Last week, it was a narrow defeat at the hands of a division rival. This week, it was a thorough beating on both sides of the ball by a veteran team.
Here's our five takeaways from the Washington Redskins' 27-12 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers:
1. Let's start with the defense: We'll go big picture for a moment: When Mike Shanahan spent a year away from football during the 2009 season, he came to the realization that the next time he got an opportunity to be a head coach again, he'd like to run a 3-4 defense. He believed that the scheme could create more pressure and force more turnovers than the base 4-3 he ran while he was in Denver. When he became the Redskins head coach in January 2010, he hired Jim Haslett expected him to bring his experience running the 3-4 to the organization and help build sustainable, championship caliber defense.
Two and a half years later, it's not unreasonable to begin questioning the overall direction of this defense under Haslett. They've spent the last few offseasons beefing up that side of the ball, acquiring personnel both in the draft and in free agency that they believed best fit the scheme. And though they've shown flashes of improvement at times -particularly last season -- it hasn't come together just yet. Some games, there've been issues with execution. Other games, you could argue it's been more of the scheme/defensive playcalling that's hurt them. Either way, it's fair to say that everything considered, the defense has been an organizational let down so far during the Shanahan regime.
That brings us to Sunday: Against the Steelers, it was simple for the defense - nothing worked. From bad tackling to poor pass coverage to the inability to generate any pressure, the Redskins defense had a poor all-around showing. The Steelers offense dictated the pace of the game, and kept the Redskins off balance all afternoon. If the Redskins expected a pass, they'd get a run. If they expected a run, they'd get a pass. They were out executed all game long, and it seemed like the only way the Steelers were stopped was if Ben Roethlisberger made a bad throw or an open receiver dropped the ball. If that's your only hope to stop an offense, you're probably in trouble.
So, what now for the defense? They don't have a choice but to stick with the personnel they have and figure out a way to make it work. Sure, they've dealt with injuries at key spots, but there are plenty of teams around the league saying the same thing. The defense was expected to be the strength of the team heading into this season, and yet it's a glaring weakness at the halfway mark of the season.
2. The amount of drops by Redskins receivers was mind-numbing: If you merely take a look at the box score, it says Robert Griffin III completed 16 of 34 passes, a season low 47 percent. But if you watched the game, you know why that happened.
Whether it was the rain at Heinz Field, concentration lapses, or another reason altogether, the Redskins receiving corps turned in their worst game of the season. There were ten (10!) dropped passes against the Steelers, the most in a game by a team this year. It's especially deflating to an offense when it seems like nearly everything goes right - good protection, receiver getting separation from the defender, a good throw from the quarterback, and then.....nothing, no gain. For that to happen continually? That's a killer.
Games like this make you illuminates the absence of guys like Pierre Garcon and Fred Davis. That's not to say that they would have caught every pass thrown their way, but their presence certainly gives the quarterback more (seemingly) reliable options. It pushes back the likes of Aldrick Robinson, Leonard Hankerson and Dezmon Briscoe into more manageable roles, not forcing them into more playing time. But those are the cards the Redskins have been dealt, and it's up to whoever is out there to make plays.
3. DeAngelo Hall, a one-time team captain, loses his cool: The Redskins' embarrassing loss was only made worse in the game's waning moments, as DeAngelo Hall was penalized and ejected for berating an official after a play. Hall chose not to comment about the ejection to reporters in the post-game locker room, only saying that he and his agent were trying to schedule a meeting with Roger Goodell.
Needless to say, Hall didn't do well for himself in either instance. He's always been a fiery player, one who wears his emotions on his sleeve every week. Sometimes, that emotion can be beneficial. But most other times, it hasn't been, and DeAngelo paid dearly for it on Sunday. Hall hasn't had the best reputation around the league, and this incident won't do much to change that perception. It was a frustrating afternoon for the Redskins, and Hall clearly let it get to him. It wasn't the way a team leader is supposed to respond in an adverse situation.
Unfortunately for the Redskins, Hall will undoubtedly face some sort of discipline in the next week. The only question is how severe will the punishment be.
4. Special teams gaffes continue: One of the more bizarre storylines from last season was the fact that the field goal unit continually allowed kicks to get blocked. Many fans wanted to pin it all on special teams coach Danny Smith, but it was difficult to tell if it was just one of those strange seasons or if there was a legitimate trend forming.
Unfortunately for the Redskins, that storyline reared its ugly head again this season, as yet another extra point was blocked in the second quarter. Replay shows that the Kai Forbath's kick appeared to be low, and that no one was beat in protection. Either way, the result is still unacceptable, no matter how it happened.
Throw in Sav Rocca's subpar season (even if it could be due to injury), and Smith could be under fire once again.
If there is a silver lining, however, it's that Forbath has done an excellent job on field goals. He's started his Redskins tenure at a perfect 6-for-6, making kicks of 45, 48 and 50 yards. In other words, he's no Billy Cundiff. He hasn't shown as much leg on kickoffs, but the Redskins would trade that for his field goal production any day.
5. At 3-5 at the halfway mark, where are the Redskins? There's no doubt about it, this has been a roller coaster first half to the season for the Redskins. There have been exciting highs, like Griffin's 76-yard touchdown run against the Vikings, and excruciating lows, such as Sunday's game against the Steelers.
The question now is, at 3-5, what are the prospects for the rest of this year?
That's difficult to answer. Most didn't expect the Redskins to be a playoff team this season, but there's still a sense that in Year Three of the Shanahan regime, the team must show a significant amount of progress. Only way to do that is to get wins.
That'll be difficult to do, because the Redskins have a pretty tough schedule the second half of the season. It starts Sunday with a better-than-you-think Carolina Panthers team (which might be a must win), a bye week, then playing the rest of the NFC East in three straight games.
If you're looking for encouraging signs, the offense has played as well as one would hope (outside of Sunday's game), especially considering they are lead by a rookie quarterback and a rookie sixth round running back. Kyle Shanahan and the rest of the offensive staff have been as creative as any in the league in all the ways they have utilized Robert Griffin III's talent. In just one year's time, the Redskins offense has gone from one of the least productive to one of the most exciting, explosive units in the NFL to watch. Their potential takes a hit with the loss of their top playmakers in Pierre Garcon and Fred Davis, but as long as 10 is on the field, they have a chance to be productive.
The problem is, it's difficult to see the team's deficiencies suddenly becoming strengths the rest of the way. The defense simply hasn't shown signs of improvement, only regression. Until they can start coming up with answers, it's hard to look at the remaining schedule and counting up "winnable" games. You have to figure that with an offense that will only get better, the team will remain competitive. But without a defense that's capable of keeping things somewhat close, no game will be considered reasonably winnable down the stretch.
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