Washington Redskins 2014 Virtual Program: Depth-Chart Analysis and More
Mike Shanahan is gone, but will it mean a better season for Robert Griffin III and the Washington Redskins? That question, specifically Griffin's part of it, is key to the 2014 campaign for Washington.
Ensuring Griffin delivers is the main task facing new head coach Jay Gruden. The former Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator and noted quarterbacks coach was hired largely based on his perceived ability to improve Griffin.
The young passer is facing a dangerous crossroads in his career. But the implications of a wrong turn are not just his alone to bear.
Griffin's fortunes are so inextricably linked to the prospects of the whole franchise that if he falters, so will the Redskins. Gruden will hope a simplified offensive scheme and a host of dynamic new weapons will enable Griffin to produce.
The first-year head coach will also be banking on considerable defensive improvement from a unit that apparently has more freedom to attack offenses this season.
That freedom means defensive coordinator Jim Haslett has to produce his first genuinely fearsome defense since taking over in 2010. It won't happen if Haslett's best intentions are undermined by a wafer-thin secondary, lacking legitimate difference makers at safety.
With Shanahan out of the way, general manager Bruce Allen has taken on a bigger role. His efforts to fill out and rebuild the roster have also extended to the special teams.
A unit that was a weekly catastrophe in 2013 has been totally revamped by free-agent acquisitions and potentially invaluable draft picks. Gruden and Allen must hope their efforts translate to the kind of big plays in football's third phase all losing programs need to help turn things around.
With the new season just days away, here's a full preview of how things are shaping up in Washington. This includes examining the strengths of the depth charts, identifying the coaches who must deliver, which opponents will be the toughest and, finally, a prediction.
Depth Chart: Robert Griffin III, Kirk Cousins, Colt McCoy
It really is a case of Washington going only as far as Robert Griffin III is able to take them. Which is why it's easy to be worried about the player's miserable first preseason under Gruden's tutelage.
Despite an introduction to a more simplified offense, Griffin has still exhibited many of the foibles that plagued him last season. They have included struggles making quick reads and decisive throws. Griffin is also still having his issues sliding to avoid hits when he becomes a runner.
His reckless decision to take on multiple would-be tacklers in the first quarter along the Browns’ sideline — instead of utilizing a protective slide — should be especially troubling to team decision-makers. Griffin was knocked around like a piñata by three Browns players on his way out of bounds. ...
Last fall, some on Washington’s coaching staff privately complained about Griffin’s lack of awareness in the pocket. On the play before the interception, Griffin targeted Jackson, who was covered on the left side of the field, and the pass was incomplete. In the middle of the field, tight end Logan Paulsen was open.
Griffin's struggles were obvious even before exhibition games. The New England Patriots left organized scrimmages with the perception Griffin had been outplayed by his backup, Kirk Cousins, per ESPNBoston.com reporter Mike Reiss.
That began a slew of calls for Cousins to be chosen ahead of the player Washington gave up a pair of first-round draft picks to select in 2012. Former Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann was particularly candid about Griffin's woes, per Dan Steinberg of The Washington Post:
Now, if there was a quarterback competition, it wouldn’t be a competition. Kirk Cousins would be the man I believe he would have to go to, because of the efficiency with which he has run [the offense]. Now Kirk, like I said, is basically a drop-back quarterback. I see Andy Dalton in Cincinnati, I see Kirk Cousins that way.
Whatever the reports say, Gruden wan't hired to prove Cousins was a steal as a fourth-rounder in 2012. He was given the job to do for Griffin what he did for Dalton in Cincinnati.
If there's one encouraging thing to emerge from all of the Griffin-centered chatter, it's how Gruden has identified Griffin's chief problem. The new coach has been stressing that Griffin doesn't need to force a touchdown on every play, per Todd Dybas of The Washington Times.
Believing he has to go for glory with every throw is a major issue with Griffin. Problems usually come as soon as the vertical pass is taken away.
That's when he doesn't show the patience to progress through his reads or simply throw the ball away. Instead, he runs, or tries to, and turnovers usually follow.
Slowing the game down for a naturally instinctive big-play specialist is going to take a lot of subtlety from Gruden. If he can't do it, this team will be in serious trouble.
Fortunately, that trouble could be mitigated by the presence of both Cousins and Colt McCoy. Few NFL teams boast depth as strong at football's key position.
However, the fact that level of cover is needed reflects the worrying uncertainty underpinning the hype that typically surrounds Griffin. It's that nagging feeling, no longer unspoken, that the player a franchise trusted with its long-term future may not even make the grade.
Divisional games are always significant for any quarterback. However, NFC East foes the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants could help fans and pundits learn a lot about Griffin's progress.
Both teams were every proficient at stifling Griffin last season. The Eagles knew how to take away his favorite reads as well as knowing when and where to blitz him.
That was obvious following a Week 11 loss. After the game, Griffin and others claimed the Eagles knew what was coming, per Mike Jones of The Washington Post:
DeMeco Ryans is a good linebacker and they do good things with him and the other guy – Najee Goode. They allowed DeMeco to play the pass first. A lot of times, we were trying to hit those [play-action] holes behind him and he can run to those holes. I think on the back, they did a good job of running to those holes as well – kind of scheming stuff and knowing what type of hole we’re trying to hit on those three level holes, or whatever you might want to call it.
Meanwhile, the Giants were very adept at trapping Griffin in the pocket with front-line pressure. Justin Tuck ran riot with four sacks in Week 13, as Griffin, running on his surgically repaired knees, couldn't escape the New York pass rush.
Washington faces its old enemies in consecutive weeks early in the season. If Griffin repeats the mistakes both the Eagles and Giants feasted on during four wins over Washington in 2013, it will be time to get very worried about the state of the franchise.
Depth Chart: Alfred Morris, Roy Helu Jr., Silas Redd, Darrel Young (FB)
Take a step behind the man under center and things look a lot more settled for the Washington offense. The running back position is in safe hands as long as Alfred Morris remains the team's primary ball-carrier.
There's every indication he will. Back in July, Griffin identified Morris as the most important skill-position player on the team, per Stephen Czarda of Redskins.com:
I think everyone would lean towards DeSean or Pierre or Jordan Reed. I think it’s Alfred. With him, defenses have to make a decision whether to puts guys in the box to stop him or leave the box light and allow Alfred to go between the tackles and lure in the safeties. I think it will be interesting to see what defenses do against him.
Griffin correctly highlighted the value of a workhorse, particularly one positioned alongside so many potential weapons in the passing game. However, it will be interesting to see how much Morris helps the offense reach true balance, or if he continues to be its focal point.
Gruden hinted at the latter dynamic, per CSNWashington.com writer Rich Tandler:
Our identity needs to be found. What are we going to be? We’re going to be a running team, I guess. ...
We need to be pretty good at everything but obviously the strength of our football team would be, I would say, our running game. We have to continue working on that, work on handing the ball off and being good at something, really good at something and I think we are pretty good in the running game.
Given the trickier-than-expected learning curve Griffin is facing, it makes sense for Gruden to tie his initial fate to a two-time 1,000-yard rusher. That's obvious, but the more intriguing implication is exactly how Morris and Gruden will mesh.
As coordinator for the Bengals, Gruden often relied on a power-based running game, usually one that attacked between the tackles. It's not certain how much this was the preference of Cincy head coach Marvin Lewis or Gruden's own schematic riff on the traditional West Coast offense.
What is clear is that Morris has become an instant NFL star in the outside-zone-running scheme. He has been running behind a light and mobile O-line, not one featuring the beefy trench warriors Gruden has often deployed.
Watching the merging of the highly successful Shanahan system with principles Gruden favors should be fascinating viewing. Unless, of course, any changes limit Morris' effectiveness.
One change that would help the ground attack, and the offense as a whole, would be a bigger role for a genuine change-of-pace option. If that option had some pass-catching skills, all the better.
Roy Helu Jr. seems the logical choice. He's got some terrific acceleration, but often runs too upright and isn't particularly shifty. However, Helu can be a credible receiver out of the backfield.
It was surprising Gruden opted to cut loose sixth-round pick Lache Seastrunk and Chris Thompson. The pint-sized pace merchants seemed to offer big-play capability from the backfield, particularly from spread sets.
Yet neither possessed the blocking and pass-catching skills needed to add the elements Morris doesn't. Parting ways with Seastrunk and Thompson shows the faith Gruden has in undrafted rookie Silas Redd.
Like Helu, Redd is a slashing-style runner. But the ex-USC ace does also have the one-cut skill every zone runner needs.
Thankfully, Gruden can also count on a criminally underrated fullback in Darrel Young. He can run, block and catch—all at a high level.
This remains one of the strongest position groups on the team. How Gruden uses it, which should include a bigger role for Young and some inside zone plays for Morris, will determine the success of the offense.
If this running game is going to continue to be among the league's best, it will have to prove its worth against stout NFC West opposition. The Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals both boast stingy run defenses.
The Seahawks rely on a five-man hybrid front that helped the team rank seventh against the run last season. The Cardinals were even tougher on running backs in 2013, topping the league charts in this category.
Size up front and solid gap control in a 3-4 scheme were the keys to their success. But those principles may have been wrecked by offseason losses.
Inside linebacker Karlos Dansby joined the Cleveland Browns in free agenc, while fellow middle linebacker Daryl Washington is suspended for the season. Their losses are compounded by D-tackle Darnell Dockett being sidelined for the campaign with a torn ACL.
However, even with their ranks thinned, the Cards will field an imposing defense. Intelligent coordinator Todd Bowles will ensure that.
If Washington has a chance in this intimidating doubleheader, Morris and the running game must be productive.
Washington's wide receivers are potentially the envy of most of the league. But making that a reality will depend on exactly how they are used. Specifically, who gets the most passes thrown his way.
Getting the distribution of wealth right will be a tough needle to thread for Gruden and offensive coordinator Sean McVay. So will making the best use of six talented wideouts.
New arrivals DeSean Jackson and Andre Roberts can both stretch the field as outside receivers. In fact, stretching the field should be the defining feature of the Washington passing game in 2014.
Jackson is a figure who often attracts controversy, but few, if any, receivers in the NFL pose such a potent deep threat. He's the burner every defense will have to account for.
That means leaving at least one safety deep, something that might not be possible when considering how Morris can dominate against undermanned fronts.
But Jackson isn't the only speedster who will get behind coverage. Pierre Garcon is just as capable of going long, as well as posing a myriad of matchup nightmares underneath.
Speaking of underneath, that's where Santana Moss and the very impressive rookie Ryan Grant will make defenses pay for committing too many cover men to deep-zone shells.
All of this is great in theory, but dividing the catches between these receivers is an issue. The solution won't be easily found.
For one thing, Jackson is a player who wants the ball on every play. His history with the Eagles offered plenty of evidence of how quickly he's irked when passes don't come his way.
Jackson certainly won't be content simply running post patterns, some of which might be decoys. But he'll be lining up on the other side from a receiver who set a franchise record with 113 catches last season.
Even though the passing game can't be as reliant on Garcon again, he'll still want the ball. Then there's Roberts, who believed he was signed to be a No. 2 receiver and now has to deal with being the third option.
On the surface, Gruden has assembled all the weapons Griffin should ever need at this position. But success will rely on keeping some giant egos happy as well as the young quarterback's ability to actually get them the ball.
Biggest Games: Home vs. Seattle Seahawks, Week 5; Away vs. New York Giants, Week 15
An early meeting with Seattle's famed "Legion of Boom" secondary will be a good barometer for just how effective this group of receivers can be. If Jackson and Garcon aren't fighting to get open against press-based coverage, this position will merely look good, without ever delivering on its immense talent.
Speaking of a physical defensive backfield, that's just what the Giants gave themselves when they signed corners Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and ex-Seahawks player Walter Thurmond III.
They'll certainly be part of a Big Blue plan to rough up Washington receivers, especially Jackson, who has given New York fits for years. If the Redskins are going to score a crucial late-season road win, Jackson, Garcon and Roberts have to deliver.
Depth Chart: Jordan Reed, Logan Paulsen, Niles Paul
In Jordan Reed, Washington possesses perhaps the most exciting young player at his position in the league. But 2013's third-round pick realizing that potential will depend largely upon how often Gruden gets him the ball.
Reed is a true "joker" tight end with the move skills to attack from anywhere on the field on both intermediate and vertical routes. That type of tight end needs to see a lot of passes come his way.
Fortunately, that may not be a problem for Gruden, as Real Redskins blogger Rich Tandler has noted:
Last year Gruden was the offensive coordinator in Cincinnati and he had a talented rookie tight end of his own in first-round draft pick Tyler Eifert (who was targeted 57 times). He also had Jermaine Gresham (70 targets), who was coming off of a Pro Bowl appearance in 2012.
Eifert and Gresham were targeted on passes of 20 yards or more a combined 13 times (Eifert 7, Gresham 6). Five of them were complete for 174 yards and a touchdown. Clearly, that’s some pretty good production out of 13 pass attempts. It would be surprising if Gruden did not utilize Reed on more deep patterns in 2014.
The idea of using Reed's big body and wide receiver-like speed to stretch the inside zones is a positive one. It fits a passing scheme that must emphasize vertical routes this season.
With Jackson and Garcon running coverage deep on the outside, Reed could be a terror in the seams on hook and curl routes. However, maximizing his skills means ensuring he has enough catches to make them count.
That won't be easy after Jackson, Garcon, Roberts and Grant have had theirs. Of course, that's a problem any good play-caller should relish tackling.
It will be just as important that Reed stays healthy. He couldn't do that as a rookie. Reed missed seven games in 2013, losing most of his time to lingering concussion-related issues.
But this offense needs him on the field this season. Depth is frankly uninspiring. Try-hard blocker Logan Paulsen is still around while Niles Paul presumably survived final cuts for what he does on special teams. Neither player is going to scare a defense, though.
Biggest Games: Home vs. New York Giants, Week 4; Away vs. Dallas Cowboys, Week 8
Reed is a mismatch against Giants linebackers. He has the quick breaks and subtle moves to embarrass New York's plodding second-level defenders.
With the strength of the Big Blue coverage on the outside at the corners, Reed's ability to make plays over the middle will be crucial.
He should be just as dangerous against the Dallas Cowboys. Washington's nemesis is plagued by a lack of talent at both the linebacker and safety levels, two areas where Reed can inflict serious damage.
In particular, he could wreck the Cowboys' Tampa 2 schemes by attacking the seam vertically against the deep-dropping middle linebacker. If the Redskins are going to upset their hated rival this season, Reed will be the key.
Depth Chart: Trent Williams, Shawn Lauvao, Kory Lichtensteiger, Chris Chester, Tyler Polumbus, Morgan Moses, Spencer Long, Tom Compton, Josh LeRibeus
Few positions on the roster will be under as much scrutiny as the offensive line and rightfully so. Usually when a team returns four out of five starters in the trenches, it's a good sign. However, that's hardly the case in D.C.
The O-line surrendered 43 sacks in 2013 and allowed almost ceaseless pressure in the pass pocket. Moves were made to upgrade things this offseason, but none of those moves really set the pulses racing.
Shawn Lauvao is a solid interior scrapper Gruden knows well from his days in the AFC North. His insertion at left guard has allowed Kory Lichtensteiger to move to center.
In theory at least, this is a positive move. Provided he can stay healthy, Lichtensteiger represents an improvement on Will Montgomery, who couldn't adjust the line to blitz pressures last season.
To Lichtensteiger's right, fans will still see Chris Chester at guard and Tyler Polumbus at tackle. That's not the most encouraging sight.
Both players were pushed around a lot last season in both phases of the game. It's hugely disappointing that neither one of third-round picks Morgan Moses and Spencer Long managed to win a starting job this offseason.
The lone standout player in this group is left tackle Trent Williams. The burly and nimble-footed blocker has finally added real consistency to his game. He'll need all of that as he will be counted on more than ever this season.
One of the big questions about this group is how patient Gruden will be if things falter early. This is a line short on size and imposing physicality.
That's how Shanahan wanted things to fit his zone system. Despite a preference for bigger players to anchor the front five, Gruden has left himself with the same cast of players who lack might when the pads come on.
However, technique can still win the day if Gruden manages to coax a quicker release from Griffin. That would be a massive boost to the pass protection while blocking for the run is still a major strength.
It won't take long to find out if this unit has solved its woes protecting Griffin. Gruden's first regular-season game in charge will pit the O-line against the Houston Texans and the destructive double act of J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney.
The duo proved how quickly it can collapse one side of the pocket during preseason. With Watt creating tremendous push inside and Clowney firing off the edge, maximum stress will be put on every area of the line.
It will also be a stern test of Lichtensteiger's ability to make the right line calls, in terms of sliding protection to deal with the strength of Houston's rush.
Another brutal examination will await the line when the team hosts the St. Louis Rams in Week 14. The Rams boast a dominant pair of rush ends in Chris Long and Robert Quinn, as well as a destructive quick-twitch tackle in Michael Brockers.
That's a trio difficult for any line to contain, particularly one with this group's recent struggles keeping a clean pocket.
Depth Chart: Jason Hatcher, Barry Cofield, Chris Baker, Jarvis Jenkins, Kedric Golston, Clifton Geathers, Frank Kearse
If the defense is going to be better and more aggressive this season, the improvement must start up front. Like many other positions on the roster, that will depend on how coaches use some intriguing new weapons.
The main new toy at D-coordinator Jim Haslett's disposal is ex-Dallas Cowboys Pro Bowler Jason Hatcher. An exceptional interior pass-rusher, Hatcher is a terror whenever he's allowed to attack a single gap.
He must be given that license even in Haslett's base 3-4 schemes. The brief glimpse of Hatcher during preseason offered some promise he will be.
Hatcher started the game at right end, where he lined up just to the left of outside linebacker Brian Orakpo. Immediately, Hatcher commanded a double team.
Hatcher later lined up at right end and generated pressure. Later still, Hatcher settled in at right defensive tackle in a 4-3 look before flipping to left defensive tackle, and then back to right end in the 3-4. Hatcher also had three snaps at nose guard.
Flexibility will determine how successfully Hatcher creates havoc this season. His athleticism and takeoff speed are qualities Haslett didn't have up front a year ago. He has to take advantage with more varied schemes.
However, Hatcher isn't the only D-lineman who coaches need to set free. Chris Baker is a potential breakout player because of his ability to split gaps, rather than simply controlling them.
That's a talent that demands more one-gap principles up front. Like Hatcher, Baker is also versatile enough to slide over the center, something that could help Haslett craft a few extra fronts to confuse blocking schemes.
Having players who can create genuine pressure either side of him should bring out the best in nose tackle Barry Cofield. He's more than capable of anchoring this defense but needs to receive less attention in the middle.
Depth is not altogether convincing, although Jarvis Jenkins looked good during preseason. It's high time 2011's second-round pick began delivering on his obvious natural ability.
Two away trips should provide a good indication if new personnel and fresh schemes are making an impact up front. When Washington visits Minnesota in Week 9, the defense will meet a highly skilled Vikings offensive line blocking for a dominant ground game led by Adrian Peterson.
Last season, the Redskins allowed opponents to clock up four yards per carry on the ground. The problem was due largely to linemen failing to absorb blockers to keep linebackers clean, as well as gaining little penetration. If Peterson runs riot, it will be a sign this group hasn't improved sufficiently.
A test of the Hatcher-led line's ability to generate a stronger pass rush will come courtesy of the Indianapolis Colts in Week 13. The Colts may want to pound things out on the ground with Trent Richardson, but they will usually win on the strength of quarterback Andrew Luck's play.
Hatcher, Baker, Cofield and Jenkins ought to be able to overwhelm a lackluster Indianapolis O-line and make Luck's day a nightmare. If he has time in the pocket, this line won't be doing its job.
Depth Chart: Brian Orakpo, Ryan Kerrigan, Trent Murphy, Gabe Miller
If the line makes more big plays, the Washington front seven could be a dominant one. That's thanks to a highly capable group of outside linebackers.
Just like in the trenches, new schemes and personnel are being counted on to produce greater impact. A key part of the plan is top draft pick Trent Murphy.
The former Stanford rush end will provide stronger depth behind bookend pass-rushers Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan. But more than just cover, Murphy will be an important member of the sub-package defenses.
He lined up at several positions during the offseason, showing flexibility that impressed Gruden, per CSNWashington.com writer Rich Tandler:
Trent's done a great job. He's played both sides, he's played in nickel situations, he's played with the three technique, he's stood up and moved around. So Trent's done an outstanding job and I see him all the time in the film room watching practice. He's very aware of what his role is and what it's going to be and he wants to study it and be the best at it.
The willingness to move Murphy around shows a commitment to getting him on the field at the same time as Orakpo and Kerrigan, something that could be very effective in nickel situations.
It was quite common to see Murphy lining up inside, either in a standing stance or with his hand down, during preseason. That's a trend that has to be just as evident when the games count.
Getting Murphy on the field can be a key part of an overall philosophical shift in how this defense will let its primary pass-rushers play. Basically, Haslett is wisely preparing to send his outside linebackers after quarterbacks more often.
That's been an ongoing theme behind many of the team's moves this offseason, according to Jason Reid of The Washington Post:
With the arrival of Hatcher, who had 11 sacks for the Cowboys last fall, Haslett plans to be highly aggressive in rushing the passer. Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan, Washington’s starting outside linebackers, are expected to have more freedom to attack than they had under Shanahan.
A key to putting the theory into practice with new the pieces is a new face on the coaching staff. Brian Baker was hired specifically to coach the team's outside linebackers and improve a pass rush that registered a meager 36 sacks in 2013.
He has been working on some of the technical aspects of Murphy, Orakpo and Kerrigan's respective games. Baker has also been helping the players adjust to some of Haslett's new ideas, per Mike Jones of The Washington Post:
In the past three seasons, Kerrigan has lined up almost exclusively on the left edge, where he faces opposing right tackles. Orakpo, meanwhile, rushes from the right edge, facing the left tackles. But throughout the offseason, Baker and Haslett have had the two line up at multiple positions. Orakpo on the right one week, and Kerrigan on the left. And then, Orakpo on the left, and Kerrigan on the right, with Murphy bouncing around from the right or left edges, or to the interior of the line.
Anything Haslett and Baker can do to free a terrific trio of pass-rushers is great news for the defense and bad news for opposing quarterbacks. The success of this group will determine the overall effectiveness of the defense.
But talent alone is not enough. It's going to be more about how that talent is used.
Biggest Games: Away vs. San Francisco 49ers, Week 12; Home vs. Philadelphia Eagles, Week 16
Two quality offensive lines blocking for a pair of stylistically opposite quarterbacks will pose a diverse set of challenges for Washington's top pass-rushers.
When Haslett's defense faces Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers in Week 12, the challenge will be pressuring Kaepernick while keeping him in the pocket to prevent the long gains he can make as a runner.
It will be the polar opposite when the team hosts the Eagles in the season's penultimate week. Then it will be about attacking classic, pocket-style passer Nick Foles.
The outside linebackers ought to be able to take a few inside moves to shift the static Foles off his spot and prevent big plays through the air.
Depth Chart: Perry Riley Jr., Keenan Robinson, Akeem Jordan, Adam Hayward, Will Compton
There are plenty of new faces at inside linebacker for the start of the post-London Fletcher era. Most of the attention will focus on Keenan Robinson, who was chosen ahead of free agents Akeem Jordan and Adam Hayward to replace Fletcher.
That's a tall order for a third-year pro who has had issues staying on the field. CSNWashington.com reporter Tarik El-Bashir recently outlined Robinson's already lengthy injury history:
By now you know his hard luck story: the 2012 fourth round selection finished his rookie season on injured reserve after tearing a pectoral muscle in a game, then he tore the opposite pectoral muscle on the first day of training camp the following season. As defensive coordinator Jim Haslett said matter-of-factly last week, the last two times Robinson had tackled anyone he suffered a season-ending injury.
That level of fragility makes Robinson a considerable risk as the de facto signal-caller for this season's defense. It's clear Haslett is gambling that Robinson will stay healthy and reward more expansive schemes with his tremendous athleticism and ample versatility.
Robinson has the speed to track receivers in coverage at any area of the field, as well as the range to pursue sideline to sideline, or blitz from both outside and inside alignments.
If used right, Robinson could emerge as this front seven's X factor. He can be the player Haslett trusts to take away "move" tight ends and troublesome slot receivers. He could even be used to spy some of the dual-threat quarterbacks on the schedule, such as Colin Kaepernick and Seattle's Russell Wilson.
Obviously, it's all dependent on him staying healthy, but Robinson can form an excellent tandem with Perry Riley Jr. He's another linebacker who make plays everywhere for this defense, having really come into his own during the last two seasons.
Biggest Games: Home vs. Philadelphia Eagles, Week 3; Home vs. Dallas Cowboys, Week 17
Beating the Eagles, defending division champions, is going to be a necessity for any team looking to escape the NFC East. The key to thwarting Chip Kelly's high-scoring offense is nullifying the many weapons at his disposal.
Robinson and Riley will be Haslett's best counters against players such as backfield pass-catcher Darren Sproles, rookie wide receiver Jordan Matthews and roving tight end Zach Ertz.
Speaking of tight ends, the Washington defense has to find a way to contain veteran Jason Witten when facing the Cowboys. The 32-year-old is still quarterback Tony Romo's favorite outlet while running back DeMarco Murray has also became a key factor in the Dallas passing game, evidenced by 53 catches in 2013.
Tracking underneath receivers has, ironically, been a problem for the Redskins since Shanahan switched the team to a linebacker-led defense in 2010. Robinson and Riley must lead an improvement in this area.
Depth Chart: David Amerson, DeAngelo Hall, E.J. Biggers, Tracy Porter, Bashaud Breeland
As much as Haslett might want to get more aggressive up front, he must also give his cornerbacks more license to attack. This can be a strong position if the corners are allowed to get physical with receivers.
That's something that would suit second-year starter David Amerson. At 6'1" and 205 pounds, he has the frame to play press.
He has been displaying more willingness to take the fight to his receiver more often during this preseason, per Mike Jones of The Washington Post.
"Cornerback David Amerson made two nice tackles," Jones said. "He’s playing with great aggression. He also did a good job of using his length to break up a well-thrown ball in the end zone."
But Amerson isn't the only ample-framed cornerback who must be allowed to use his size to make an impression. Fourth-round pick Bashaud Breeland also belongs in that category.
In the same report, Jones noted how the 5'11", 197-pounder certainly plays with an edge, even though he's still raw:
Rookie cornerback Bashaud Breeland had a nice pass breakup, but he did get turned around in coverage a couple of times. He got some action with the starters in the nickelback capacity for the first time. He also showed versatility, recording a 26-yard kick return.
The point is this is an aggressive group that must be let off the leash this season. Rotational veterans like E.J. Biggers and Tracy Porter can both be beaten deep, but they still play their best football when they're allowed to take a few risks.
As the standout veteran of the group, DeAngelo Hall is no different. He excelled last season when hitting and harassing premier receivers such as Dez Bryant and Calvin Johnson.
It's time for Haslett to let his corners do what comes naturally.
Biggest Games: Away vs. Arizona Cardinals, Week 6; Away vs. Philadelphia Eagles, Week 16
Passive coverage will kill the defense against the towering pass-catchers deployed by both the Eagles and Cardinals. Riley Cooper is a 6'4", 230-pound menace while 6'3", 212-pound rookie Jordan Matthews has been hugely impressive during the offseason, per Philly.com writer Jimmy Kempski.
Speaking of rookies who will be a threat, Arizona appears to have found a gem in third-rounder John Brown. The team's general manager Steve Keim has already felt compelled to compare him to former franchise great Anquan Boldin, according to Grantland.com writer Robert Mays.
That's hardly good news for teams already having to deal with big-bodied targets Michael Floyd and Larry Fitzgerald.
Depth Chart: Ryan Clark, Brandon Meriweather, Duke Ihenacho, Bacarri Rambo
Things were a mess at safety entering the offseason and remain that way on the eve of the new season. It's shocking that so little has been done to fix the obvious lack of talent at the position.
Ryan Clark was added during free agency, after he developed into a fine free safety with the Pittsburgh Steelers. However, the 34-year-old has certainly seen his best days despite his wealth of experience and savvy.
Unfortunately, head-hunting Brandon Meriweather was kept in place to play strong safety. To the surprise of nobody who's ever seen him play, Meriweather has already earned a two-game suspension to start the season.
It doesn't answer the need for marquee reinforcements, especially since depth remains weak. Bacarri Rambo may be asked to do more, but based on how he struggled to take good angles and read throws as a rookie, that's hardly a good thing.
Biggest Games: All of Them
That's not an attempt to be flippant; rather, it's just a reflection of how this position could undermine the defense every week. The focus on the safeties is sure to be intense.
Haslett will hope a heavy pass rush and Clark's know-how will mask a lot of the deficiencies. It already sounds like wishful thinking.
Depth Chart: Kai Forbath (K), Tress Way (P), Nick Sundberg LS
So much work has gone into repairing last season's abominable special teams. However, the concern has to be that Gruden and Allen may hav fixed only half of the problem.
The coverage units look better thanks to the arrival of players such as Jordan and Hayward. Both are standouts in football's third phase.
Rookie Bashaud Breeland had already shown he can help in the return game. Also, don't rule out DeSean Jackson and Andre Roberts having an impact here. Both players certainly have this skill in their lockers.
However, things are nowhere near as clear in the kicking game. CSNWashington.com reporter Rich Tandler detailed the current state of play:
There was turmoil among the specialists as well. Robert Malone appeared to have the inside track on the punting job all through the offseason but Way arrive a couple of weeks ago and knocked him out. However, Way shouldn’t sign a long-term lease just yet; nobody would be surprised if they brought in some veteran punters for tryouts at some point, perhaps very soon.
Forbath had to fend off a strong challenge from rookie Zach Hocker to be able to start his third year as the Redskins’ kicker. He should not get too comfortable either as the organization apparently saw enough issues with him, especially his kickoffs, to spend a draft pick on Hocker.
So things barely look better than when Forbath and Sav Rocca handled the kicking chores a year ago. That's bad news when considering how much this team needs improvement from this unit.
No rebuilding program can enjoy a quick turnaround without positive production from its special teams.
Biggest Game: Home vs. Jacksonville Jaguars, Week 2; Away vs. Minnesota Vikings, Week 9
Jacksonville's special teams is not spectacular, but the unit does boast a pair of solid kickers in Josh Scobee and Bryan Anger. They will certainly test the new-look return game.
As for Washington's own kicker, Fortbath must be aware of former Seahawks starter Red Bryant. The mammoth defensive tackle has made a speciality of blocking kicks, specifically extra points.
In a game the Redskins will be expected to win, Gruden won't want victory slipping away because of gaffes in the kicking game.
The coverage units will face no tougher test than when they attempt to corral Cordarrelle Patterson and Marcus Sherels in Week 9. Both are terrific returners blessed with awesome, game-breaking speed.
Coaches Under Pressure
Jim Haslett, Defensive Coordinator
One of the key narratives of this offseason has been how Jim Haslett's play-calling was apparently restrained by the overbearing Shanahan. That's according to Jason Reid of The Washington Post:
For four seasons — three of which ended with 10 or more losses — defensive coordinator Jim Haslett followed orders while former head coach Mike Shanahan made his job more difficult by tinkering with the defense, people within the organization say. And although Haslett often was frustrated that Shanahan, who had roster control, invested more heavily on offense during free agency, he kept his concerns in house.
Haslett has made promises about running a more aggressive and multiple scheme now that he's free from the Shanahan-induced oppression. However, he has to do more than just pay lip service to it.
For instance, a lot of the schemes seen this preseason, such as moving outside linebackers inside, were evident during last year's exhibition games. Yet they soon disappeared once the real stuff began.
Presumably, that was the Shanahan factor at work. If Haslett finally has the freedom to call the system he wants, he'll be out of excuses if his defense continues to leak points.
Ben Kotwica, Special Teams
No new coach is under more pressure than Ben Kotwica. He's been tasked with reviving a unit that was a complete disaster last season. Kotwica has been given new personnel, but his schemes will be just as important in fixing the special teams.
Kotwica must find answers in the return game and encourage more dependability from his kickers. Preventing big plays in coverage would also help. That's a pretty big to-do list.
It would be fair to say this unit cost the team games and points last season. If it's as much of a liability this year, a winning record will be out of the question.
Season Outlook and Prediction
Gruden has taken a lot on as a first-year head coach. However, many of his early moves have been encouraging.
Retaining the 3-4 defense and the successful zone-based ground schemes were particularly encouraging signs. They offered evidence of a coach willing to adapt to what he has, rather than simply forcing his ideas onto ill-equipped players.
That would make for a very refreshing change following four seasons of Shanahan's intractable rule.
Yet that's not to say Gruden's first team isn't facing its fair share of challenges. There are issues that could derail the season and have troubling long-term implications.
Primarily, Griffin's development under Gruden will bear close watching. If Gruden can't get the young quarterback going, the franchise hierarchy should get very concerned about the player it has invested so much in.
A more immediate concern lies in the secondary. The safety rotation already looks like a prime target for every quarterback on the schedule. Haslett's new ideas for the pass rush had better work.
Speaking of the schedule, it's a lot tougher than it might appear at first glance. Facing the NFC West puts Griffin and his offense up against some of the NFL's toughest defenses.
The 49ers, Seahawks, Cardinals and Rams are sure to expose any major weaknesses still evident in Griffin's game. A road trip to battle the Colts looks a little daunting while closer to home, both the Eagles and Giants have strengthened. They will be major players in the NFC East race.
Predicted Record: 8-8
Opting for parity here is not intended as a cop-out. Instead, it's simply a reflection of a team with plenty of talent but also still with enough question marks to undermine it.
If Gruden can't involve all of his receivers, or worst still, Griffin can't find them, the offense will stall. Meanwhile, all the scheming in the world might not save the patchwork secondary. It would also be helpful if things were a little more settled in the special teams.
Ultimately, this season rests on Griffin. He has some of the best weapons in the league in Jackson, Garcon, Reed and Roberts.
But if he can't make quicker reads and spread the ball around, those weapons will be wasted. Then Washington will be as easy to play against as they were last season.
However, if Griffin gets it right, few teams in the NFL will be able to stop an offense capable of scoring in so many ways. If that happens, this prediction will look very conservative.