The Washington Redskins proved during preseason that their already-explosive offense will be even more versatile this season. They also revealed a pass rush that is primed to join the league's elite.
The increased versatility on offense will come from greater speed being added to a dominant ground game. Speaking of that productive rushing attack, it could be even better this season.
Defensively, the Redskins appear set to make life a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks. More creativity up front is putting players in positions to terrorize blocking schemes, without the need to blitz heavy numbers.
Here is a breakdown of what preseason taught us about the 2013 Redskins.
The return of Roy Helu Jr. adds a new element to the ground game.
The return of Roy Helu Jr. and the emergence of rookie Chris Thompson gives the Redskins more speed in the running game. Adding that extra element to an already prolific ground attack should scare the rest of the league.
Head coach Mike Shanahan's zone-based system has made the Redskins the best rushing team in football. They are capable of wearing down any defense with consistent stretch runs attacking various cutback lanes.
In 2012, it was the power and patience of workhorse Alfred Morris that battered opponents into submission. The only thing missing was a true breakaway threat, the kind of field-stretching speed needed to turn a seven-yard gain into a 50-yarder.
That will change with Helu back in the fold. The third-year pro has the acceleration to take a stretch run to the sideline and outrun defenses on the edge.
Despite missing most of the 2012 season, Helu looked rust free during exhibition games. He averaged 5.8 yards per carry through three outings and seems to have lost none of his sudden burst.
Speaking of a little burst, that is just what pint-sized speedster Thompson can provide. The fifth-rounder from FSU is the classic diminutive scatback, ideally suited to read-option looks.
At 5'7" and 187 pounds, Thompson has already shown that he can squirt under and accelerate away from defenders. His return skills also showcased his incredible talent in the open field.
If this zone scheme can spring Thompson free from the first wave of defenders, he will produce some huge plays in the running game.
With Morris and Evan Royster to work inside and Thompson and Helu attacking the edges, the Redskins now have the most versatile ground attack in the NFL.
Brian Orakpo will feature in a dominant-looking pass rush.
The secondary might be a shambles, but the Redskins' ability to put pressure on quarterbacks is certainly exciting. The preseason revealed how effective this pass rush can be just by mixing personnel and alignments up front.
Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett tweaked a few things and got more creative, and the signs are already very encouraging. Haslett is moving outside linebackers inside in four-man fronts and even fielding looks featuring as many as six linebackers.
Haslett is making full use of a stable of top-notch pressure specialists. Starters Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan form a double act capable of dominating any blocking scheme.
But this season there will be better support for this stellar pair. Veteran Darryl Tapp and rookie Brandon Jenkins can collapse every part of a pass pocket.
Haslett has used Tapp inside a lot during preseason and the experienced rush end was too much to handle. When Haslett puts all four of his stud edge-rushers on the field, the Redskins defensive front possesses awesome big-play potential.
But it is not just altered fronts and diverse combinations of personnel that make the pass rush stronger. The ability of powerful defensive linemen to run stunts, twists and games is causing havoc along the interior.
This is something the Redskins were very good at in 2012 and it has continued this preseason. When the likes of Barry Cofield and Stephen Bowen cross over, the inside of the pass pocket is often quickly crushed.
Haslett's unit managed 10 sacks during preseason, with 9.5 of them being tallied by members of the front seven. With everyone up front healthy and at full speed, the Redskins will boast an elite-level pass rush.
The run defense had its issues during preseason.
Despite being stout for much of the 2012 season, Washingon's runs defense showed signs of softening during preseason. There weren't major issues, but just enough to suggest that the Redskins could be exposed by a powerful rushing attacks this season.
In their first preseason outing against the Tennessee Titans, the defense surrendered a 58-yard scoring run to Chris Johnson. It was one of two touchdown runs allowed in that game.
John Keim of ESPN.com felt the core of the problem began up front:
Bacarri Rambo was put in a terrible spot by his front seven on Chris Johnson’s 58-yard touchdown run and, considering it was his first game, he had no chance. There was too much open field, though had he made the play it would have said a lot about Rambo. The fact that he did not just lumps him in with many other safeties. But the Titans' other touchdown run, by Shonn Greene, was a result, in part, of a poor angle by Rambo coming from deep middle. Rambo started too much inside, was a little too slow and any chance he had at making a touchdown-saving tackle was lost. Poor angles have doomed many a safety, and it’s a big reason why I was surprised Rambo opened as the starter from the first camp.
Things hardly got any better in the next three games. Altogether, the Redskins gave up three rushing touchdowns during preseason and 99 yards on the ground per game.
It is not necessarily cause for alarm, but the Redskins do face a bevy of quality running backs this season. Minnesota Vikings star Adrian Peterson and Kansas City Chiefs ace Jamaal Charles will punish some of the elementary mistakes seen during preseason.
The Redskins have owned the ball during preseason.
Of course, the best way to protect a run defense is to take the option to run away from opposing offenses. As masters of dominating the clock, the Redskins can do just that.
Preseason proved that Shanahan's team is now clock-eating specialists. The success of the prodigious zone-running game allows the Redskins to practically own the ball.
This was particularly evident in the team's final two exhibition games against the Buffalo Bills and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, respectively. Both sides barely saw the field, particularly in the second half.
Shanahan's combination of heavy doses of zone-running, mixed with high-percentage, play-action passing, keeps opposing offenses on the sideline.
The beauty of this is that it allows Washington's defense to play pass first. That means the front seven can simply pin its ears back and make hunting quarterbacks its top priority.
Controlling the clock and forcing opponents to be one-dimensional is a formula as old as the game itself. The Redskins have it down to a fine art, and it can take them far this season.
The pass defense is a major concern.
Consult the NFL.com statistics page and you'll find the Redskins ranked as the second-best defense against the pass in preseason. But anyone who watched Washington's four games knows this secondary is still a major concern.
If nothing else, the positive ranking is heavily padded by the time of possession enjoyed by the Redskins offense. The increased pressure up front also played a big part in making the pass defense appear more stable than it is.
But even with that assistance, the secondary was shaky almost every time it was tested. There were too many blown coverage assignments, penalties and instances of poor tackling.
The Redskins are testing out new personnel at key positions, particularly safety. But it is already obvious which unit is this team's Achilles' heel.
Just in case anybody needed telling, the read-option is staying a staple of the Redskins offense. Shanahan frequently unleashed the scheme during preseason games.
Thankfully, its knack for producing big plays seems undiminished. If pro defenses will inevitably catch up with the read-option, they clearly haven't yet.
The Redskins underlined their adherence to the read-option when they opted to keep four quarterbacks. One of that quartet is Pat White, a poor passer but a natural for the dual-threat nuances of the read-option.
The read-option and the pistol were the surprise elements of Washigton's offense in 2012. To his credit, the notoriously inflexible Shanahan made room in his scheme for those wrinkles.
He could expand the playbook further this season and the running game will benefit the most. Several times during preseason the Redskins showed unbalanced offensive looks.
They often had more blockers stacked on one side than the other. They usually ran behind the stack, capitalizing on the mismatch created by their numerical advantage.
This is a common tactic by teams who, like the Redskins, make their living running the ball. The San Francisco 49ers are the league's best at using unbalanced lines to overwhelm defenses.
Like the Shanahan system, the 49ers offense is West Coast in principle. Yet they have still incorporated enough power principles to allow a strong running game to dominate.
It was great to see the Redskins do the same during preseason, and hopefully unbalanced lines will become a feature of 2013's offense.
Kai Forbath has become a trusted kicker.
Mike Jones of The Washington Post got it spot on when he identified Kai Forbath as a preseason star. The Redskins really found a gem when they plucked the reliable kicker off the league's scrapheap last season.
As Jones notes, that reliability is something Washington's kicking game has been missing for a while:
The Redskins have long sought a reliable kicker, and Kai Forbath is just that. With a 3-for-3 performance against Tampa Bay, Forbath closed out the preseason with a 7-for-7 mark. He nailed a 53-yarder last week against Buffalo, and that was after the Bills called a timeout just before his first attempt, trying to ice him. Forbath just came right back out and drilled the kick again.
The Redskins now finally have a kicker they can trust. As long as Forbath continues to do his best Chip Lohmiller impression, he can be a key figure this season.
One of the most pleasing aspects of this preseason was the performances of some talented youngsters who need to take the next step.
They include players like wide receiver Leonard Hankerson. A third-round pick in 2011, Hankerson's talent has never been questioned, but his durability and concentration have.
However, he took his chances this preseason to remind coaches that when he's on form, he is a dangerous playmaker. He scored in the first two games and made some nice catches against tight coverage.
But Hankerson was not the only young wideout who looked impressive in preseason. Aldrick Robinson continued to show his big-play skills, as well as some refined route running.
He averaged 16 yards a catch off seven receptions and already looks like he will be a bigger part of the offense this term.
Kirk Cousins is part of a strong depth chart at quarterback.
Preseason proved that the Redskins have very strong depth at almost every position. Aside from the secondary and the O-line, the team is blessed with quality options in every other area.
If Robert Griffin III struggles to stay healthy at quarterback, Kirk Cousins is a more than able deputy. Even if Rex Grossman has to come in, at least the veteran has an excellent understanding of the offense.
White offers similar athleticism to Griffin and at least protects the continuity of the read-option schemes. Not many teams are as well-stocked at football's critical position.
If Hankerson and Robinson progress, the Redskins have five capable receivers. They also have a quartet of tight ends all able to make plays.
Morris, Royster, Helu and Thompson form a group of skilled and versatile zone runners. This could be the best backfield in the NFL.
On defense, the line and linebacker rotations can match any in the game. Overall, the Redskins head into the season with a very deep roster, packed with players primed to contribute.