Since taking over the Washington Redskins in 2010, former two-time Super Bowl winning head coach, Mike Shanahan, has gotten his squad to show flashes of promise, most notably in ending a three-year losing streak to the division rival and Super Bowl champion New York Giants. The bottom line, however, is his record in those two years; an underwhelming 11-21. How much more patience does owner Dan Snyder have?
While the 3-4 defensive scheme Jim Haslett brought with Shanahan has resulted in a unit that improved vastly over the past season, the offense remained un-threatening; journeyman quarterback Rex Grossman was more likely to turn the ball over than he was to score. That led to drafting Baylor’s Heisman Trophy-winner, Robert Griffin III, and giving up high future draft picks to do so.
With one of the most hyped rookie QBs in recent memory, can Shanahan win more than his current-best six games as the Redskins’ HC? Let’s take a look at some factors that will determine that answer.
Five Reasons To Be Confident
1) Can’t be Worse Than Last Year, Can It?
It’s no secret that the Redskins haven’t had an elite franchise QB in a long time, and there’s no way to tell if they have one in Griffin yet, either; he obviously has promise, but he has not played a regular-season snap. Still, there is every reason to believe he’ll be better than Rex Grossman and John Beck were last year. Grossman gave the ball to the opposing team in all 13 starts; even in their most dominating victory, the 23-10 win over the Giants in their own house, he threw two picks. Beck didn’t scare defenses either, completing only three of 14 passes 20 yards or more. Griffin should, at the very least, energize the team and the fan base, giving this franchise a hope they haven’t had in many, many years.
2) Young Pass Rushing Duo
Every team wants not just one reliable pass rusher, but a pair of them, and the Redskins seem to have that with two former first round picks: Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan. Orakpo, drafted in 2009, has improved in our pass-rushing rankings each season, going from +10.0 in his rookie year to a +25.9 last year where he ranked fifth among 3-4 OLBs. Kerrigan, despite the shortened offseason last year, proved to be a quick learner, accumulating a total of 57 QB disruptions and four forced fumbles in his rookie season. Assuming they each continue to improve (including in run support), the Redskins are poised to have one of the fiercest pass rushes in the league for years to come.
3) Strong in the Middle
Everyone knows about ageless veteran London Fletcher; our eighth-ranked inside linebacker from last season, he graded ‘in the green’ across the board and improved on his +9.0 performance from 2010, his first year in Jim Haslett’s 3-4 scheme. One man can’t hold down the middle of the defense, though, which is why Shanahan and company have paired him with the young Perry Riley. After finally benching the perennially-underachieving Rocky McIntosh, the team had Riley take over midway through the year and he solidified his spot this season with a terrific +7.0 performance against the run, helping also stake his claim as a Secret Superstar. DeMarco Murray certainly felt Riley’s presence with his lowest average yards-per-carry of the year (2.9) coming in a Week 11 battle in Washington. It remains to be seen how much longer Fletcher can keep up his stellar play, but for this season at least, the Redskins could have one of the better inside linebacker duos in the league.
4) Stable of Backs
Despite finishing the season 2-4 with their initial starter Tim Hightower on injured reserve and a makeshift offensive line (due to injuries and a suspension), the Redskins managed to rush for at least 100 yards in all six of those games. This was mostly due to hard running from rookies Roy Helu (4.2 yard average per carry) and Evan Royster (+5.9). It’s also worth noting is that in 104 pass blocking attempts, the two only yielded a single QB hit and one hurry. While Hightower, who also proved to be a good runner (+2.2) and pass blocker (+2.5), continues his return to form following an ACL injury, Shanahan also has sixth-round rookie Alfred Morris. Morris has averaged 5 yards per carry in the preseason and ran right over Lance Briggs, a pretty good run defender, and while it is only preseason, he has at least done enough to earn a look when the “real” games begin. Against this committee approach full of young talent (including Hightower, who has only been in the league for four seasons), opposing defenses may have to respect the running game this year. Griffin’s ability to make plays with his legs should only help his stable of running backs.
5) Trent Williams
In order to keep RGIII healthy, the Redskins need an elite left tackle, and it seems like they’ve found one in former fourth-overall draft pick Trent Williams. After losing his battle with Jason-Pierre Paul in Week 1, Williams went on to give up no sacks, four QB hits and 12 hurries in the remainder of his 574 snaps. Most impressive was allowing nothing to Seattle’s Chris Clemons, our sixth-best 4-3 DE in terms of pass rushing last season. While a bit uneven in run blocking, he still did well enough to grade at +2.5. There are concerns here that will be noted, but having an tackle this talented on your roster is something many other teams can’t claim.
Five Reasons To Be Concerned
1) DeAngelo Hall
DeAngelo Hall’s play against the run last year (+4.4) should silence anyone who doubts his ability and willingness to bring ball-carriers to the ground. He is a DB, though, and while that effort is certainly useful, he is being paid to cover, an area which he has consistently struggled. He wasn’t terrible in his 2010 Pro Bowl season (-0.5 pass coverage), but he was last year (-8.5). His lowlights included: being beaten by Dez Bryant for catches of 30 and 26 yards in the two Dallas games that put their division rivals in position to kick game-winning field goals, and the 49-yard catch-and-run by Rob Gronkowski where he simply stood there and watched teammates fail to tackle the superstar tight end. It seems as though Hall will be asked to play more slot and even safety this season, which is not surprising consider the limits in his game he has repeatedly displayed.
2) Recycled Safeties
After letting OJ Atogwe and LaRon Landry go in free agency, the Redskins are attempting to find their new safety duo in a mix of players. Possibilities who were on the roster last year include Hall, second-year player DeJon Gomes (who seemed to get injured more times than he made plays), and tenured backup Reed Doughty, who has never been the team’s first choice. More likely are three castaways: Brandon Meriweather, Madieu Williams, and Tanard Jackson. Meriweather’s last year in New England ended with him being dragged into the end zone by Braylon Edwards in a home playoff loss, and he was only asked to start four games for the Chicago Bears last year before being benched. He’s currently recovering from a preseason knee injury. Williams has only graded positively in coverage once in our four-year existence, with the Minnesota Vikings in 2008, and was a backup in San Francisco last year; he was recently burned by rookies Andrew Luck and T.Y. Hilton for a preseason TD. And Jackson, who PFF readers should know by now, comes with health, off-field, and tackling (logging the most misses last year) issues. This situation could become a recurring punch line throughout the season.
3) Needing to Stay on Track
A pair of young players, Trent Williams and Fred Davis, will play key roles in determining how successful the 2012 Redskins become. Williams’ talent was noted above, but he is also injury-prone (and even suffered a mild foot injury in the preseason) and, more worryingly, is close to facing a lengthy suspension for substance abuse. Davis, a tight end who performed well enough that the front office felt they could cut long-time Redskin Chris Cooley, is facing that same short leash for the same problem. Both missed the last four games last year due to a suspension–not the biggest problem as the team was already out of the playoff hunt. If they break the league rules again, though, it will be devastating to a franchise trying to climb out of the gutter of the NFC East.
4) Protecting Griffin
Just as Redskins fans have become used to life without an elite QB, they have also become accustomed to seeing their QB take a weekly beating. If Williams continues to improve (and not self-destruct), the blindside shouldn’t be an issue, but the depth at this crucial spot is; Willie Smith, who started those four games Williams missed, gave up three sacks, 10 hits, and seven hurries in that span. Maligned right tackle, Jamal Brown, has been a liability, but is sidelined with a hamstring injury that has kept him out of the preseason. Behind him is Tyler Polumbus, who gave up 16 total pressures in just 289 snaps and looks to be the Week 1 starter. By contrast, left guard Kory Lichtensteiger only gave up four pressures in 291 snaps before a knee injury ended his season early. Lichtensteiger is far from a lock to be starting Week 1, likely leaving Maurice Hurt (-10.9 pass blocking), and it would surprise no one to see rookies Adam Gettis or Josh LeRibeus starting at some point. Whoever ends up with the task of keeping their high draft pick upright, they will have to play better than the “Hogs” of recent years have.
5) Run Blocking Concerns
The Redskins do have young talent at running back, but in order to maximize that potential the offensive line has to help them out. Aside from Williams and center Will Montgomery, no other lineman graded positively against the run; furthermore, most of them were horrific. Former Baltimore Raven Chris Chester was easily the bottom of the bunch and our worst-ranked run-blocking guard in 2011. Davis, while clearly a respectable receiver, also did more harm than good in this area, grading as our fifth-worst run-blocking TE last year.
What To Expect
Even in arguably one of the most talented divisions in the National Football League, the Redskins have every reason to believe they can win more than the five games they won last year. It’d be a stretch to say they can win the NFC East, though, especially with rookie growing pains to be expected from Robert Griffin III and their highly-questionable secondary.
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