strong presence as a runner. This entire offense is multifaceted and incredibly tough to stop, whether it's running an option-oriented attack or just forcing defenses to guess from start to finish.
2. The pass rush is back on track
As I mentioned, they had a season-high 22 pressures in Dallas. On those plays, Tony Romo was still able to complete nine passes against a lackluster secondary. Nevertheless, that's still better than the alternative, and Romo threw a killer interception when facing heat.
They've had to blitz a ridiculous 47 times the last two weeks, but they've got nothing to lose with that all-out mentality. It helps that DeAngelo Hall and Cedric Griffin have suddenly looked half-decent in coverage, but I believe the coaching staff has come to the realization that they're going to have to win shootouts and hope to get enough takeaways to compensate for the big plays they're inevitably going to keep giving up (like the 85-yard touchdown between Romo and Dez Bryant Thursday).
The problem for opposing offenses is that they're doing an OK job picking up blitzes, but the Redskins' line has been surprisingly powerful without Carriker. Barry Cofield's playing like a Pro Bowler in the middle now, with nine of his 21 pressures coming in the last two weeks alone. Here's a look at the nose tackle occupying approximately 50 percent of the Cowboys' offensive line while Stephen Bowen came on a twist for a blitz in Dallas...
And one week earlier against Philly, that's him distracting two linemen as Perry Riley comes through for a sack...
The defense might not be getting sacks like they were with Orakpo and Carriker in the lineup a year ago, but as long as Cofield, Bowen and Ryan Kerrigan keep playing at this pace and Jim Haslett continues to find unique ways to attack, they'll get enough pressure to survive on D.
3. They're not sacrificing in run defense
Anyone can get after the passer at the expense of the rest of the defense, but the 'Skins have gotten the aforementioned pressure the last two weeks while still shutting down opposing backs LeSean McCoy, Bryce Brown and Felix Jones. Those three backs have only 94 yards on 26 carries against the 'Skins, with only a single run of more than nine yards.
Predictably, Cofield has been a force against the run, too, but he's been complemented by linebackers Rob Jackson and Perry Riley, who have both been fantastic in that realm as well. In fact, this run D is arguably better off with Jackson starting in place of Orakpo.
Washington has now given up only 89.2 yards per game this year on the ground, which is the third-lowest total in the NFL. They've surrendered over 100 yards only three times this season, and they might only get better if London Fletcher can get healthier in the coming weeks.
The secondary isn't good—everyone knows that—but the Giants proved last year that if a team's front seven is strong enough it can make up for what ails it on the back end. I'm starting to believe this team can keep this up.
So does this mean the 'Skins are prepared to beat the Giants Monday night and then keep rolling toward their first playoff berth since 2007? Considering that they're red hot and have seemingly found a formula for success, I can absolutely envision this team making up the one game keeping them out of a wild-card spot and/or the two games holding them behind the Giants for first place.
After New York and Baltimore, their last three games are very winnable. That's what makes Monday's matchup with the G-men the most important of the Shanahan era thus far.