Washington Redskins Find Formula for Success Despite Week 1 Loss

James Dudko@@JamesDudkoFeatured ColumnistSeptember 13, 2015

Washington Redskins running back Alfred Morris (46) tries to run away from Miami Dolphins outside linebacker Koa Misi (55)  and defensive end Cameron Wake (91) during the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Sept. 13, 2015, in Landover, Md. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Evan Vucci/Associated Press

OK, so a new quarterback didn't quite mean a bright new day for the Washington Redskins. Even with Kirk Cousins throwing passes instead of Robert Griffin III, Washington has opened another NFL season 0-1.

But within their 17-10 home loss to the Miami Dolphins, the Redskins have still found a formula for success this season. It's a formula based on running the ball, making safe and smart play calls and playing smothering defense.

Sure, it didn't help Washington beat Miami. But with a little bit of tweaking, this formula will work for the Burgundy and Gold in 2015.

In fact, as he studies the tape of the Dolphins game, head coach Jay Gruden will see exactly what works, as well as precisely what he needs to fix before Week 2.

For a rare time under Gruden, Washington didn't waste its ground game.
For a rare time under Gruden, Washington didn't waste its ground game.Evan Vucci/Associated Press/Associated Press

Beginning with what worked well, the most obvious place to start is the running game. Against a generally very tough Miami defense, Washington still amassed 161 yards on the ground.

The number was achieved thanks to one crucial difference between this season and the last. Gruden and his staff simply committed to the ground game.

That commitment was summed up perfectly by the halftime numbers relayed by 106.7 The Fan's Grant Paulsen:

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Grant Paulsen @granthpaulsen

The #Redskins want to be a running team this season. 24 rushes (14 passes) in 1st half. 16 from Alfred Morris. They stayed committed to it.

To emphasize the difference between this run-heavy attack and the one that made the run an afterthought for much of 2014, ESPN.com's John Keim provided this telling statistic about Alfred Morris' workload:

John Keim @john_keim

Alfred Morris has 16 carries thus far -- that's more carries than he had in seven games last season.

By the end of the game, Morris had lugged the rock 25 times for 121 yards. He'd also received solid support from rookie Matt Jones, to the tune of six carries for 28 yards.

If one drive vividly illustrated how Washington's run-first offense can work this season, it came on the team's final possession of the first half. Cousins returned to the field after seeing a telegraphed throw picked off by Dolphins cornerback Brent Grimes to end his previous drive.

Rather than risk another gaffe through the air, Gruden let the ground attack lead the way. Morris carried it, then Jones reeled off four straight carries. Even rookie wideout Jamison Crowder got in on the act.

Washington ran the ball 10 times on a 17-play march. Another Morris run had been wiped out by a holding penalty.

This was classic wear-down football, and Miami's star-studded defensive front, featuring Ndamukong Suh and Cameron Wake, couldn't live with it.

But it wasn't just the success of Jones and the other ball-carriers that stood out. What was equally impressive was how the run lifted the performances of other members of the offense.

The Redskins found great success on the ground with multiple ball-carriers.
The Redskins found great success on the ground with multiple ball-carriers.Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Cousins missed just one throw from six. He ended the drive with a delicately lofted fade to tight end Jordan Reed in the corner of the end zone.

Not only was No. 8 more accurate, but his offensive line came to life. Every pro front five loves to meet the challenge of run blocking. It's a macho thing.

New line coach Bill Callahan's group is no different. With Jones and Morris getting the calls, young linemen such as rookie Brandon Scherff and sophomore tackle Morgan Moses began driving people off the ball and obliterating defenders in space.

Not many people will push the Dolphins' D-line around so easily. This was exactly how the Redskins want their offense to look this season.

But this new-look offense won't just be about different calls. It will also be defined by a change in mindset. Frankly, it's not a mindset many are likely to warm to.

Gruden called a very safe game on opening day.
Gruden called a very safe game on opening day.Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

To be specific, Gruden and offensive coordinator Sean McVay were downright conservative at times in Week 1. If you're polite, you'll say they were cagey. But in reality it was a conservative approach overall.

The approach was most commonly depicted by this: a third-down situation leading to a run call.

It didn't really matter where Washington was on the field. If the down and distance didn't entirely favor his quarterback, Gruden usually had Cousins hand the ball off.

It may have been cautious stuff, but it also made sense, according to Mike Jones of the Washington Post

Mike Jones @ByMikeJones

Conservative, and smart, approach: handoff on third-and-looooong. Punt on 4th-and-19.

Of course, there were mitigating factors. Not the least of which was premier deep threat DeSean Jackson leaving the game with a hamstring injury in the first quarter, per Keim. Without Jackson to aim for, Cousins couldn't push the ball long. The Dolphins knew it and steadily condensed their coverage.

Gruden also knew his offense was facing a fearsome pass rush. Keeping things grounded in many obvious passing situations helped protect an O-line that still needs time to jell.

But there's a more simple reason for the close-to-the-vest play-calling. It just makes sense when your quarterback has made a mere nine starts before this season. A quarterback who has had trouble protecting the ball.

Washington played the percentages because that's what a rebuilding team that can't match the league's contenders for talent has to do. So, as DC Hot Read's Chris Russell noted, you'd be wise to get used to the Redskins' safety-first approach:

Chris Russell @Russellmania621

If I am the #Redskins - I am basically treating anything 3rd-and-12 plus for the rest of the season as a run only down. Not worth risk.

Staying risk free and controlling the clock is the best way for Washington's offense to move the ball this season. It's also the only approach to protect what's sure to be a high-energy defense.

While there were some issues, new coordinator Joe Barry's unit also showed some encouraging signs. In particular, the back seven swarmed to the ball. Linebackers and safeties routinely punished ball-carries, whether it meant decking receivers on underneath routes or stepping up early to meet a runner at the line.

To say it's been a rarity to see impressive tackling at the secondary level in Washington during recent seasons would be an understatement. Yet free safety Dashon Goldson made more than one solid stop. That's right, a Redskins safety who can tackle. No, really.

This defense won't be a league leader in stats. Instead, it's a classic bend-don't-break group that won't create big plays but will hustle to limit them. Two stops against Miami in the red zone, including turning away the Dolphins on 4th-and-short, made that clear.

Obviously, it's not all gravy for Gruden and his team. If it was, there would be a numero uno in the win column instead of a goose egg.

Hatcher and Washington's defense showed promise.
Hatcher and Washington's defense showed promise.Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

The old and rather tired adage "a game of two halves" perfectly applies to the Redskins after Week 1. For all the success on the ground, Gruden still saw his offense commit too many penalties. He also saw Cousins toss two interceptions.

Even though the defense can lay claim to three sacks, the overall pressure was maddeningly inconsistent. Veteran D-tackle Jason Hatcher was in the mood to dominate, but the 33-year-old received little help from offseason imports Terrance Knighton, Stephen Paea and Ricky Jean Francois.

In all honesty, the turnovers and iffy pass rush can be fixed. But Gruden should be concerned by more familiar woes.

In particular, these Redskins just can't stop self-destructing. Drawing flags from the officials was a major problem:

Grant Paulsen @granthpaulsen

The biggest reason why the #Redskins lost today: 11 penalties for 88 yds. That can't happen. Moved ball until penalties stalled them in 3rd.

Rebuilding teams won't ever turn things around as long as they give yards away. Washington simply doesn't possess the talent to beat itself and still win games.

One great equalizer for any talent-short team is excellent special teams play. Sadly, the only big plays in football's third phase involving Washington continue to come against the Redskins.

The latest debacle started with a Kai Forbath missed field goal, per Zac Boyer of the Washington Times:

Zac Boyer @ZacBoyer

Forbath's 44-yard field goal attempt is wide right. Sundberg got absolutely bowled over after the snap, too.

Yet the dagger blow was struck by Miami wideout Jarvis Landry returning a punt 69 yards for a score in the fourth quarter. The second-year receiver encountered no resistance from coordinator Ben Kotwica's hapless unit.

Clearly the preseason injuries to Adam Hayward and Niles Paul are going to prove very costly.

Just like with the penalties, a team built to keep games close can't give yards and points away due to special teams breakdowns:

Grant Paulsen @granthpaulsen

One possession games are often decided by special teams: Missed field goal, punt return touchdown allowed were both costly for #Redskins.

Ultimately, the Redskins are facing up to a familiar, losing feeling. Yet while it would be easy to say same old, same old, you should hold off on the doom and gloom for the moment.

Yes, Washington lost. But the team did enough things right against the Dolphins to indicate close losses will be turned into wins this season.

More important, the Redskins showed how they can win games in 2015. With a little more work to refine the formula, those Ws will arrive sooner rather than later.

All statistics and player information via NFL.com.

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