Redskins.com's Brian Tinsman takes a closer look at Sunday's Week 15 game against the Cleveland Browns at Cleveland Browns Stadium:
Seven months ago, it was difficult to imagine what the Redskins would look like with Robert Griffin III under center. This afternoon, the Redskins were forced to remember what life was like without Griffin III, as he was inactive with a Grade 1 sprain to his right LCL.
Starting in his place was fellow rookie Kirk Cousins, making it the first time since 1994 that the Redskins started a pair of rookies at quarterback (Heath Shuler and Gus Frerotte). Cousins struggled early in this contest, going three-and-out on the first drive before throwing a tipped pass interception on the next drive. This set the Browns up with an early lead, one that would disintegrate in the second half.
With the Redskins trailing 10-14 at the half, Redskins outside linebacker Rob Jackson turned the momentum of the game by intercepting Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden on a pass over the middle. It was an anticipation play by Jackson, who climbed a ladder to secure the catch. He took off for the end zone and set up the offense at the Browns 15-yard line. The ensuing Alfred Morris touchdown put the Redskins ahead for good, as they cruised to a 38-21 victory.
PLAY OF THE GAME
The Redskins came out of the gate with a very conservative approach, leaning heavily on the running game to take the pressure off of Cousins in his first career start. After starting off the game going one-for-six for four yards, an interception and a sack, Cousins recovered with a 54-yard missile down the middle for a touchdown. This pass settled Cousins into a rhythm, as he finished the first half 10-for-13 for 142 yards and a score. Whether it was first start jitters or a schematic change by the coaching staff, the early adjustment worked and kept Cousins in the game.
PLAYER OF THE GAME
Redskins receiver Leonard Hankerson has been a Jekyll and Hyde receiver in his young career, spending most of his rookie season on the bench before gaining 106 yards in Miami. This season, he caught his first pass of the year in Week 2; a 68-yard bomb for a touchdown. Since then, he has 33 receptions without a touchdown, before getting open for a 54-yard touchdown reception from Cousins in the first quarter. His next catch came in the third quarter, in the form of his second touchdown of the day. Even with Pierre Garçon, Santana Moss and Joshua Morgan producing in the lineup, the Redskins need a big receiver capable of getting open in the secondary, and Hankerson is that guy.
Redskins linebacker London Fletcher was born in raised in Cleveland before going to college at nearby John Carroll University. In his 15-year NFL career, he had never played a game in Cleveland, despite facing his hometown team five times in his career. He had a number of family members and friends in attendance for today's game, and gave them a show with a first quarter open-field tackle for a loss, before picking off Brandon Weeden for the 22nd interception of his sensational career. Fletcher has battled through an ankle injury since the bye week, tallying 44 tackles, three passes defensed and three interceptions in those games. In the game's biggest moments, he is one of the Redskins' biggest players, and he performed well for his hometown fans.
WHAT WENT RIGHT
--With Griffin III out of the lineup, it was assumed that the Redskins would ride the running game as far as it would carry them. As it turned out, the Redskins used early frustration in the running game to set up a very successful play action attack. Morris carried the load, as the Redskins rushed for 122 team yards, including a game-high 17-yard rush from Cousins. Who said Griffin III is the only dual-threat quarterback?
--The Redskins have officially recouped their value on Kirk Cousins, a fourth-round pick in April's NFL Draft. In the last two weeks, Cousins has led the Redskins to consecutive victories, closing out a comeback win vs. Baltimore before finishing what he started today. Cousins has shown tremendous development under the tutelage of the coaching staff, and led a new-look offense to victory today. Cousins may not have the same skill set as Griffin III, but he has a certain knack for winning, a skill that cannot be undervalued.
--Redskins special teamers had a special day today, led by punter Sav Rocca. When the Redskins struggled to move the ball early in the game, Rocca consistently reversed the field, averaging 53.3 yards per punt to open the game. Coverage specialists Lorenzo Alexander and Niles Paul helped neutralize Browns' returner Joshua Cribbs, who had two punt returns for just 15 yards in the first half.
--The decision to make a change at punt returner is continuing to pay dividends for the Redskins, as Richard Crawford has provided the team with a consistent threat in the return game. Crawford made his mark in overtime last week, but his decisiveness and willingness to follow his blocks makes him a reliable option.
--Credit to Pierre Garçon for keeping his cool this afternoon as tempers flared at the end of the second quarter. While players jogged to the locker room, D'Qwell Jackson and Frostee Rucker came over to engage him in spirited debate. Garçon did not take the bait. After halftime, Browns safety T.J. Ward taunted Joshua Morgan after a tackle, trying to instigate altercation. Garçon showed his unit leadership, pulling Morgan back to the huddle and avoiding a volatile situation. Garçon's 15-yard penalty for taunting at the end of the quarter was questionable, considering he spins the ball after almost every reception.
--Ohioans impressive in return: The Redskins have two starters native to Cleveland (London Fletcher, Barry Cofield), and one former Ohio State standout (Doug Worthington) returning to the Buckeye State today. For Fletcher and Worthington it was the inaugural trip to Cleveland, with Cofield visiting during his time with the Giants.
--Redskins outside linebackers Ryan Kerrigan and Rob Jackson have found their stride during the Redskins' winning streak, with Rob Jackson snagging a tide-turning interception early in the third quarter. The pick and subsequent 17-yard return set the offense up at the 15-yard line for running back Alfred Morris's eighth touchdown of the year. Kerrigan supplied key pressure on Weeden throughout the day and batted two passes in the flats. With Jackson's recent surge, Kerrigan has seen more opportunities to make plays on defense.
--Veteran safety Reed Doughty is known for his versatility and being able to handle all assignments in the Redskins secondary. He got his opportunity near the line of scrimmage today, earning three tackles in short yardage situations and supplying impressive blitz pressure off the edge.
--Redskins kicker Kai Forbath had another clutch day, scoring seven points, including his 15th-consecutive field goal to start his NFL career. In addition, Forbath did a fine job limiting Joshua Cribbs to 27 yards per return, directionally kicking and counting on his coverage for support. Considering what Cribbs is capable of, the entire coverage team should be commended. Head coach Mike Shanahan said this week that Forbath can do better at kickoffs, and Forbath proved it today.
--Redskins performed well against the tight end today, limited the Browns to five tight end receptions for 46 yards. Cleveland is not known for their top-tier tight ends, but it was still forward progress for a defense that has struggled against the tight end this season.
WHAT WENT WRONG
--The Redskins got away from what worked on offense in the first three drives, not finding their stride this afternoon until Cousins found Hankerson for 54 yards over the middle on the first play of the drive. The Redskins have had great success throwing deep this season, with Cousins slinging two touchdowns for great than 50 yards (77, 54). Abandoning the aggression put the Redskins in an early hole, which they worked hard to overcome.
--Despite holding Richardson to just 28 yards on 11 carries, they still gave up two touchdowns to the rookie back, showing some softness in the goal line defense. The Redskins have excelled at being a bend-but-don't-break defense this season, trading touchdowns for field goals. Today was not their best goal line effort, as the Browns offer few other goal line and red zone threats.
With his fourth-quarter touchdown, Redskins running back Alfred Morris broke the franchise rookie rushing touchdown record set by Skip Hicks in 1998. With his ninth score of the season, Morris can now lay undisputed claim to the best rookie running back of all time, also extending his hold over the rookie rushing yard mark (1,322 yards).
The Redskins stay on the road next week, closing out the season series with the Philadelphia Eagles. The Eagles have struggled mightily this season, turning to rookie quarterback Nick Foles and rookie running back Bryce Brown to shoulder the load. With that being said, the Redskins will face a division opponent that they have struggled against in recent years. Needing every win in their pursuit of the playoffs, the Redskins will need another big performance in search of their sixth-consecutive victory.
Walking out of Cleveland with a victory was no guarantee, especially how both teams came out of the gate. The Redskins looked tentative on offense and defense, while the Browns—winners of three-straight—captured the early momentum.
It took another total-team effort for the fifth-straight win, with the Redskins surging for 28 second-half points and putting the Browns away. A victory was necessary, but the Redskins also built momentum ahead of a pair of division games to end the season. Whether or not Griffin III is able to play next week, the Redskins showed a lot of resolve today, staying focused on the task at hand and winning one for their offensive captain.
The Redskins need to get healthy this week, as Griffin III, Fletcher, Josh Wilson and Trent Williams continue to nurse injuries. If the Redskins can keep playing every game like a playoff game, they may just secure their first in five years.