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The Tuesday Take: 14 Carries Not Enough

The Tuesday Take: 14 Carries Not Enough


In 2002, Steve Spurrier took his Redskins into Jacksonville to face the NFL’s worst rushing defense. Washington was on a two-game winning streak that was accomplished largely on the strength of a solid rushing game. So, Spurrier went out and called 51 pass plays and just 16 runs and the Redskins lost 26-7.

"I was dumb enough to think we could throw it up and down the field," Spurrier said. "We ran a little bit here and there. We had a little success there early, and I got away from it too much. The second quarter, I kept thinking at midfield, we could throw the ball from there. But we didn't do it very well. So, looking back, I called a lousy game."

Al Saunders offered no such rambling explanation for his game plan last Sunday. Against Tennessee, the league’s worst rushing defense, Clinton Portis ran the ball just 14 times. Certainly, Saunders has much more NFL credibility than the Ballcoach did and he deserves a bit more slack and benefit of the doubt. But I’ve listened to two Gibbs pressers and some assorted other comments and I’ve heard absolutely nothing that would explain that number 14.

Certainly the game situation didn’t dictate that the Skins get away from the rushing game. The Redskins never faced more than a one-score deficit throughout the game and their prime back, the guy they have a $50 million contract to, the player who was clearly the missing piece to the offense during the team’s 0-2 start, the man who got them going when they needed a kick start in Houston, the one who controlled the game against Jacksonville’s supposedly impenetrable tackle tandem, the back who got 76 yards against the Giants despite the fact that the Redskins’ offense was otherwise completely dysfunctional, carried the ball just two and a half times per quarter.

Let’s take a look at a few series here. After the Redskins took a 14-3 lead, the Titans came back with a drive that resulted in a field goal to make it 14-6 with just under 10 minutes left in the second quarter. Certainly, this would have been a good time for the Redskins to grind out a drive against the league’s worst rushing defense, cool off the Titans’ offense, and reestablish control of the game.

Nope. The ensuing drive featured one Portis carry and covered 10 yards and six plays. The Titans got the ball back and took it into the end zone. It was 14-13, Tennessee’s confidence grew and the Redskins knew that they were in for an all-day battle.

At halftime Portis had all of seven carries for 44 yards, an average of 6.3 yards a pop. Mark Brunell was posting decent numbers, but he was averaging just 7.3 yards on each of his 14 passes. Why pass so much when the running game can get you almost as far?

After taking the second-half kickoff Washington had good field position at its own 39. Portis got his hands on the ball once, it was a four and out and Tennessee took the lead on the next drive.

In the fourth quarter with the score tied at 22, the Redskins get the ball back on a punt with 9:21 to play. Portis got one carry on the three and out, Washington held the ball for just 1:05 and the Titans got the game-winning field goal after the punt.

Again, the Titans had the league’s worst rushing defense coming into the game, giving up an average of 172 yards a game. Given that, it seems that the only person who could have stopped Portis on Sunday was Saunders and he did a great job of it.

Instead of the pound-it-out style of game that we should have seen, we saw a steady diet of slip screens, end arounds, reverses, and other such French pastry. Saunders seemed to be intent on tricking the Titans rather than letting the players beat them physically. The fact that you have a 700-page playbook doesn’t mean that you have to use it all in one game when just a handful of power running plays is what is needed to get the job done.

All that being said, for all of the woes of the offense, 22 points should have been enough to beat the Titans, a team that had not scored more than 16 points all year long. When you give up 177 yards rushing to Travis Henry, a back who has gained just 205 in the previous five games, when you let a rookie quarterback stand back and coolly complete a 23-yard pass on fourth and two, your offensive game plan probably isn’t going to matter much because it’s likely that the opposition will be able to do whatever it takes to outscore you.

And don’t forget the key role that special teams played in this defeat. The safety on the blocked punt didn’t play a huge role in the game, but what did was the exchange of punts after the Redskins tied the score. For one of the few times all day the defense bottled up Henry and Young. The Titans punted from their own 34. After Washington’s three and out and subsequent punt, Tennessee got the ball back at the Washington 43. That’s a net gain of 23 yards and two Henry runs later the Titans were in field goal range.

Still, the single worst aspect of the game was the offensive game plan. Again Saunders has earned much more NFL cred than Steve Spurrier ever had. But Spurrier stumbled in to some real wisdom when after that Jacksonville game he said, “You're only as good as your last game. I'm not very good right now.”

The same can be said of Al Saunders.

Learning from mistakes?

It’s one thing to screw up. It’s exponentially worse to make the same mistake twice, especially two weeks in a row. They are going into a game where the plan again should be to pound Portis left, right, and up the middle. During their bye week the Indianapolis Colts supplanted the Titans as the NFL’s worse rushing defense. They are giving up 166 yards a game on the ground.

Barring an absolute fluke, there is exactly one way that the Redskins can win the game on Sunday and save their season. If they can rush for that 166 that the Colts are giving up, keep Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison, and the rest of the Colts’ weapons off the field for 35 or so minutes, they have a shot. Not much of one, mind you. Even if they do that and play generally error-free ball in all other aspects of the game they have no better than a one in ten shot of pulling off the upset.

But if Portis gets a single-digit number of carries in the first half and only one more than a baker’s dozen all day, it will get ugly early and unwatchable before the third quarter ends.

We will see if Saunders will learn from his mistake.

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Need to Know: Redskins’ Friday draft picks could be just as vital to success as first-rounder

Need to Know: Redskins’ Friday draft picks could be just as vital to success as first-rounder

Here is what you need to know on this Sunday, April 23, four days before the April 27 NFL draft.

Timeline

Days until:

—Redskins rookie camp (5/12) 10
—Redskins OTAs start (5/24) 31
—Training camp starts (7/27) 95
—Redskins opener vs. Eagles (9/10) 140

In search of someone, anyone, to stop the run

One of the areas the Redskins needed to improve last year was their rushing defense on first down. In 2015, they gave up 5.0 yards per carry on first down. That was the worst performance in the league. It’s pretty tough to play defense when a handoff makes it second and five. The Saints, who had a historically bad defense that year, were second, fiving up 4.8 yards a pop.

Well, it was no better for the Redskins defense in 2016. Again, they gave up 5.0 yards per carry on first down, again the worst performance in the league.  Remember, this is on first down, when teams are most likely to run.

The Redskins’ problems on third down were well known. They were dead last in the league allowing first downs on 46.6 percent of third-down attempts. For context, an average performance on third down is allowing about 38 percent and the best teams are around 35 percent.

That doesn’t tell the whole story, however. The Redskins weren’t very good at getting teams to third down. They allowed first downs on 33.8 percent of their opponents’ second-down plays. That put them in the bottom third of the league. Again, you don’t have to look too hard to connect the dots to link that back to the five yards per rushing play on first down. Second and five is a piece of cake most of the time.

You don’t need an advanced degree in statistical analysis to figure out that the Redskins defense isn’t going to get much better if they can’t stop teams from running the ball on first down.

It’s easy to point to the defensive line, which has not been very good, and say that the problem is there. That certainly has something to do with it. But the Redskins didn’t have a very good D-line in 2014 and they allowed 4.1 yards per first-down rushing attempt, a performance that was right at the league average.

The factor that was common in 2015 and 2016 and was different in 2014 was the defensive coordinator. It’s possible that opposing teams found a flaw to exploit in Joe Barry’s scheme that wasn’t there in Jim Haslett’s (which surely had flaws in other places).

But X’s and O’s can only get you so far. The Redskins will be looking to take a defensive lineman early and perhaps use an additional pick or two at the position later in the draft. While getting one who can rush the passer would be a plus, they need a run stuffer who can take snaps on first down and bottle up the ground game.

The focus in the draft will be on the first-round pick but, as has been discussed here many times, that pick is unlikely to be a defensive lineman. There isn’t likely to be one at 17 who would represent good value. That could mean that the Redskins’ second- or third-round pick, perhaps an interior lineman like Caleb Brantley of Florida, Larry Ogunjobi of Charlotte, or Montravius Adams of Auburn, is just as important to the team’s success as the first-round pick.

Stay up to date on the Redskins. Rich Tandler covers the team 365 days a year. Like his Facebook page Facebook.com/TandlerCSN and follow him on Twitter @Rich_TandlerCSN.

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Need to Know: The Redskins week that was—Mock drafts, cap bargains

Need to Know: The Redskins week that was—Mock drafts, cap bargains

Here is what you need to know on this Saturday, April 22, five days before the April 27 NFL draft.

Timeline

Days until:

—Redskins rookie camp (5/12) 20
—Redskins OTAs start (5/24) 32
—Training camp starts (7/27) 96
—Redskins opener vs. Eagles (9/10) 141

The Redskins week that was

Redskins full 2017 schedule released—Even with the Caps and Wizards in full playoff mode, the DMV stops to take a look and see when the Redskins will be playing. The Thanksgiving game was surprising. It’s another working day but I worked at various places since I was 14 and last year was the first time I’ve had to work on Thanksgiving so I can’t complain too much about working two in a row. It’s a small price to pay for having the best job in the world.

Don't count out any RB for Redskins at 17—Yeah, I know that NFL teams aren’t supposed to take running backs in the first round any more. But that is one of those trends that comes and goes. In 2013 and 2014 there were no RBs taken in the first. Todd Gurley and Ezekiel Elliott in the last couple of years began to shift the thinking. If the Redskins think that Dalvin Cook or Christian McCaffrey can help them win games more than any other player on the board they should pull the trigger.

Rise of Patrick Mahomes could bring big payoff for Redskins—It seems likely that quarterbacks Deshaun Watson and Mitchell Trubisky will be taken before the Redskins pick at No. 17 goes on the clock. That means that two players in whom the Redskins might be interested will be available, pushed back by the quarter backs. Could Mahomes, out of Texas Tech, push a third player back to Washington. The buzz is that a team might grab him in the first half of the first round.

The Redskins' five best salary cap bargains for 2017—When I started pulling the numbers for this post I thought I’d find more key players with salaries of under $1 million. I only found three and one of them is the kicker. This means that they don’t have very many late-round or undrafted players who are contributing a lot of value. They need more out of players like Anthony Lanier, Matt Ioannidis and Maurice Harris. That is how a team thrives in the salary cap era. A couple of Saturday picks could make or break this draft.

Redskins mock 2.0 goes offense early, defense often—There are a lot of ways the first 16 picks of this draft can work out. It seems almost certain that everyone’s favorite first-round pick, a stud defensive lineman, won’t be a realistic option on the board. This could send things in an odd direction for the Redskins. It’s fun to do a mock and I’ll do one or two more prior to draft day but there are too many variables to think that it has a high degree of accuracy. 

Stay up to date on the Redskins. Rich Tandler covers the team 365 days a year. Like his Facebook page Facebook.com/TandlerCSN and follow him on Twitter @Rich_TandlerCSN.

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