Walk Before You Can Run: Washington Redskins Improve (a Bit) in the Air
The bad news is that Washington's aerial attack wasn't good enough to win their first meaningful game of 2009. While the defense bottled up the Giants run game, Eli Manning did just enough through the air and the Redskins running backs underperformed just enough that New York could hang on to win 23-17.
The good news? While it was by no means a flawless performance—mistakes included a lazy interception, a missed third down, and the decisive strip-fumble-return-td from Osi Umeniyora—Washington's passing was a lot better than last year.
Unusually for the Redskins, most of their bright spots in the game in fact came through the air. QB Jason Campbell finished 19 of 26 (73 percent completion), looking poised and strong armed for much of the game. Just as crucially, he didn't spend the whole time on his back.
Standing up = better passing
The offensive line—bane of the 2008 season—played better in pass protection than many expected, given the unit's poor performance in recent years and the lack of serious upgrades in the offseason.
The Giants' league-best defensive line, which once hung 12 sacks on the Eagles' Donovan McNabb in one game and then won them a Superbowl, only reached Campbell three times, and the young QB could step into a decent pocket most of the time.
Campbell himself looked far more comfortable for the most part. Whether because this is his second year in the Jim Zorn system or because his vertebrae weren't being bent inwards by Justin Tuck every other play, he was able to keep his eyes downfield, go through his progression and use training ground mechanics.
His errors were few, but unfortunately they were significant, including lead feet on Umeniyora's game-deciding TD play, an underthrown slant to Santana Moss on third down and an unforgivable interception thrown from beyond the line of scrimmage.
Heading for the West Coast
Jason Campbell never really seemed a good fit with a West Coast offense—arm too strong, release too slow, waste of a good deep passer—but for perhaps the first time in Coach Zorn's tenure, there were many moments on Sunday where he seemed at home.
Time and again on Sunday Campbell dropped back five steps, pump faked, and fired a pass between the Giants' linebackers for first down. The result was a high completion percentage, including a significant number of second and third progression, medium yardage throws to TE Chris Cooley and slot receiver Antwaan Randle El.
After a year of running the "Midwest coast offense"—driven by the need to feed RB Clinton Portis 25 carries a game—Coach Zorn spent much of the game calling three- and four-receiver sets, with far more liberal use of the two tight end formations he's apparently been itching to unveil.
Campbell appears generally happier in shotgun formation, and demonstrated his ease by delivering the ball quicker on empty backfield plays, as multiple receivers stretched the defence.
The receiver group itself was solid but unsurprising, dominated by Randle El's 7 catches for 98 yards and Cooley's 7 for 68 and a score. The Giants gameplan revolved around preventing big plays to Moss on the outside and blitzing often, which left the middle of the field open for the interior receivers.
Santana Moss may not be too happy about his touches, but the Redskins have long needed an alternative to throwing it his way, and last year too often the lack of pass protection forced the passing game to be nothing more than a series of short dump-offs to a back.
Sunday's more measured approach meant more passes beyond the first down marker, fewer predictable halfback and bubble screens, and less contrived playaction.
Eventually the offense even found a bit of a swagger, as they passed their way down the field in the last two minutes to score a sharp consolation TD via Cooley.
About those draft picks...
For this game, Coach Zorn's focus on the two veterans on the inside was a canny and fairly successful move, giving Campbell comfort and providing most of the Redskins' first downs.
It could, however, be an unpopular one with a front office desperate to see more balls thrown to Malcolm Kelly and Devin Thomas, (high draft picks in 2007), both ineffective again on Sunday. Thomas in particular is in danger of being outshone—not only by unit leader Moss, wily veteran Randle El and lovable lump Cooley, but also by preseason sensation Marko Mitchell.
Mitchell, a late round afterthought in this year's draft, stunned onlookers in training camp and the preseason and forced his way onto the bottom of the depth chart. If Thomas continues to play with less drive than Homer Simpson (and the unfortunate Kelly continues to be injury-prone) Mitchell will get his shot at some point, and then all bets are off.
Owner Daniel Snyder is keen to win, but whether GM Vinny Cerrato's ego can cope with his first solo draft acquisitions continuing to underperform is yet to be seen. Coach Jim Zorn may yet end up between the rock of losing and the hard place of demoting the GM's blue eyed boys.
Next week—more scoring please
The Redskins in Week One are better at passing than they were, even if they're not yet lighting up the skies.
That would be a good step for most offenses coming off a season where they ranked 23rd in passing, and sensible Washington fans (i.e. not the impatient and gluttonous GM or owner) have reason to be encouraged—strong protection, sensible strategy and decent execution against one of the league's best defenses is nothing to sniff at.
There is, however, still a lot to work on. The Skins continue to eschew the deep pass, and whilst the Giants were nice enough to leave big holes at the intermediate level, at some point Washington will need the long ball to punish 3-4 blitzing teams like the Cowboys or Chargers.
In addition, a true No. 2 wideout is still yet to materialise, and whether it's the college star Kelly or oversized rookie Mitchell, the team will need an physically dominant receiver to beat press coverage and/or score in the red zone.
This week saw more of a true Jim Zorn passing attack than the Skins have been able to use before, and the team looked more comfortable—and certainly more successful—through the air than at any time in recent memory. Next week's matchup against the hapless Rams should provide the opportunity to take another step forward.
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