Robert Griffin III was supposed to become the next franchise quarterback of the Washington Redskins. He was the one to follow the footsteps of greats like Sammy Baugh, Sonny Jurgensen or Joe Theisman. Expectations were even higher after Griffin was voted Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2012 and led Washington to the NFC East title. The sky was the limit.
However, things turned out quite differently.
After two injury-plagued and inconsistent follow-up seasons, Griffin now finds himself relegated to third-string quarterback. The man who took his job as a starter? Kirk Cousins, who was drafted in the same year as Griffin – and who in week 7 had the best game of his three-year career.
With the Redskins visiting the New England Patriots on Sunday, let's take a look at Cousins' game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. By analyzing the five scoring plays the former third-round draft pick was part of, we might find out how the Patriots will defend Washington's newest contender for the title of "franchise quarterback".
1) 3-7-TB 45 (8:31) (Shotgun) 8-K.Cousins sacked at WAS 46 for -9 yards (56-J.Smith). FUMBLES (56-J.Smith) [90-H.Melton], RECOVERED by TB-95-H.Jones at WAS 43. 95-H.Jones for 43 yards, TOUCHDOWN.
The Redskins, unable to stop the visiting Buccaneers on defense and to sustain drives on offense, found themselves in a 17-point hole midway through the second quarter and facing a 3rd-and-long situation. At that point, Washington was 0-for-3 on 3rd down – all pass plays. Again, Washington elected to go with Kirk Cousins' right arm: the offense came out with an empty backfield, with a slot formation on the left and trips on the right:
Tampa Bay countered this formation by dropping seven players into coverage, while rushing four. Cousins' initial reads – the two receivers on the left of the formation – were unable to gain separation and the quarterback was forced to hold onto the ball a little too long (without noticing the hole in front of him, which he could have used to buy a little more time):
In the meantime, right tackle Morgan Moses (76) was beaten by defensive end Jacquies Smith (56). Smith rushed from a wide-9 alignment and beat Moses, who defended him one-on-one on the outside. The Buccaneer hit Cousins' throwing arm and the ball came lose:
Tampa Bay defensive end Howard Jones (95) scooped up the fumbled football and returned it 43 yards for the touchdown. Tampa Bay 24, Washington 0.
A lot went wrong for the Redskins' offense on this play. The receivers were unable to get free against the cover 2 zone defense they faced, Cousins didn't go through his progressions quickly enough, and Moses was beaten on and island because he was unable to properly get his hands on Smith.
The key to New England having similar success against Cousins is forcing the third-year passer in situations like this one – the initial reads covered and the rush getting close. The Patriots' secondary has to be able to play tight coverage and force Cousins to make quick decisions. The chances are good that he won't always make the right one.
2) 1-8-TB 8 (4:32) (Shotgun) 8-K.Cousins left end for 8 yards, TOUCHDOWN.
Since we are talking about Cousins' best statistical game, we also need to look at the positives. The first of those came on the very next possession and with the home team down 24-0. Four passes, one run and one penalty after the kickoff, Washington found itself on Tampa Bay's 8-yard line.
The offense came out in 11 personnel with trips to the right, tight end Derek Carrier (89) split out wide to the left and running back Matt Jones (31) in the backfield next to Cousins, who aligned in the shotgun formation:
What followed will bring back memories of Super Bowl XLIX: the read option. Just like the Seattle Seahawks do it with Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch, the Redskins did it on this play with Kirk Cousins and Matt Jones. It all starts with the offensive line purposefully leaving one rusher – in this case defensive end William Gholston (92) – unblocked:
Judging by the rusher, Cousins either hands the ball off to the running back or runs it himself on the quarterback keeper. In this case, the defender overplayed the inside run and Cousins decided to keep the ball. With Gholston unable to head back outside quickly enough, the quarterback had no problem running into the endzone:
We have talked about defending the option-play prior to Super Bowl XLIX. Essentially, the Patriots have to stay disciplined when it comes to defending it. New England's defensive ends – in most cases Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich – have to set the edge properly, play with sound technique and cannot allow Cousins to potentially run by them.
Another way to defend it is using scrape concepts, which basically function as follows: the defensive end is responsible for stopping the running back, while another defender – possible candidate: Jamie Collins – has to keep an eye on the quarterback. New England has used such concepts in the Super Bowl and was able to slow down the Seahawks to a certain extent.
The Patriots defense has proven itself able to defend the read option in the past. It is possible the unit needs to prove itself again on Sunday.
3) 1-3-TB 3 (11:15) 8-K.Cousins pass short right to 14-R.Grant for 3 yards, TOUCHDOWN.
Early in the third quarter and down by 17 points, the Redskins were in the red zone again. The offense had 21 personnel (two running backs, one tight end, two wide receivers) on the field, with Cousins under center and fullback Darrel Young (36) and Jones in the backfield:
Prior to the snap, wide receiver Ryan Grant (14) motioned from the left to the ride side of the formation. He was followed by cornerback Jude Adjei-Barimah (38), indicating man-to-man coverage. However, after the snap and the subsequent play-action fake, the rookie cornerback didn't stay with Grant but instead opted to be one of multiple defenders covering wide receiver Pierre Garcon (88) over the middle:
Due to the blown coverage, Grant was left wide open and Cousins did a good job of immediately finding his receiver for the easy touchdown.
Given that New England is the best team in the league at game-planning and preparation, it would be a surprise to see a busted play like this one on Sunday. Still, the Patriots' young defensive backs need to stay focused throughout the entire game to avoid coverage breakdowns leading to easy scores or drive-sustaining plays. Devin McCourty, who is the leader of the secondary, needs to make sure that the communication within the group is working at all times and that each player knows his role.
4) 3-3-TB 3 (7:01) (Shotgun) 8-K.Cousins pass short middle to 86-J.Reed for 3 yards, TOUCHDOWN.
After a successful onside kick, Washington again reached Tampa Bay's red zone. Facing a 3rd-and-goal from the three yard line, the team emptied the backfield and put its quarterback in the shotgun. The receivers were aligned in a 2x3 formation, with a slot formation to the left and trips to the right of Kirk Cousins:
The Buccaneers showed blitz but backed off and consequently four players were rushing the passer. In regards to the formation, the play is similar to the first one we looked at, but the results were quite different because Cousins' first read – tight end Jordan Reed (86) – was able to quickly gain separation on a slant route:
Cornerback D.J. Swearinger (36) bit on Reed's initial outside fake and was unable to recover. With no help on the inside, Cousins delivered an accurate pass to cut Tampa Bay's lead to three points.
Reed is tied for the team lead in touchdown catches with three and the Patriots need to focus on him once the Redskins reach the red zone. Luckily for New England, they have three outstanding players to use in such a situation: safeties Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung as well as linebacker Jamie Collins. In the past, all three have shown that they are able to cover tight ends one-on-one. Using only one player to cover the 6'3" tight end would help when it comes to defending Washington's other weapons like Pierre Garcon or DeSean Jackson (who likely makes his return from injury on Sunday).
5) 3-6-TB 6 (:28) (Shotgun) 8-K.Cousins pass short middle to 86-J.Reed for 6 yards, TOUCHDOWN.
Reed also caught the game-winning touchdown pass with 24 seconds left in the fourth quarter. Once again in a 3rd-down situation did Washington come out with an empty backfield and with Cousins in the shotgun. This time, however, the offense used a bunch formation on the left side, with Reed the lone receiver on the right:
What followed was basically the same play as Cousins' second touchdown pass. Reed used a stutter step to fake an outside release but broke inside with separation from safety Bradley McDougald:
The quarterback, again rushed by four, hit his tight end on the slant to give his team the win. Even though linebacker Lavonte David (54) and safety Chris Conte (23) reacted immediately, they had no chance to get there in time to break up the play because a) they had to turn their hips while Reed was running at full speed and b) Cousins released the football quickly. It is a well executed play and one that has been nicely draw up due to the bunch formation on the right side, which would have also been a perfect set-up for a screen pass.
Cousins' final touchdown pass is a good example for Washington's game plan against the Buccaneers: the team opted to attack Tampa Bay with a quick, high-percentage passing game (only three of 33 pass completions went for more than 20 yards).
The Patriots, in order to slow down the Redskins' passing offense, have to make sure to take away those quick and easy completions and force Cousins to go through his progressions step by step. Playing fundamentally sound football, both when it comes to coverage and rushing, as well as good communication within the defense are two key ingredients to do just that – and to improve to 8-0.