How Jamison Crowder Has Changed Washington Redskins Passing Game

James Dudko@@JamesDudkoFeatured ColumnistOctober 16, 2015

Oct 11, 2015; Atlanta, GA, USA; Washington Redskins wide receiver Jamison Crowder (80) runs wit the ball against the Atlanta Falcons during the second half at the  Georgia Dome. The Falcons defeated the Redskins 25-19 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

By themselves, the numbers don't seem to be enough to have inspired a wholesale change. Through five games: 23 catches for 204 yards and no touchdowns. But they're all Jamison Crowder has needed to revitalize the Washington Redskins passing game.

The fourth-round rookie out of Duke has added the coverage-beating skills and versatility from the slot Washington has lacked for far too long. In the process, the 5'8", 185-pound Crowder has given the Redskins the diminutive burner who defenses struggle to match up with that every top offense seems to possess.

Crowder's impact is more than just numbers deep, even though some of the figures are mighty impressive. Fox Sports reporter Ross Jones, who dubs Crowder the new "favorite target" for quarterback Kirk Cousins, notes how No. 8 has thrown the rookie's way "20 times in the past two weeks."

Cousins isn't the only one who is already fond of his new playmaker. Head coach Jay Gruden and offensive coordinator Sean McVay are designing plenty of plays to get Crowder more involved. Jones quotes an unnamed NFC Scout who put it best: "It's clear they want to get the ball in his hands. He's a good returner and does a really good job of navigating through traffic to pick up extra yards."

Crowder's after-the-catch skills have already made him a vital weapon in Washington.
Crowder's after-the-catch skills have already made him a vital weapon in Washington.Al Bello/Getty Images

Here's why Washington's passing game is better when Crowder is getting the ball.

Short Passes Become Big Gains

The short pass has become the signature of the offense since Gruden took over. In fact, to many, the heavy diet of high-percentage, can't-miss throws the Redskins execute each week are becoming a stick to beat the generally unpopular coach with.

But the short passing game can work, with one caveat. The ball has to get into the hands of players who can turn quick throws into big gains.

Thanks to his acceleration and moves upon moves, Crowder has the talent to do just that every time he gets the ball. He demonstrated the skill twice during Week 5's overtime loss against the Atlanta Falcons.

The first example occurred on 3rd-and-10 during the second quarter. Washington aligned in a now-familiar empty backfield set, spreading the field with five eligible receivers. Pre-snap, Crowder was motioned from one side of the formation to the other:

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Crowder had moved to the strength of the formation, the three-receiver trips set. He aligned behind wideout Pierre Garcon in the slot:

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Washington was preparing a bubble screen with three receivers ready to form a convoy in front of Crowder. They'd be joined by right guard Brandon Scherff, center Kory Lichtensteiger and, eventually, left guard Spencer Long.

What's great about Crowder's initial alignment here is how the Redskins have hidden him from the defense. Muhammad Ali famously quipped, "His hands can't hit what his eyes can't see." The Falcons must have known the feeling trying to keep track of mighty mite Crowder in this much traffic.

At the snap, Cousins turned and flipped the simplest and quickest of throws No. 80's way. This was the cue for the Redskins to set their blocks:

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Tight end Derek Carrier and wideouts Garcon, a terrific blocker, and Rashad Ross moved to secure defenders on the edge. Meanwhile, Scherff, Lichtensteiger and Long trod paths to the second level.

With blocking secured, all that remained was for Crowder to make the first defender miss. His innate juke and slide, quick-cutting speed made it pretty easy. Crowder now had a clear path to turn upfield and make a big play:

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After making one cut, Crowder soon added another. His moves were taking care of any defenders the blocking convoy missed:

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This is a significant point, and one of the main ways Crowder has changed things for Washington's passing game.

With Long securing a key block, the rookie flanker completed a 14-yard pickup to convert a tricky looking 3rd-and-long:

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Looking at this play, it's easy to see how Crowder is adding a vital extra dimension to the Redskins offense. It's something that was missing last season.

On the face of it, a bubble screen on 3rd-and-10 is a very conservative call. It's close to the vest, designed to mitigate any potential damage from having an inexperienced and streaky quarterback force the ball long.

But with Crowder taking the screen, the call goes from conservative to smart. It immediately becomes a play with a higher likelihood for success in a long-yardage situation. His after-the-catch dynamism ensures it.

With Crowder as the target, plays like this are ideal to take advantage of his talent in space, as ESPN.com's John Keim noted during the game in Atlanta:

John Keim @john_keim

that last play to Crowder gives him a chance to do what he does well: find lanes in tight creases. It's why he'll be a good punt returner 2

But similar plays also help Washington's passing game, specifically Cousins, in other important ways.

Beating the Blitz

An identical concept against the Falcons revealed just how effective Crowder can be when he's given room to work. It also highlighted how the first-year pass-catcher helps the Redskins beat the blitz:

On first down in the final quarter, Gruden dialed up another screen to quickly get the ball into the hands of his rookie burner. His design called for a quick throw to the slot, with the left side of Washington's O-line, guard Long and tackle Trent Williams, releasing to lead the way for Crowder:

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The beauty of this play was how it let Cousins unload the ball quickly to make the Falcons pay for blitzing a linebacker off the edge. With Brooks Reed in his face, Cousins simply dumped a pass off to Crowder as Williams secured a key block at the second level:

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With Williams and Garcon doing their parts and Long staying mobile, Crowder turned on the rocket fuel to exploit the inviting lane in front of him. The reward for a pass thrown behind the line of scrimmage was 26 yards:

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Being able to beat pressure will be vital in Week 6 when the Redskins battle the blitz-happy New York Jets. Concepts designed to quickly target Crowder can be Cousins' best friend against Jets head coach Todd Bowles' sophisticated mix of pressure packages.

Most of all, though, Gruden has found a formula to get the right playmaker the ball in space, where he can do some real damage. Keim has detailed how Crowder's flair for making them miss is turning the bubble screen into a feared weapon for the Burgundy and Gold:

The Redskins like Crowder on the bubble screens because they turn into punt return situations. His ability to set up defenders or veer through narrow openings helps in these situations. On a 14-yard bubble screen, Crowder made the first defender miss, then swerved back inside and made another whiff and sharply cut upfield to make one more miss. On his 26-yard gain, Crowder ran with urgency and a little patience, hoping to con another defender -- he got the safety turned around with a cut. Crowder had his best day for yards after the catch, averaging 6.88.

The last number should be music to Gruden's ears. Yards after the catch are essential for any West Coast-style scheme. It's one area where the points-shy Redskins actually thrived in 2014, according to B/R's Mike Tanier.

Using numbers from Football Outsiders, Tanier revealed how Washington managed to pace the rest of the NFL after the catch last season: "The Redskins averaged 7.0 YAC per completion last year, the highest rate since Football Outsiders began tracking YAC in 2005."

Tanier did chide Gruden for the amount of passes thrown way behind the line: "Yes, those dozens of short passes were bound to inflate YAC totals a bit (think of Morris catching a screen six yards behind the line of scrimmage, then using those 7.0 YAC to gain one yard)."

This is where Crowder is already making a difference. He's producing more from so-called negative throws. More importantly, as Tanier called for, Crowder's presence is encouraging the Redskins to ask a little less from their after-the-catch specialists.

Shaking Coverage at Close Quarters

One of the best ways Crowder is helping this passing game is via his knack for shaking covering defenders at close quarters. He is thriving in the underneath passing zones, particularly on football's money down.

A 3rd-and-3 play from Week 3's 32-21 defeat to the New York Giants reveals how he's doing it.

Crowder began aligned in the slot on the right side of the line. Big Blue was showing pressure with a pair of linebackers stacked along the line of scrimmage:

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Ostensibly, Crowder had a free release out of his break. Anytime that happens, it's a win for the Redskins.

But Giants defensive boss Steve Spagnuolo was merely playing games with Cousins and Washington's offense. Rather than send pressure, Spags instead intended to drop his linebackers into the short middle to take away the underneath pass the Redskins wanted to hit.

Had it not been for Crowder, this deception would have caught Cousins cold.

Crowder began by running a shallow crossing pattern, but middle 'backer Jon Beason had dropped into the space:

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Beason was now perfectly placed to undercut the route and position himself in Cousins' obvious throwing lane. Had Crowder continued to press his route inside, an interception, either by Beason or even fellow linebacker Jonathan Casillas, would have been the inevitable result.

This is where Crowder's exceptional array of moves made the difference.

He altered the play by cutting on a dime to change directions and turn his route the other way, away from New York's underneath defenders:

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The cut was so sharp it left Beason flat-footed. Crowder was now wide-open to reel in a simple six-yard completion to move the sticks and keep another drive alive:

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This play may not look like much, but it's an essential coverage-beater defenses can't match. Crowder ran an option route here, meaning he made his moves within his break based entirely on what the defenders in front of him did.

So, if Beason had dropped to the other side, Crowder would have continued into the middle and settled in the void between both linebackers. But when Beason drifted the same way as Casillas, Crowder knew one cut in the other direction would get him free.

Basically, the covering defenders can't ever be right. Whichever way they go, they will leave coverage exposed to a diminutive move machine swiftly shifting the other way.

It's the same type of route the New England Patriots have killed teams with for years. It demands mini marvels who can produce multiple moves in and out of their breaks. The likes of Wes Welker, Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola all possess that ability.

The Patriots have baffled defenses for years with option-route-running slot receivers.
The Patriots have baffled defenses for years with option-route-running slot receivers.Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

So does Crowder. Keim has been suitably impressed with the rookie's move skills:

The Redskins like Crowder in part because he can create space for himself. Sometimes it’s just an extra yard or two, but his quick cuts helped Sunday -- and will help more going forward. Crowder caught a seven-yard out on the game-tying drive late in regulation in which he froze the defender, aligned inside, and cut back outside to create enough room to not only catch the ball but get out of bounds. In overtime, his 16-yard reception occurred because of that separation. He started in the slot to the left, ran to the middle and sold it as if he would continue, only to sharply cut outside. And that bought him another yard or two of space for a 16-yard gain.

Converting on third downs is becoming something of a niche for Crowder. His success is great news for the owners of "the worst third-down offense in the NFL. EVER," in 2014, according to Tanier and Football Outsiders.

But Crowder's impact needn't be limited purely to short-range stuff.

A Little Bit of Run-and-Shoot?

Crowder's underrated ability to stretch the seams vertically is giving the Redskins a little more flexibility than they realize. In fact, he's actually letting them show off some run-and-shoot concepts.

The old Mouse Davis-created and Buddy Ryan-alleged "chuck and duck" formula seemed to be at work during Week 4's win over the Philadelphia Eagles.

On 3rd-and-13 in the the third quarter, Washington aligned in a four-receiver set with a lone running back next to Cousins. This is the classic run-and-shoot look. But it was the route concepts at play that really conjured memories of that exciting offense:

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With Crowder in the slot and Ryan Grant outside him, the Redskins would run a version of the "switch" concept, a mesh-route design intended to react to the way the defense plays coverage and release at least one receiver deep.

Crowder began by running a post up the inside seam. But he was also looking for how the deep, single-high safety played him:

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If the safety stayed deep, hanging over the top to take away the long ball, Crowder could cut his route off short and make an outside break underneath Grant's post pattern:

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That's just how things played out. With the safety staying over the top, Crowder made another trademark quick cut to leave his covering defender, a hopelessly overmatched linebacker, trailing:

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Crowder was now able to make an excellent catch in a crowd to secure a 22-yard gain:

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This play was another option route which gave Crowder one more opportunity to showcase his exciting move skills. It also showed how he can be a deep threat from the slot.

In this sense, he can combine the best of a Welker or Edelman with the field-stretching flair of a Victor Cruz.

Obviously, the presence of tight end Jordan Reed on this play goes against the grain of the run-and-shoot, an offense that was never fond of tight ends. But even with a glorified receiver like Reed off the field, the Redskins can deploy run-and-shoot concepts, particularly once premier vertical speedster DeSean Jackson is back.

For more information on the run-and-shoot and the Cruz-style role I believe Crowder could emulate, read Chris B. Brown's exceptional 2012 essay at Grantland.com.

Cruz should be Crowder's template as a big-play specialist from the slot.
Cruz should be Crowder's template as a big-play specialist from the slot.Kathy Willens/Associated Press

Gruden recently said having injured duo Jackson and Reed return to a fold now dominated by Crowder will "be a good problem to have,” according to Anthony Gulizia of the Washington Times.

But really, the only problem will be if the Redskins limit Crowder's involvement once their heavy hitters are back. He's now become a vital figure in this season's passing game.

Thanks to his third-down chops, after-the-catch explosiveness in space, moves at close quarters and the still-to-be fully-explored potential to strike deep, all from the slot, Crowder has completely changed Washington's passing game for the better.

All statistics and player information via NFL.com, unless otherwise stated.

All screen shots via CBS Sports, Fox Sports, NFL Network and NFL.com Game Pass.

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