Monday, September 13, 2010

Week One: Preparation + Opportunity = Win

Dallas 7, Washington 13

For Redskins fans, every game against Dallas begins with a nervous, angry excitement ("we're gonna kill 'em!...I hope..."), continues during the game with disbelieving pronouncements ("why aren't we #$#% RUNNING THE BALL?!?") and ends one of two ways: with a silent shaking of the head with hands covering the face, or with a long, smiling exhale.
Is it written somewhere that Redskins/Cowboys games must be this excruciating to watch? That, regardless of the players or coaches, the contests must be as deodorant-bustingly dramatic as possible? Is "bustingly" even a word?

The headlines for this game have read like this one from the's page: "Cowboys miscues costly in loss to 'Skins." And there was this link over at Sports Illustrated: "Game ending penalty helps 'Skins beat Cowboys."

I respectfully disagree. Mike Shanahan's team earned every bit of the W on their record. The Dallas mistakes weren't committed in some vacuum like they were on the Cowchip practice field; but instead they were created by a well-prepared defense who seized opportunities to apply pressure, steal a football, and alter their opponent's game plan. This win gets filed in the Rivalry Annals as
less a miracle finish than the imposition of will by the Washington defense on a so-called Super Bowl-caliber offense.

Make no mistake: the 2010 Redskins have a lot that's not yet right, seems unsettled, and is cause for concern. Let's start instead with...

With one exception, the Washington defense did exactly what it wanted to. The box score may show Tony Romo had no interceptions, Miles Austin had ten catches for nearly 150 yards, and the defense allowed 380 net yards. But the story is that Jim Haslett's defensive schemes limited Romo to one pass of 30 yards or more, never gave up a run longer than twelve yards, and silenced Romo's favorite target, tight end Jason Witten. Haslett dialed up varied blitzes, forcing checkdown passes that seemed to alter Dallas' first half downfield attacks. (I counted at least four screen passes that went nowhere.) LaRon Landry was everywhere, making 17 tackles. And let's not forget that Dallas managed a paltry seven points--the second lowest output of any team on Sunday, and by far the worst in the NFC East.

Though the offense was limited, it didn't commit a turnover. Anyone who has followed Washington lately knows that the team finished minus-11 in turnover ratio last season. No slip-ups by Portis, McNabb, or anyone else kept the defense from having to defend a short field.

The Player of the Game is, without question, linebacker Brian Orakpo. He had one solo tackle and one assisted tackle. But it was on the game's two pivotal plays that he asserted his
dominance. Here's the first, the fumble by Tashard Choice. Kudos, of course, to DeAngelo Hall for his heads-up, ball-hawking focus on what's usually a throwaway play. But Orakpo is the player whose pressure and jump up in Romo's face is the impetus for the quarterback to break the pocket and scramble forward. (The Unsung Hero award goes to #97, linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, who pressured Romo's back side and stayed in the play to make contact on Choice when Hall was going for the strip.) His second outstanding effort was on the game's final play--watch Orakpo cause Dallas' Alex Barron to pull a Rowdy Roddy Piper clothesline, ending the game in Washington's favor. Orakpo nonetheless had so much speed and power that Romo still had to escape the pocket. Had Barron not held Orakpo, it could very well have been a sack that won this game. Imagine how FedEx Field would've shook then.

The ground game
is more diversion than attack. It's time for a concerned pause when the quarterback is your leading rusher after thirty minutes of football. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan oddly trusted the offensive line to protect DJ McNabb more than to block for Portis. The team passed ten more times than it ran; that's not a lot of difference on paper. But Washington led the entire game, which would normally skew the play calling toward the run. In the preseason, I noted that Portis, Larry Johnson, and Willie Parker were largely ineffective, hoping that the regular season would show a better attack. Not so. It was a similar cutback run almost all night.

The red zone playcalling was atrocious. One corner pass, from the five yard line, to new receiver Anthony Armstrong is questionable. A second pass to Armstrong, on third down, when you can go up by three scores, is just disrespectful to your playmakers Chris Cooley and Santana Moss. How about a three-wide receiver draw to Portis? Or, maybe, a quarterback bootleg? Virtually anything was better than throwing to your least-experienced starting receiver twice in a row. Remember when the Redskins would line up from the eight yard line and pound the ball for three yards at a time? That was twenty-five years ago.

So Hang Your Head this week, Kyle Shanahan. Your offense may not have lost the game for Washington, but it certainly didn't win it.

One more note on preparation and opportunity:
it is on the last play of a game when off-season conditioning is most important. Brian Orakpo came to training camp in shape, passed his tests, and practiced. Albert Haynesworth whined, showed up late, failed his tests, and earned himself a seat on the bench when the game was on the line. Enjoy your money.

OFFENSE: D. The upside is that McNabb is still fleet of foot and has a strong arm. Also, Trent Williams did an adequate job defending Andre Ware. But the Skins won't win without better running.

DEFENSE: A+. Aside from allowing Miles Austin to catch a 31-yard catch on 4th and 15, it's hard to criticize Haslett's defense. Actually, Carlos Rogers dropping a game-winning interceptions comes to mind...

Sp. TEAMS: B+. Kicker Graham Gano went 2 for 2, including a hastily-called, crucial 49-yard field goal. Holder Josh Bidwell can practice hands drills with Rogers.

COACHING: B. The field goal from 49 yards was incredibly gutsy, the defense was outstanding, but the offense must score in the red zone.

OWNERSHIP: A. First "A" ever given to Daniel Snyder. The new screens looked fantastic, the new stomping area is a great idea, and opening the gates eight hours before kickoff was fan-friendly.

It's always strange when real football imitates video game football. You've probably had those moments when, playing a friend, you just call the Four Verticals play at the end of a half and hope for the best. Cowboys coach Wade Phillips' did just that, and even before the turnover it looked like an idiotic idea. Did the coaching staff think that Romo was going to complete a 60-odd yard Hail Mary? Did Choice think he could catch a lateral and outrun ten or so Redskins on the way to the end zone? The lesson: take a knee and preserve your integrity.

Photo credit:
Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post

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