All the Washington Redskins need to know heading into Week 5 is that they are somehow still in the hunt in the NFC East. Their lone win of the season, over the Oakland Raiders in Week 4, has put them in a tie for second place in football's weakest division.
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The Redskins have a bye in Week 5, but a look at the schedules shows they can feel confident about not losing ground in their absence.
For one thing, the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants play each other, with Big Blue hosting their hated rivals. Then the division-leading Dallas Cowboys host Peyton Manning and the dominant Denver Broncos.
Whatever happens, the Redskins will know that they must beat the Cowboys on the road in Week 6. The team can use its week off to get healthy at key positions, particularly running back.
When Alfred Morris left the game against the Raiders with a rib contusion, he had just begun to produce yards on the ground. The offense was having great success running Morris behind two-tight end sets.
The initial news on Morris' injury is good. The player himself contends the injury is far from serious, according to ESPN's John Keim:
He said his 'ribs are fine, a little tender. I’m all good.' But the good news for Morris is that Washington has a bye this week before playing at Dallas on Oct. 13.
It helps me out. It gives me extra time to recover. Even though the bye week is early for me it’s perfect timing. ...It could be a fast recovery or a slow recovery. I really don't know.
The last part of that quote is a little ambiguous and offers no clue as to whether Morris will be ready for Week 6 or not. Of course, the Redskins are well-stocked at running back and should be able to cope with a brief absence of their star rusher.
Roy Helu Jr. filled in well against the Raiders, although he will want to improve on his 3.2 yards per carry average. Evan Royster is also waiting patiently in reserve.
Both are capable zone-runners who have produced 100-yard games in the past.
Other injuries of note concern tight end Logan Paulsen and reserve nose tackle Chris Neild. Paulsen, the Redskins' best blocker at the tight end position, is suffering from a knee injury.
The team is awaiting the results of an MRI, according to The Washington Post's Mark Maske. He also notes how the tight end rotation has been thinned, with Jordan Reed missing Week 4 and Fred Davis just back from his own injury.
Neild succumbed to a calf injury in Oakland and so far there has been no update, according to The Washington Post's Mike Jones:
Shanahan says no update yet on Logan Paulsen ( knee) and Chris Neild (calf)— Mike Jones (@MikeJonesWaPo) September 30, 2013
A seventh-round pick in 2011, Neild is an able deputy to starter Barry Cofield. But Washington also has man mountain Chris Baker who is capable of playing over the center.
What Must Improve
The third-down offense is where the Redskins have been lacking for most of this season. In all, the team has converted just 16 third-down attempts.
They went five out of 16 on third down against the Raiders. One of the main problems has been blitz pickup. The offensive line has consistently struggled to identify late blitzers or deal with overload pressure.
That weakness is making third-down calls too easy for defenses. The Raiders frequently enjoyed success challenging Washington's formation and protection schemes with overload blitzes.
One example came early in the third quarter, with Washington facing a 3rd-and-8 and their own 32-yard line. Oakland would send two blitzers, linebacker Kevin Burnett and a safety, at the right side of the Redskins O-line.
As tackle Tyler Polumbus became occupied inside, Washington's backfield blockers had to pick up the blitz.
You can see Paulsen (82) blocking the inside blitz from the safety. That left Helu to block Burnett, but a running back on a linebacker is often a mismatch.
So it proved, as Burnett beat Helu's block and forced Griffin to flee from the pocket. The Raiders had inside 'backer Nick Roach (53), spying Griffin all the way and he had the pursuit angle to chase down the dual-threat quarterback.
That is just what happened, and Roach's pressure forced Griffin to heave the ball away and the Redskins had to punt.
Every team Washington has faced so far has challenged the offense's ability to handle overload blitzes. The results have not been good and it is something that has to be worked on during the bye.
Defensively, the Redskins enjoyed a rare strong performance in Week 4. But even though the relationship between coverage and pressure was good, tackling remains an issue.
Washington defenders regularly missed tackles that sustained Oakland drives, particularly early in the game. A more effective offense, or even one not hit with as many injuries as the Raiders, would have taken better advantage.
In this example from the first quarter, the Raiders dumped the ball off to running back Rashad Jennings in front of Washington's deep zone coverage.
The Redskins closed quickly on the ball and had three would-be tacklers between Jennings and the first-down marker. But first Josh Wilson tried and failed with a feeble arm tackle.
Then DeAngelo Hall failed to drag Jennings down, who forced his way past Perry Riley Jr. (56), for a first down. This was a third-down play that should have easily been stopped.
The Raiders would score their lone offensive touchdown on this drive and put the Redskins behind 14-0.
Washington's defense had a lot of success playing a deep zone shell in coverage. But a team can't play zone for long if they can't make quick, decisive tackles in the open field.
The bye week is an ample opportunity for this defense to reacquaint itself with the fundamentals and techniques of solid tackling.
There was a lot of encouragement to be taken from Washington's performance in Week 4. The team established a template for victory that should serve them well the rest of this season.
However, for that to be the case, the Redskins need to work on their third-down efficiency and improve their tackling skills.
If they make strides in these areas and get Morris fully fit, the team will be looking strong for the trip to Dallas in Week 6.
All screen shots courtesy of Fox Sports and NFL.com Gamepass
All statistics via NFL.com