Where Can the Washington Redskins Improve Most in 2013?

Scott Kacsmar@CaptainComebackContributor IJuly 11, 2013

ST. LOUIS, MO - SEPTEMBER 16: Robert Griffin III #10 of the Washington Redskins jokes with head coach Mike Shanahan also of the Washington Redskins during pre-game warm ups prior to playing against the St. Louis Rams at the Edward Jones Dome on September 16, 2012 in St. Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

After not knowing what to expect from the Washington Redskins last season, expectations are just as puzzling in 2013 following a 10-6 season that saw the team win the NFC East for the first time since 1999.

Mike Shanahan and his son, Kyle, experimented with the pistol and read-option offense. Robert Griffin III was the perfect quarterback for the experiment, winning Offensive Rookie of the Year after breaking the rookie record for passer rating (102.4) and rushing for 815 yards.

Running back Alfred Morris was just a sixth-round pick but became the latest to shine in Shanahan’s system, rushing for 1,613 yards and 13 touchdowns. He had the third-most rushing yards by a rookie in NFL history.

The Redskins averaged 7.20 yards per pass and 5.22 yards per rush, which makes them one of the most efficient, balanced offenses since the merger.

Yet even with that offensive freedom, the Redskins started just 3-6 prior to the bye week. The defense managed to turn things around as Washington won its final seven games.

The 2012 Redskins are just the fifth team to ever start 3-6 and make the playoffs. Like most of those teams, the Redskins lost their first playoff game, 24-14 to Seattle. It was an especially crushing defeat given Griffin tore his ACL and LCL in the fourth quarter, putting the start of his 2013 season in doubt.

With a team looking to stay innovative and have better health this year, the Redskins remain a contender in the NFC, but they must correct some flaws to establish themselves as an elite team.

How Durable Is Robert Griffin III?

Rookie successthe real kind, not that Rick Mirer or Sam Bradford hogwashis a great predictor of career success for an NFL quarterback. While Robert Griffin III would appear to be in good shape, his health and durability are major concerns for his long-term prospects.

He’s not as big as Cam Newton, who has remained in good health through 32 games of his career, but Griffin plays a physical game with 69 designed runs and 116 total runs (kneel downs excluded) in 2012.

When looking at how the quarterback protects himself when running, Griffin was tackled on 55.2 percent of his runs last season. Compare that to Colin Kaepernick, who was only tackled on 35.4 percent of his runs.

Griffin was hit out of bounds 10 times compared to zero for Kaepernick. Remember, that’s only for rushing plays. Griffin was hit more after throwing the ball. Russell Wilson was hit out of bounds only four times as he prefers to slide. Griffin makes himself more of a target than the other rushing quarterbacks.

We know Griffin tore his ACL at Baylor, but last season Griffin did not finish (DNF) three games due to injury.

Peyton Manning (zero), Tom Brady (one) and Aaron Rodgers (one or two if you want to count the 2008 Tampa Bay game) have no more than three DNF games due to injury in their careers combined. That’s 539 games. Griffin played 16 games in 2012.

Those quarterbacks play the game differently than Griffin, but their success cannot be ignored. Being there each week for your team is very important.

Here are Griffin’s three injuries in 2012:

  • Week 5 vs. Atlanta: On a 3rd-and-3 pass play, Griffin scrambles to the right, tries to slide, but takes a huge shot, causing a concussion.
  • Week 14 vs. Baltimore: On another pass play, Griffin scrambles and injures his knee upon contact in the open field. He sits out a play before returning but is unable to finish the game.
  • Wild Card vs. Seattle: Already playing on a bad knee, a bad snap in the fourth quarter leads to Griffin tearing his ACL in an attempt to pick up the ball.

So while it is not the designed runs causing his injuries, it was running in general for the first two incidents. The knee injury in Week 14 certainly lingered late in the season when the Redskins probably did rush him back too soon.

Who can forget Griffin visibly limping to the sideline on a zone-read run in the fourth quarter against Seattle? At some point the team has to be smart enough to not risk the future, which they have paid dearly for already to acquire Griffin, for one game in his rookie season.

As we saw last year, an injured Griffin is not very helpful to the team. In the final two games of the year, Griffin only completed 19-of-37 passes for 184 yards.

That’s also why every precaution must be taken this season not to rush Griffin back. Kirk Cousins is capable of handling this offense. Griffin doesn’t need to play a snap in the preseason if he’s not ready.

Washington cannot afford to blow the career of the best quarterback prospect it has had in decades. Griffin must play smarter, and the team must respect his long-term health when it comes to medical issues.

Offense Must Get Better in Obvious Passing Situations

We know the Redskins took the play-action passing game to a new level last year with Griffin’s advanced play-fakes freezing defenses to create wide-open receivers downfield. There was a fear he could keep the ball and run out of the option.

According to Football Outsiders, the Redskins used play action 42 percent of the time, which is the highest for any team since they started charting it in 2005. They were extremely successful on it, producing a 66.7 percent DVOA.

However, the alarming stat is just a 5.0 percent DVOA on regular passes without play action. Pro Football Focus’ (subscription required) play-action data also supports these findings. No quarterback saw a bigger decline in yards per attempt than Robert Griffin III when using play action (11.8 YPA) versus not using it (5.8 YPA).

This gets down to the core of the problem with this offense.

If you can control the game so that the Redskins cannot use so much play action, you have a very good chance of shutting down the offense, which was putrid on third down. In fact, the Redskins were dead last at converting on third down early in the season when their record was so poor.

By season’s end, the Redskins converted 35.8 percent of their third-down plays, which ranked 24th in the league.

Griffin in particular was not impressive, especially compared to the standards of past rookie quarterbacks and his 2012 peers. These stats include everything for the regular season except for spikes and kneel downs:

Griffin only had 47 conversions on third down (35 passing, 12 rushing). His 32.64 conversion rate is not up to par at all. Andrew Luck was great on third down last year while Wilson came on strong in the second half.

The “%Cmp1D” is the percentage of completions on third down that resulted in a first down. Griffin’s 56.5 percent is the worst I have seen in over 100 different seasons from some of today’s best quarterbacks.

Griffin had 27 completions on third down that did not pick up a first down. That’s considered a failed completion, and it’s a high total for someone with just 62 completions on third down.

This is why Griffin’s 93.9 passer rating on third down is irrelevant. He padded his numbers with insignificant gains and did not move the chains enough. The conversion rate is what matters.

What Griffin’s passing stats on each down do show is something rather remarkable. On first, second and fourth down, Griffin averaged an incredible 8.98 yards per attempt on passes. Though, on third down, that number shriveled up to just 5.84. That’s the statistical proof of Washington’s reliance on play action.

I looked at the passing stats by down for 23 rookie quarterbacks since 2004 with at least 224 pass attempts. You would expect yards per attempt to decline on third down since it’s an obvious passing situation.

Griffin’s decline of 3.14 yards per attempt is easily the worst of them all.

Each of the three groups is filled with good and bad players. Of the 23 quarterbacks, seven actually had a higher passing average on third down compared to the rest of downs, including Luck. Eight declined by more than half a yard with the sample’s average quarterback declining 0.33 yards on third down.

Part of Griffin’s big drop is because he was so good on the other downs. Only Ben Roethlisberger (2004) was better. But we see that Roethlisberger and Wilson still did very well on third down as well, both at converting and with yards per attempt.

It’s a problem for Griffin, so I looked at all 105 of his third-down passes from the regular season. I wanted to make note of when he used play action, since that’s rarely done on anything that’s not a third-and-short play. All runs and even sacks were excluded, as I just wanted to see what he did in what is often an obvious passing situation. Here are the findings (not all categories are additive):

Shanahan may want to dump the shovel pass and some of the screens as well. The screens are easy to complete but usually don’t pick up the first down. Santana Moss did however score a 26-yard touchdown against Philadelphia on one.

Without play action, Griffin is converting just 28.42 percent of his third-down passes. We can see they only used 10 play-action passes here, and it was very successful. It should often work on 3rd-and-short, though rarely does it work as well as this 29-yard touchdown to Niles Paul on 3rd-and-1 in Dallas on Thanksgiving:

The closest Cowboy was 12 yards away.

On the 10 play-action passes, the average distance to go was 3.3 yards. It was never used on anything longer than a 3rd-and-7 play against Philadelphia. It worked for a nine-yard completion.

For this offense to take the next step, it must grow out of relying on the play-action fake. For as dynamic as Griffin may be, he was just 9-of-69 (13.0 percent) at converting on third-and-long. Only five of those conversions were passes.

You have to be able to convert on third down when the fear of a run is just not there for the defense.

No one ever said the “3” in “RG3” stood for “third down,” but we need to see more in that situation from him and this offense in 2013.

Defense: Which Half Do We Trust?

Jim Haslett enters his fourth year as defensive coordinator. He’s going to need better results to keep his job because, so far, his unit has not been getting the job done. Here is where the Redskins have ranked in drive stats under Haslett, according to Football Outsiders:

Last season the defense lost Brian Orakpo and Adam Carriker early in the season. Still, Haslett had those players in 2011, and the defense still ranked 25th in points per drive.

Washington’s defense began 2012 in historically bad fashion. Drew Brees, Sam Bradford and Andy Dalton all threw for at least 300 yards and three touchdowns. Only Tony Romo (on Thanksgiving) was able to hit those numbers the rest of the season against this defense, but four times is still pretty bad.

The 2012 Redskins allowed 4,720 gross passing yards. That is the sixth-highest total in NFL history, though they have plenty of company from the last two years on that list.

It’s not just the yards and points, but it’s when they are given up that has hurt Washington for a long time now.

Believe it or not, the Redskins have allowed the most game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime since 2007. It’s happened 26 times, including five times last year. Four of those game-winning drives allowed in 2012 came when the team was 3-4.

There was no lead to blow against the Steelers and Panthers as the Redskins’ season looked to be slipping apart at 3-6. Though after the bye, the defense did play a bit better. Playing the Eagles (twice) and Browns certainly helps.

The defense forced multiple turnovers in six of the last seven games, which were all wins. The offense stepped up in Dallas and against the Ravens to get those wins. With the NFC East on the line and Griffin struggling, the defense did play one of its finest games against Dallas, forcing that critical Tony Romo interception late in the fourth quarter.

In the playoffs against Seattle, the defense did a respectable job without getting any help from the offense in the final three quarters. There was a goal-line fumble by Marshawn Lynch in the third quarter that was a huge red-zone stop. Wilson was sacked five times.

Though clinging to a 14-13 lead, the Washington defense was never going to keep the Seattle offense scoreless in the fourth quarter. Wilson led the 79-yard go-ahead touchdown drive that also tacked on a two-point conversion for a 21-14 lead.

That’s when disaster struck with the bad snap and Griffin’s knee buckling. Seattle actually did Washington a huge favor by throwing two incomplete passes and kicking a field goal. Still, it was 24-14 and game over. Season over.

It goes down as another blown fourth-quarter lead and game-winning drive allowed by the defense, but this one felt different from the games earlier in the season when the defense was clearly struggling.

If the Redskins can get more defensive performances like this with takeaways and sacks against quality opponents, things might be fine in 2013. You still have to close people out in crunch time, though.

You can go back to the 2000 season, and the Redskins have led the league with 49 game-winning drives surrendered.

It is often a two-way street. A big reason Washington loses so many close games is because it has not had a franchise quarterback capable of closing games with his own drives in the four-minute offense and/or two-minute drill.

If Griffin is good as advertised, he will balance out that ratio of close wins. It didn’t happen last year, but Washington should have better talent on the field defensively this season.

Departures and Arrivals: The 2013 Starters

Credit to Ourlads in helping with the creation of this chart of Washington’s potential 2013 starters.

It’s always interesting when a team returns every single starter. However, some of these positions are likely to be filled by different players come Week 1.

On offense, all eyes will be on Griffin, but do not be surprised if we see backup Kirk Cousins get some more chances to shine this year. He will continue using Morris in the backfield with Roy Helu and Evan Royster as backups.

At wide receiver, there’s a lot of talent, some in specialized roles, but not a lot of career production or distinction. Pierre Garcon remains the No. 1 receiver, which means he will move all around the field and make various types of catches from screens to go routes. He is recovering from his own injury-riddled season.

Santana Moss is the trusted veteran, but he’s already 34 years old and has a diminished salary to go along with a smaller role. Josh Morgan has never been very impressive in his career. The team has brought in veterans Donte Stallworth and Devery Henderson. Both are known for getting deep, but that’s also what Leonard Hankerson and Aldrick Robinson can do. Washington has options.

Even tight end Fred Davis missed nine games last year after tearing his Achilles tendon. He has not impressed much in five years, but there were high hopes after his career year in 2011. He’s back on a one-year deal. You can expect Logan Paulsen to play a lot, too, and the Redskins drafted Jordan Reed (Florida) in the third round.

The offensive line was not perfect last year, but continuity remains strong with everyone returning. Trent Williams made his first Pro Bowl in 2012.

For the 3-4 defense, the front seven will gladly welcome the return of pass-rusher Brian Orkapo at outside linebacker. He had 28.5 sacks in his first three seasons but missed 14 games last year due to a torn left pectoral. He forms a pretty good pass-rushing duo with Ryan Kerrigan.

London Fletcher returns at age 38 with his active streak of 240 consecutive games played intact. While Fletcher remains a fan favorite, Orakpo is the key to the front seven’s success.

Along the three-man line, the team hopes to see more out of defensive end Jarvis Jenkins as he enters his third season. While Adam Carriker may see the field at some point this year, it likely will not be in Week 1 as he continues to rehab from a ruptured right quadriceps tendon.

NC State cornerback David Amerson was the team’s first draft pick this year, taken 51st overall in the second round. He should see some snaps this year.

The safety position is very much a battle right now. The Redskins have veterans Brandon Meriweather and Reed Doughty, but they also drafted a pair of rookies: Fresno State’s Philip Thomas (fourth round) and Georgia’s Bacarri Rambo (sixth round).

I would comment on how awesome that sixth-rounder’s name is, but we don’t want to offend anyone when it comes to a name in Washington.

Conclusion: Chance for Greatness in 2013

It’s hard not to like Seattle, San Francisco and Atlanta ahead of Washington in the NFC, but the Redskins are as likely as anyone to win the NFC East. That means another home playoff game, and just getting into the playoffs means you have a chance.

The last two Super Bowl winners were No. 4 seeds (2011 Giants and 2012 Ravens), so it’s not like finishing high matters for playoff success.

The bye week comes early in Week 5. This team has a real shot, even without Griffin early on, to start 3-1. There’s a big game in prime time in Dallas right out of the bye. The Giants do not show up until December, including a Week 17 finale in New Jersey that could be for the NFC East.

It’s not hard to see 10-12 wins on the schedule, but it’s still going to come back to situational offense sustaining drives and this defense making plays.

NFC teams may have studied Washington’s offense more than any other team this offseason. The Shanahans must continue to add some wrinkles along with making sure Griffin is progressing naturally as a passer. He cannot rely on his legs as often and expect to handle the pounding.

If Washington can get healthy, full seasons out of players like Griffin, Garcon and Orakpo, then there’s no reason this team should not surpass last year’s performance.

Scott Kacsmar writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, NBC Sports, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive, and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.