This game was gratifying. Throughout training camp, players have made a point of mentioning how focused they have been. With that in mind, I am not surprised that the Washington Redskins beat the Pittsburgh Steelers last night at FEDEX Field.
Much of the media predicted sloppy, slow play this preseason throughout the NFL and Washington’s offense was the opposite. For the most part, the plays were crisp, the tempo quick and the effort high. If watching wasn’t enough to prove it, the stats tell the story. While the run game did its part; with running back Tim Hightower and rookies Evan Royster and Roy Helu, Jr. making huge contributions and gaining a combined 140 yards rushing, the receiving game was productive and provided an excitement that has been missing from this team for years.
Quarterback Rex Grossman got the offense in and out of the huddle quickly. He was relaxed and looked very comfortable in the pocket. He completed 19 of 26 passing attempts for 207 yards and one touchdown and ended up with an impressive 109 passer rating.
The receivers came to play and (ahem) as I knew would happen, wide out Santana Moss proved why it was imperative that head coach Mike Shanahan re-sign him to the burgundy and gold.
One of the things I like most about preseason is that you see so many different players on the field as the coaches carry out their evaluations. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan really spread the ball around, resulting in 15 different targets for Grossman and current back-up quarterback Kellen Clemens. Moss, Jabar Gaffney, Donte Stallworth and Anthony Armstrong caught the majority of passes, catching five of five for 38 yards (Gaffney – 7.6-yards average), three for six and 46 yards (Stallworth – 15.3-yards average) and three of four attempts for 32 yards (Armstrong – 10.7-yards average).
While he wasn’t a target as much as the aforementioned receivers, the 5’11″, 175 lbs. UCLA product, Terrence Austin showed Redskins coaches and fans why he needs to be on this team. Catching two of three passing attempts sent his way for 46 yards and a 23-yards-per-catch average, the wide out’s long catch and his punt return of 19 yards were important. Austin has been quietly working hard in camp and it’s paid off for the team and for fans looking for excitement.
During the Redskins second possession of the second quarter, Grossman found Moss for 16 yards which put them on the 34-yard line. Then a couple of seven yard gains from Gaffney gave the Skins another first and 10 at the Washington 48. Grossman had good protection (he could have run for a huge yardage himself if he’d needed to with the hole the offensive line gave him) and got off a pass to Austin over the middle for a 38-yard gain. This set up the team to finish the drive off with the short pass to Moss for the touchdown.
Austin’s exciting 19-yard punt return in the middle of the 4th quarter was good enough to get the Redskins to the Washington 45-yard line. Kyle Shanahan then fed the ball to rookie Roy Helu, Jr. six times and got the team down the field far enough for kicker Graham Gano to work on saving his job by kicking a 45-yard field goal.
The former Bruin had a good game and he looked comfortable doing it. As with the offensive line, being in this second year of a complicated system is paying off. And even though he didn’t play as much as some of the other guys, he played enough to make Shanahan have to think long and hard about letting him go. The guy has been working really hard in camp on his receiving and on special teams. You can’t help but cheer for someone that so obviously loves his job. He definitely helped himself last night and will be someone to watch as the preseason goes on.
“I’ve just been waiting to get the ball since we ended last year,” he said in the locker room after the game. “I mean, that’s all we want to do is play ball. I got a chance to get out and do that today and it was fun.
“It’s my second year in and I’m able to relax a little bit more,” Austin elaborated on the difference between the 2010 season and last night. “I was real anxious last year. I know what I’m doing now. It’s our second year together and the camaraderie is also a lot different than it was last year. There’s definitely a difference.”
These Redskins want to erase the memory of last season and get this team back to its winning ways.
“As a team we’ve been a lot more focused,” the wide out said. “We’ve been down here just trying to take care of business. We’ve been sharp in practice; everybody’s been down with their assignments. Everybody’s just got a common goal. We were not happy last year with how the season turned out and we’re trying to impress everybody here that’s watching us. We’re trying to impress the coaches and become a better football team.”
Like most players – especially those involved in special teams – Austin is not very happy with the new kickoff rules (opening kickoffs are now spotted at the 35 yard line instead of the 30 meaning decent kicks will end up mostly in or past the end zone resulting in touchbacks and not much excitement in the return game). He was pretty blunt about it.
“It sucks but I think it’s situational.”
Austin has said that he wants to be a guy that the team can depend on and if it requires him to be a jack-of-all-trades, so be it. In discussing his fourth quarter slant route to get the 3rd down conversion, he showed his value in reading defenses. Clemens was in the shotgun formation and saw that Austin had read the coverage. The QB popped a pass short right and Austin got the yards needed to make a first down.
“I needed to make a play,” the receiver said. “We needed to covert and I’m used to doing that because I did it a lot at school. I want to be dependable. That’s a situation where I need to make a play. The team moving forward was on the line and to get the first down, that’s what I needed to do – catch the route.”
Austin’s 19-yard punt return was exciting and much-needed. It’s good to know that there is so much talent in the return team. The man will do whatever is asked of him to help this team win. The camaraderie he spoke of earlier became apparent when he was complimented on the “sizzle” he displayed on that particular special teams play.
“I mean, I know but Brandon is the man,” he said graciously. “But, if at any point they needed me to fill a void, I’m there.”
Speaking of a productive passing game, the offensive line has to be given their due credit for it. According to a tweet from Grant Paulson, on the Redskins’ first run-play, left tackle Trent Williams blocked Steelers’ Brett Keisel seven yards off the ball on a run off left-tackle. A block that powerful reminds me of what Ravens’ tackle Micheal Oher said in the movie “The Blind Side” (my favorite movie besides “The Lion King” and “The Italian Job“) about a superior block he made on defensive player while in high school:
“It was time for him to go home.”
Both the first and second teams – for the most part – held their gaps, creating holes for the running backs and giving both quarterbacks time to do what they needed to do.
Overall, all of the additions and subtractions that Mike Shanahan has made to the team combined with an incredible sense of focus; and the familiarity and comfort that comes with being in the second year of a system will combine to make the 2011 Redskins something fun to watch. If the passing game continues to improve, look for some real excitement this season.