Washington Redskins vs. Atlanta Falcons: Full Roster Grades for Washington
In what is a rare occurrence, given recent performances, most of the grades for the Washington Redskins are positive, despite another defeat.
In truth, only turnovers and bad coaching stopped the Redskins from piling up the points and notching an emphatic win.
Stepping in for Robert Griffin III was no easy task for Kirk Cousins, given the intense media focus leading up to only his second career start.
But 2012's fourth-round pick mostly handled pressure well and was highly impressive in patches. Cousins flashed the ability to work through reads and make quick decisions from the pocket.
He helped the offense regain its big-play swagger via two completions of over 50 yards. Cousins also adapted well to Atlanta's plan to blitz him early and often.
He eventually stayed calm under pressure to deliver some clutch throws, particularly on third down.
But despite his share of exceptional moments, it is still too early to appoint Cousins a franchise saviour and forget the player whose name ends in a number.
The positive aspects of Cousins' performance have to be balanced against his role in three of the team's seven turnovers.
He threw two interceptions, both on errant passes to the inside. He also lost a fumble, although he was hardly helped by an offensive line that plays as if it has a personal vendetta against Redskins quarterbacks.
Yet despite the odd calamity, Cousins still merits a high grade for how he handled some of the core aspects of playing pro quarterback. In particular was the way he spread the ball around to multiple receivers.
The offense has missed this and many other staple qualities while Griffin has struggled.
Alfred Morris was back to being his dominant self in Week 15. He decisively attacked cutback lanes on the zone stretch run and seemed to have an extra spring in his step.
For the first time since Week 11, Morris was able to produce yards in big chunks, including a 37-yard scamper. His production slowed down the Falcons pass rush and gave Cousins the chance to throw against undermanned coverage.
But just like Cousins, Morris' performance was punctuated with costly errors. He lost a pair of fumbles, something of a rarity for a player who usually treats the ball like an extension of himself.
It may have helped if some carries were shared around for a refreshing change of pace. But as usual, Roy Helu Jr. wasn't given enough touches to ease the burden on Morris.
He had only three carries for just five yards, as well as one reception tallying four yards. To his credit, though, Helu did some fine work in blitz protection. He delivered some strong and vital blocks to thwart late rushers.
The wide receivers certainly played their part in helping Cousins pass for 381 yards. In all, five different wideouts made receptions.
The most prolific among them—in terms of yards—was Pierre Garcon. He continued his fine individual season by grabbing seven passes for 129 yards and a score.
Only Santana Moss made more catches, notching eight for 64 yards and a touchdown of his own. While Moss toiled underneath, Aldrick Robinson reminded everyone how he can stretch the field.
He hauled in a 62-yard catch and accumulated 37 more yards on three additional grabs. Robinson was particularly effective on third downs late in the final quarter.
Joshua Morgan and Nick Williams chipped in with four more catches between them. Their efforts rounded out a strong showing from a talented bunch, many of whom have been underused this season.
The performance should be enough for an "A" grade, but wide receivers were involved in a pair of turnovers. Garcon let an accurate slant pass bounce off his hands to be intercepted, while Moss fumbled scrapping for extra yards.
Double check if you remain skeptical, but forgotten man Fred Davis actually got his name on the scoreboard in Week 15. A Davis touchdown is an event so rare, it might merit a national holiday.
Sadly, the first-quarter, 23-yard scoring catch was the only contribution Davis made. Despite his obvious skills in moving and ability to stretch the seams, little effort was made to move him around to create mismatches.
Davis was also guilty of failing to hold on to to a couple of throws he ought to have made his own.
Logan Paulsen contributed three catches for decent gains but spent most of his time as an auxiliary fullback, following a recurrence of Darrel Young's hamstring injury.
Cousins and his skill players amassed 484 yards in spite of the offensive line, rather than because of it. The Washington front five again allowed too much pressure, especially along the interior.
Falcons defensive tackles Jonathan Babineaux and Corey Peters toyed with guards Kory Lichtensteiger and Chris Chester. Things were barely any better on the edges, where rush ends Osi Umenyiora and Jonathan Massaquoi caused their share of problems.
This group needs more physical dominance, particularly inside. That is a tough balance for a team running a zone scheme led by mobile, nimble blockers.
But this line has been pushed around too easily this season.
The defensive line was solid for most of the day in Atlanta. Nose tackle Barry Cofield was the group's top performer, batting down a Matt Ryan pass and making a tackle for a loss.
The likes of Chris Baker and Kedric Golston put decent pressure on the pocket, both registering hits on Ryan. They also did their bit to keep linebackers like Perry Riley Jr. free to make plays.
The line would merit a higher grade had it not taken them a while to awake from a collective slumber. The group generated no push on Atlanta's first two drives, both of which resulted in touchdowns.
The linebackers produced a performance full of splash plays. They included Ryan Kerrigan's strip-sack on Ryan and Riley's 4th-and-goal stop against Steven Jackson.
They were personal highlights for an active group that was in stellar form at times. Nobody was better than Brian Orakpo, who continues to flourish.
He was in on 1.5 sacks, giving him 10 for the season. Orakpo also contributed eight combined tackles and seemed to be everywhere.
The only drawback for this bunch was some struggles in coverage. In particular, nobody was able to stay with aging, but still effective, tight end Tony Gonzalez.
The grand master of his position caught six passes for 62 yards and a score. But his strong showing was the only mark against an excellent performance from the playmakers of this defense.
The deservedly much-maligned secondary actually produced one of its better performances of the season. The unit was never overwhelmed by a pass offense boasting not only Gonzalez but also wideouts Roddy White and Harry Douglas.
While the Washington defensive backs stayed solid in coverage, it was how they tackled that was most impressive. Sure tackling from this secondary is usually about as likely as Donovan McNabb and Mike Shanahan having something positive to say about one another.
But cornerbacks DeAngelo Hall and David Amerson led the way with emphatic stops. They received credible support from safeties Brandon Meriweather and Jose Gumbs.
Their sound tackling meant the Atlanta receivers were limited to next to no yards after the catch.
The special teams came close to actually receiving a positive grade and thus causing this author to faint in shock. However, a key turnover in the return game and some shaky coverage condemn the unit to a "D."
The Falcons gained 103 yards on seven returns. Jacquizz Rodgers, in particular, was given too much room whenever he received a kick.
The Redskins' return efforts were weak. Moss became the latest player to try his hand in this area.
He probably should have double-checked that hand after he put the ball on the floor on a messy early return. That gaffe led to a Falcons touchdown.
There were mild, very mild signs of improvement from this unit but still nowhere near enough.
Mike Shanahan just seemingly couldn't help himself in Atlanta. As they often do, he and his staff had to over-complicate matters when playing simple football was working.
It started in the third quarter when they inexplicably took the ball out of Morris' hands. That was followed by a borderline-insane decision to go for two instead of tying the game at 27.
Players may have applauded the decision as The Washington Post's Mike Jones has reported. But the greater show of faith would have been to trust the defense to see out the remaining few seconds.
Then Shanahan should have trusted an offense that had marched for a score in a high-pressure situation to deliver again in overtime.
But even putting the isolated incident of that decision aside, Week 15 was still an indictment of Shanahan. Especially of how undisciplined his turnover-happy team is, as The Post's Sally Jenkins explains:
How do you lose, 27-26, to an Atlanta Falcons team that turned the ball over twice and has one of the worst defenses in the league? By surrendering seven turnovers of your own, that’s how, a damningly careless and self-sabotaging performance that nullified every good and promising thing they did. If Mike Shanahan proved a small point in starting Cousins over Robert Griffin III, if he earned an I-told-you-so, all it did was further underline that he has lost the larger point, which is the fractured, conceding nature of this team.
Well said and just another reminder that the Redskins should be focusing on life after Shanahan.