Here’s something that sums up Jay Gruden’s basic competency level as an NFL head coach.
In the middle of the second half, the Redskins faced third and ten on their own 23. The Redskins lined up in an empty shotgun look, then motioned Jamison Crowder from the left slot to the right TRIPS side. The linebacker immediately walked out on Crowder, likely in anticipation of a screen, which is exactly what the Redskins ran.
It put TE Derek Carrier in the position of making a very difficult block, one which he didn’t make, as the linebacker blew past him. Crowder, however, was able to make the LB miss, cut back upfield behind some blocks, and get a first down.
The end result was a “positive play”, but the playcall itself was actually not good. Lining up in an empty look in a long down and distance is one of those situations in which most good defenses will be told to be alert for a screen. By motioning Crowder across the formation, Jay Gruden completely telegraphed the call. The defense recognized it immediately, and it was only through a great individual effort that Crowder was able to make the play work.
“We thought we could flat out the area, four strong,” Jay Gruden told reporters the next day. ”We got it earlier in the game on the third down and 15 (side note: it was third and ten), I think it was. Crowder broke it and almost scored. We thought we’d get the same look. Really their [linebacker] bossed over a little bit wider this time and our tight end couldn’t quite get out there and get him. He made a good play. But we had a lot of other good plays we could have gone to in that situation. It’s one of those things, if it worked we’re all high fiving on the sidelines, but it didn’t work and we’re all very upset at the call. You’d just like to have, instead of a one-man show, you’d like to give the quarterback a few more options. Didn’t work out.”
Going back to that play in crunch time, after it failed no less, kind of highlights everything fundamentally wrong with Jay Gruden.
As pointed out, that play didn’t work. The linebacker didn’t give the defense a different look; they gave the same look and the linebacker beat the play the same way.
I complained a lot in the first preseason game about Gruden’s choice to, with the run game clicking, throw a route that RGIII and Pierre Garcon had struggled on in camp on second and third down. The response, naturally, was that RGIII and Garcon had to work on that route at the exact time, in a game situation, to “practice it”, and that Griffin was such a terrible quarterback he needed all the work he could get.
Five weeks into the season, Gruden, with a chance to effectively end the game (or at least making it harder for the Falcons to win), chose to play it safe. With the run game struggling to get any sort of lift off, Gruden ran the ball twice on first and second down. He then called a play that had only been successful in the first half because his player made chicken salad out of chicken poop in a crucial situation, having to kick a field goal, and setting forward a course of events that eventually lost the game.
We can all sit back and kvetch at one another about Kirk Cousins’ throwing a pick six to seal the victory for Atlanta. We can once again scream at each other over whether or not Cousins deserves to start, whether or not there’s too many excuses made for him, or whether or not Robert Griffin III can start.
We can lament (even blame the entire loss on) the run game and/or lack thereof, we can say that the wide receivers didn’t make enough plays, we can talk about the Redskins defense allowing a rookie running back to run roughshod over them for most of the day. We can complain about all of that, and each of those components has a degree of truth to them.
But at the end of the day, what lost the game was a series of bonehead decisions from a head coach who’s lack of in game awareness is only dwarfed by his mediocre, rudimentary playcalling.
Yes, Devonte Freeman ran entirely too well, and the Redskins defense didn’t seem to have an answer to stop him. But at the end of the day, they sacked Matt Ryan three times, forced three fumbles (albeit with only one recovery), and picked him off twice, including Bashaud Breeland’s INT that could’ve effectively put the game to bed. The Falcons came into the game scoring 30 PPG; their offense only scored 19 points. They bent, but didn’t break, which has been their MO, forcing Atlanta to settle for FG attempts that they didn’t convert.
Jamison Crowder appears to be a revelation in the slot, catching all 8 of his targets for 87 yards, and giving his HC enough false bravado to think he could make something out of nothing again. Pierre Garcon couldn’t make every tough catch (and with Kirk Cousins struggling with his intermediate accuracy, tough catches are basically the only catches), but he caught some clutch passes to set up overtime and was wide open for a TD that Cousins threw too high.
The run game is a mess right now, as Kory Lichtensteiger’s play at center has regressed. But neither running back has been able to cobble together a decent head of steam; Alfred Morris only had 8 carries, Matt Jones finished with 11, and Chris Thompson had three. The Redskins run first mentality has disappeared five games into the season, and instead of searching for solutions, the answers seems to be “give Kirk more chances to make mistakes.”
The Redskins lack blocking tight ends; Derek Carrier is okay, but he’s a converted wide receiver who’s still learning this offense. Anthony McCoy isn’t much in that department either. The Redskins have one of the best fullbacks in football in Darrel Young, who can not only block in the run game, but catch passes AND pass protect. But he’s insanely under-utilized, even for a fullback; Young only played 4 snaps the entire game. Four. One of those four snaps? He made a key block on a Matt Jones TD run.
It’s true that Bill Callahan’s group has to improve their play, but it’s also true that the Redskins run game is very vanilla and very easy to figure out. By it’s nature, the Zone Blocking Scheme is kind of supposed to be that, but those plays are being called by someone who doesn’t understand how the ZBS works, and who’s run game concepts don’t veer too far from “maybe pull a linemen” and “outside zone”.
There are no toss plays, no counter plays, no trap games. There’s very few runs from shotgun, the pistol formation has disappeared from the offense even as it finds more and more uses everywhere else in the NFL, and despite running read-option with Kirk Cousins in preseason, well, let’s just say that looks more and more spiteful the longer the run game remains stagnant.
Watching Kyle Shanahan call an offense, even while it struggled in the passing game at times, versus watching Jay Gruden’s offense, is a bit like watching a talented comic book artist draw versus watching an okay-ish five-year old draw; there’s a world of difference, and even the good stuff from the five-year old is nowhere near as good as the comic book guy.
At the end of the day, this loss was on a head coach who specializes in losing games in the second half. (He’s like the anti-Joe Gibbs.) The defense did enough to keep the team in the game; they forced turnovers that didn’t get capitalized on. The offense, and the decision of the offensive coordinator and head coach, continue to be the problems.
Let’s go over those decisions, shall we?
1.) The decision to go for 2 after Matt Jones scored a touchdown in the fourth. There were 8 minutes left in the fourth quarter, and the idea already seemed to be “win this game by a field goal”. A two point conversion would’ve put the Redskins up by three, but again; there were 8 minutes left in the game. What was the plan? Hope they settle for a field goal with a bunch of time left on a clock, and hopefully get it back in time to kick the game winner?
If the Redskins kicked the extra point, the score would’ve been 14-12. Assuming that Atlanta’s drive stalled and they kicked another FG, and then the Redskins kicked a field goal, the score would be 17-15. If they converted the two point conversion, Atlanta kicked a field goal, and then the Redskins kicked a field goal, the scored would be…18-15. The Redskins didn’t take the points, which bit them in the butt when they only kicked a field goal after Breeland’s interception.
Had the Redskins simply kicked the PAT, making the score 14-12, then the ensuing field goal would’ve made the score 17-12.
Even if Atlanta had still marched down and scored a TD, making the score 18-17, a field goal wins the game, instead of taking the game into overtime.
There’s a lot of “what ifs” here, but suffice it to say, getting cute with a two-point conversion seemed less to be about “sound football strategy” and more about “the Falcons tried it so we should try it to.”
2.) Refusing to be aggressive after Bashaud Breeland’s interception. Here’s an underplayed thing that gets lost in the “Kirk Cousins threw yet another second half interception” thing; he actually started playing his best football in the fourth.
Cousins’ confidence is a roller coaster ride for sure. But he seemed to be operating with swagger and confidence. You could see it in his body language and in his throws. On the Redskins’ fourth quarter TD drive, Cousins completed passes of 10 and 26 yards to Jamison Crowder, and then a defensive pass interference call to Rashad Ross (why the hell isn’t given more chances, limited as the may be) set up the touchdown. That ball Cousins threw, by the way, was a pretty pass that absolutely would’ve been a TD if Alford hadn’t interfered.
Following the Breeland interception, Cousins got a nice checkdown off to Chris Thompson…and then two runs and the world’s most obvious screen.
The Redskins had a shot to, effectively, end the game, and Gruden balked. A touchdown makes the score 20-12. The Falcons would’ve had to drive down the field, score a touchdown, and get a two point conversion just to tie it, and assuming the Redskins had some time, a game winning field goal is still in full effect. Hell, maybe THAT is when you get cocky and go for two, which all but puts the game out of reach.
Instead, Gruden ran twice with a busted run game, then called an unsuccessful play to kick a field goal.
Maybe he got spooked by Cousins overthrowing Pierre Garcon earlier. But that does not jive with Jay Gruden’s never-ending, unbridled confidence in Cousins. Either Gruden thinks Cousins is talented enough to win in those situations, or he doesn’t. Cousins had thrown his lone TD pass of the day in the red zone to Derek Carrier on a great ball; they didn’t return to that play. They didn’t attempt a single pass into the red zone, didn’t give Pierre Garcon and Cousins a second shot to redeem their earlier misconnection, didn’t figure out a way to scheme the practically uncoverable Crowder open in the end zone.
They played conservative and it bit them in the butt.
3.) Not calling a time out when Devonte Freeman split out wide versus Will Compton. Perhaps Gruden was trying to conserve his remaining timeouts for the field goal leading to overtime that he had been desperately gameplanning to get to with most of the quarter left to play. But the second Freeman split outside versus an outside linebacker, is the second someone, anyone on the Redskins sideline should’ve taken a timeout.
It was a crazy mismatch, and the easier call ever. I’m a goof on the internet, and I knew a slant was coming, especially with Compton playing that far off.
Ultimately, that touchdown pass came off the board, but it set up another scoring attempt that drained more time off the clock. At least taking a timeout allows you more time to talk about how to defend the play and potentially helps you end the game right then and there.
4.) Calling an unsuccessful play in a critical situation. Again. Once again, we can analyze the how’s and the why’s of Cousins’ interception, but here’s a thing that should grind the gears of any Redskins fan; doing things that were unsuccessful before with the same players and expecting them to be successful without examining WHY they were unsuccessful in the first place.
Jay Gruden often rants and raves about Ryan Grant’s route running, but it rarely applies to the actual field. Last year versus the Giants, on their own 45, Jay Gruden called a stop route to Grant that was intercepted by Prince Amukamara. This week, at midfield, Cousins throw an interception to Grant on a similiar stop route against Robert Alford.
The idea of these stop routes — curls, comebacks, hooks and the like — is that the wide receiver comes fast off the line and pushes up field, trying to get the receiver to buy that they’re running a vertical route. They then stop and turn either back in or outside. Routes like this work because a corner panics that they’ll get beat deep.
…The problem is that Ryan Grant is not a deep threat kind of receiver. If you’re a 4.43 cornerlike Prince Amukamara, you’re not going to be overly concerned with Ryan Grant and his 4.62 speed. And if you ran 4.34 like Robert Alford, including an unofficial sub 4.3 time, well, you’re not gonna worry about Grant burning you at all.
Grant also isn’t particularly explosive; someone like Odell Beckham wins on his routes even without being a speedster because his first step is so quick. Ryan Grant’s ten yard split was 1.64; he’s not going to fly off the line fast enough to scare someone.
Andbutso, you have a slow, possession type receiver, against one of the fastest corners in the game. Alford is also pretty smart; the second the ball is snapped, he’s already playing the stop route. He’s not scared of being beat deep, and he knows Grant doesn’t run a lot of deep concepts, so he’s playing a route that’s going to be at the sticks.
The Redskins ran a scat (no back) protection, and Kirk Cousins slid the line protection the wrong way. That freed up a rusher. Cousins panicked and chucked it to his primary. Alford took advantage.
(As an aside, the idea put forth that an 8 yard hook route with scat protection was somehow a “hot route” is not only ridiculous, but almost certainly wrong, and even if that was somehow the case, it’d probably be the dumbest choice for a hot route, especially with Chris Thompson running a crosser underneath.)
It’s not just that Cousins threw another pick; it’s that Jay Gruden called a play that had very little chance of success, to a receiver that, despite all the praise he gets for route running, always seems to struggle to run routes that scare anyone.
Meanwhile, the speedster that spooked Alford into getting a pass interference call that set up a touchdown (Rashad Ross) sat on the sideline for the playcall. Go figure.
Those are just four crucial decisions that ultimately led to the Redskins downfall. It seems a ridiculously obvious notion, but it’s one some fans struggle with; coaching matters. The Falcons appeared to be heading towards a rebuild last season under Mike Smith; under Dan Quinn, they’re 5-0 and looking like contenders.
Joe Barry looked like the worst hire on the planet in the offseason, but he’s done his job, and the defense is starting to find it’s groove, create pressure and get turnovers. Bill Callahan’s group is still a work in progress in the run game, but they’ve kept Cousins clean in pass pro. You can see the impact of Scot’s acquisitions individually on offense.
But ultimately, a team goes as a head coach goes. Gruden’s offense has sputtered and petered out, his hand picked quarterback continues to show signs of regression, and his decision making in the head of the game leaves much, much, MUCH to be desired.
I understand why fans go to bat for Kirk Cousins. I understand people who went to bat for Joe Barry, who ask for patience for Scot McCloughan, who choose to glomb on to individual players and support them.
I do not under Jay Gruden’s supporters. He hasn’t shown much to suggest he’s getting better, or that he’s ever been good.
It’s a long season, and maybe that changes. But as of now? More dumb decisions like this will make for a longer, less successful season indeed.
Follow me on Twitter @KenClyburn.