Washington Redskins: What You Need to Know Heading into Week 9

James Dudko@@JamesDudkoFeatured ColumnistOctober 29, 2013

Ordinarily, a 2-5 record would be enough to have a team already thinking about next season. But the Washington Redskins know that they are somehow still relevant in the NFC East.

The two leaders of football's worst division were beaten in Week 8. That presents an opportunity for the Redskins, provided they can stay ahead of a New York Giants team suddenly riding a two-game winning streak.

NFC East Standings after Week 8
Dallas Cowboys4-4
Philadelphia Eagles3-5
Washington Redskins2-5
New York Giants2-6
via NFL.com

Taking advantage of the poor state of their division requires the Redskins to start a winning run now. Week 9 provides a decent opportunity.

NFC East Fixtures for Week 9
Dallas Cowboysvs. Minnesota Vikings
Philadelphia Eaglesat Oakland Raiders
Washington Redskinsvs. San Diego Chargers
New York GiantsBye Week
via NFL.com

The Dallas Cowboys will be fancied to beat the hapless Minnesota Vikings at home. But the Eagles find themselves in free-fall with major issues at quarterback.

If nothing else, the Redskins must take advantage of Big Blue's week off. That means beating the 4-3 San Diego Chargers at home.

The early injury news is positive, especially for the quarterback who needs to rebound from his nightmare showing in Week 8.


Injury and other Team News

When Robert Griffin III went off against the Denver Broncos, many would have rightly feared the worse, given his history of major knee injuries.

But The Washington Post's Mike Jones has quickly allayed those fears. He reports that Griffin's knee is okay and that head coach Mike Shanahan expects a full week of practice from his young quarterback.

The other team news involves the return from suspension of controversial safety Brandon Meriweather. Considering the state of the secondary, Meriweather's return is welcome, even if the player's latest comments about hitting the knees of the opposition are not.

On offense, the Redskins are continuing their efforts to trade talented but temperamental tight end Fred Davis. Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio reports the team is "aggressively" shopping Davis and may even cut him if it can't generate interest.

Despite the emergence of rookie Jordan Reed, it feels like a strange time to part ways with Davis—especially since the passing game needs so much help to improve.


What Must Improve

That passing game put up just 132 yards in Denver against the NFL's worst pass defense.

The problems are deep. Griffin is having a hard time working through his reads, and the wide receivers aren't always doing enough to get open.

Numbers are down across the board, as ESPN's John Keim notes:

The numbers suggest the passing game is much different than a year ago. Griffin averages 7.0 yards per pass attempt compared to 8.1 as a rookie, perhaps a function of less play action (and therefore less ability to get the coverage out of position) as well as some bad throws. The receivers average just 11.8 per catch after securing 12.6 in 2012.

As much as the rapport between Griffin and his receivers needs work, the pass attack is also not being helped by missed assignments up front. Keim highlights two examples against the Broncos:

There was pressure on Griffin when linemen missed their men; Griffin was drilled by Terrance Knighton after guard Kory Lichtensteiger missed his block. Another time left tackle Trent Williams slipped and linebacker Von Miller beat him for a sack/fumble. Add it up and there are too many things going wrong in the passing game. They were all on display Sunday as Griffin completed 15-of-30 passes for 132 yards and was sacked three times. 

It is not necessarily the sacks that are most troubling. It is the consistent hits. Griffin is constantly being forced to slow things down.

He cannot attack his initial read because he is frequently having to flee the pocket to escape pressure. Ironically, for such a mobile quarterback, it is actually suiting defenses to make Griffin throw on the run.

The Redskins have to fix their issues in protection. In many ways, the Chargers look like they represent the ideal opposition.

After all, this is a team that lost its top two edge-rushers, Melvin Ingram and Dwight Freeney, to season-ending injuries. But that should not give Washington confidence—in fact, quite the opposite.

Dealing with edge pressure has not been a problem for the Redskins. Protecting the middle has been the biggest issue, and that's just where San Diego's defense is strongest.

Young linemen Corey Liuget and Kendall Reyes could cause havoc inside against Washington's interior O-line.

Of course, the best way to slow down a rush is a heavy dose of the running game. That is something the Redskins senselessly went away from in Denver.

That decision has put the spotlight firmly on the play-calling of head coach Mike Shanahan and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan this week.

They are currently under-utilizing lead back Alfred Morris, as CSNWashington's Tarik EL-Bashir points out:

Morris, a self-described workhorse back, is on pace for 247 carries this season. As a rookie last season, he had 335 carries en route to 1,613 yards.

Through seven games, Morris has yet to get 20 carries in a game.

Those numbers show a staggering difference in his workload. Morris is not unhappy about it, according to Bashir, but he should be.

Yet CSN Washington's Rich Tandler has defended the choices made by the Shanahans in Denver:

Was the play calling an issue? From the time the Redskins took a 21-7 lead in the third quarter to the time that the Broncos took a 10-point lead early in the fourth, the Redskins ran just 10 plays; seven of them were pass plays, just three of them were runs. Considering the fact that the Redskins had 103 yards rushing when they had that 21-7 lead, it seems to be a no-brainer that they should have run the ball more. But I have to say that I don’t have a huge problem with the sequence that is drawing the most fire, the three straight passes with the score tied at 21. The series before that they had run the ball without getting much from it. In a series that lasted five plays Alfred Morris carried three times for six yards. Certainly the Broncos were keying on the run. The next series was three straight passes and two of them were dropped. I didn’t see Kyle Shanahan drop a single one of them.

Despite Tandler's points, this offense is more efficient when it is in a run-first mode. Griffin becomes a more confident quarterback.

He is able to use play action to create open, primary reads. That helps him make quicker decisions, something that is vital for the way he plays the game.

The Redskins are actually fortunate that their talent in the backfield, along with their zone-blocking scheme, can create positive gains against any defense.

For instance, the Chargers currently rank ninth against the run. But that shouldn't matter to an offense boasting three starting-calibre backs in Morris, Roy Helu Jr. and Evan Royster.

Favoring the run is not an issue of philosophical preference for the Redskins. It is simply what they do best and their quickest route to total offensive improvement and helping their defense.

The Shanahans didn't do enough to keep Peyton Manning off the field in the second half against the Broncos. They had certainly better commit to keeping Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers on the sideline for most of Week 9.

If Washington favors the run-heavy offensive formula that served the offense so well in 2012, it will beat the Chargers.


All statistics via NFL.com


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