The Washington Redskins are likely returning quarterback Robert Griffin III for the final two games of 2012, but a win over the Cleveland Browns Sunday showed this team can still be dangerous without its transcendent quarterback.
The reasons are very simple: Washington has an offense built around one of the NFL's top running games and taking care of the football, and a defense that can get takeaways and stop the run.
The combination of winning the trenches and turnover battle typically translates into a difficult team to beat come postseason time.
Granted, this is not to take away from what Griffin III has added to the Redskins. He's a unique and special talent who can make this team even more dangerous in January. His return from a sprained LCL in his knee gives the Redskins a real shot at winning the NFC East outright this season.
But the improvements in Washington run deeper than just Griffin III, and the Redskins' ability to win a game (or games, if you count the comeback against the Ravens in Week 14) without Griffin III shows how far this team has come over the last couple of months.
Below, we'll use screen grabs from the Redskins' win over the Cleveland Browns Sunday to illustrate how this team can be a dangerous one in the NFC postseason.
Winning the Trenches
Any conservation about the Redskins has to start with running the football (first in the NFL) and stopping the run (sixth).
Early on Sunday, Washington's defense made it clear that Cleveland running back Trent Richardson wasn't going to have much in terms of space.
On this 2nd-and-10 play in the first quarter, the Browns run Richardson in a crack-back counter. Cleveland's play call is a strong one, and the execution early on looks promising. No penetration is allowed from the defensive line, and the tight end successfully kicks out the weakside linebacker.
But here's where the Redskins make the play in their favor. The defensive line holds its ground at the point, and there isn't an offensive lineman able to get to the second level.
While there's an alley on the backside for Richardson, there's also two linebackers unblocked and waiting to make the stop. Richardson is met and dropped for no gain. After forcing 3rd-and-10, the Redskins get off the field on the next play.
Unnoticed plays like these on early downs can be a big predictor of success on third downs, the money down in any NFL game.
With over 2,300 rushing yards, the Redskins are the NFL's most productive running team. Part of that has come from Griffin III's ability to make plays with his legs, but it's also because the Redskins win inside and have a back with enough talent to make things happen.
On this play in the third quarter, the Redskins get near the scoring doorstep because of a well-blocked run to the outside. In fact, it's picture-perfect execution and probably should have resulted in a touchdown. Either way, Washington was in the end zone three plays later.
The call here is a strong side pitch to rookie Alfred Morris. As the play stretches outside, the Redskins block the perimeter and seal off any backside pursuit.
The receiver (Santana Moss) and tight end (Logan Paulson) each stick their blocks, and any movement down the line of scrimmage from the defensive line is walled off by the left tackle (Trent Williams). From there, Morris follows his fullback through the alley and should score. Only a shoestring tackle from the secondary pursuit denies that chance.
However, the play serves to highlight how well the Redskins have executed in the running game. Griffin III's ability in the read option has helped in that area, but Washington was still able to go over 120 yards with Kirk Cousins in the game Sunday.
Execution up front is the main reason why Washington can dominate teams on the ground.
Winning the Turnover Differential
There's no doubting the effect turnovers have had on the Redskins' current five-game winning streak. Washington is plus-six in turnover differential over the life of the streak, including 10 takeaways and just four giveaways.
Even during the 3-6 start, the Redskins were on the plus side of turnovers.
Sunday against the Browns, Cousins threw an interception early that eventually led to a Cleveland touchdown. But after settling down, the Redskins played clean football the final 50 or so minutes and ran away on the scoreboard.
Later on, two forced turnovers in the second half contributed to 10 points.
Part of playing clean football on offense is Washington's ability to run the football, which opens up easy throws off play-action. After a shaky start, Cousins had easy throws to make against predictable coverages. Even inexperienced quarterbacks can avoid mistakes in these situations.
In fact, the Redskins' seven interceptions this season are the least in the NFL.
The defense's 17 interceptions are the sixth-most.
There is no question that the Redskins are a more dangerous team with Griffin III under center. Everything Washington does well on offense is amplified with him healthy.
But Sunday proved that Washington has a framework in place this season that allows success to happen, regardless of the player under center.
The ability to dominate in the trenches and on the turnover sheet—on display again Sunday in Cleveland—can make the Redskins a dangerous team come playoff time.