Times are tough in our nation’s capital. Questions about leadership at the highest levels, failures of execution at all levels, in-fighting and even parliament intrigue surrounding everything that happens and a vocal media waiting to pounce on every bit of news that comes out.
Of course I’m talking about the local football team.
Washington enters Week 5 with a number of questions swirling around their organization. The team is 0-4 and speculation is rising that head coach Jay Gruden is coaching for his job. Trent Williams continues his holdout, leaving the offense thin on the offensive line. Starting quarterback Case Keenum is in a walking boot, meaning perhaps Colt McCoy or rookie Dwayne Haskins see the start on Sunday. Defensively, Washington is struggling as well and gave up three touchdown passes to Mitchell Trubisky two weeks ago, and another touchdown to Daniel Jones last week. Outside of rookie wide receiver Terry McLaurin, there are few bright spots.
But regardless of who is taking the snaps for the offense, they will be put in position to execute in the downfield passing game thanks to what Gruden is able to dial up schematically off of play-action. Even with all of these missed opportunities for this Washington passing game, there are still some things Jerod Mayo and Bill Belichick will be worried about. Here is some of what the New England Patriots will be facing this Sunday down at FedEx Field.
Washington opened their season in fine fashion offensively, holding a halftime lead over the Philadelphia Eagles before fading in the second half. Part of this was due to the play from Keenum and the route concepts from Gruden. Take this touchdown throw. Early in the second quarter the offense faces a 2nd and 8 in their own territory. Washington’s offense breaks the huddle using 11 offensive personnel, and lines up with Keenum (#8) under center and with three receivers in a tight formation to the right:
The route concept they employ on this play is a variation of the Mills concept, often referred to as NCAA Mills. It pairs the Mills design (a deep post with a complementary dig route) with a shallow cross concept, which has a dig route and a shallow drag underneath it. That gives Keenum a three-level stretch to choose from that looks like this:
The Eagles’ secondary gets caught focusing on the shallow cross portion of the play, and leave their backside cornerback isolated one-on-one against McLaurin (#17) who is running the deep post. The CB seems to be expecting inside help from a safety, and uses outside leverage. That enables McLaurin to run away from him. Keenum, coming out of the play-action fake, has an easy throw for the long touchdown:
Washington missed a chance for another big play in the second half of this game, coming off another creative design. On this 1st and 10 play late in the third quarter, the offense faces a 1st and 10 on their own 27-yard line. The Eagles have just scored to take their first lead of the game, but Washington fails to convert the opportunity they have on this play to erase their one-point deficit. Keenum lines up under center on this play and Washington starts with a 2x2 alignment:
Prior to the play, they bring wide receiver Paul Richardson (#10) in jet motion from right to left:
The ball is snapped with Richardson just behind Keenum, and the pre-snap motion causes a bit of movement in response from the Eagles’ defense. Here is the route concept Washington dials up:
Richardson runs a swing route to the left, and Washington uses a switch verticals concept to that side of the field as well. Trey Quinn (#18) runs an out-and-up working towards the boundary while McLaurin runs a deep post route.
The pre-snap motion creates confusion in the Philadelphia secondary. The safety rotates down in response to cover Richardson, but the backside cornerback fails to replace him in the middle of the field. McLaurin exploits this, much as he did on the previous play, and is wide open.
Keenum just misses him:
Both of these deep shots came off of play-action designs, and that is exactly how Washington opened up their Week 2 contest against the Dallas Cowboys. On the first play of the game from scrimmage, the offense lines up with Keenum under center and 11 offensive personnel in the game:
Quinn uses “zag” motion, crossing the formation first from right to left, but then reversing course:
When the ball is snapped, Quinn is back on the right side of the formation. His zag motion is really just eye candy for the meat and potatoes of this play, a variation of the yankee concept:
Rookie WR Kelvin Harmon (#13) runs an over route, while McLaurin runs a deep post route over the top. Quinn releases to the flat. Keenum executes a play-action fake, and looks for McLaurin on the post route. The QB is reading the safety in the middle of the field, and he holds in place, letting McLaurin get over the top of him:
Once more, McLaurin establishes inside positioning against his cornerback and is starting to get separation. But Keenum misses on this throw, putting it too far back to the inside, and the pass falls incomplete. If the QB puts this out in front of McLaurin, this play has a change to hit for big yardage.
Maybe it is time to pay more attention to McLaurin in the secondary…
Even last week in Washington’s loss to the Chicago Bears, there were designs that stressed the Chicago secondary in the passing game off of play-action. While Khalil Mack and company were pressuring Keenum early and often, there were still plays that worked for the Washington offense. Take this 1st and 10 play from the first quarter. Washington has the football on their own 42-yard line and lines up with Keenum in the shotgun. They’ll run an RPO design, pulling the center and left guard to the left edge in front of a potential handoff to the running back, but Keenum has the option to pull this and throw either to the tight end Jeremy Sprinkle (#87) on a crossing route or McLaurin on a deep comeback:
As Keenum meets his running back at the mesh point he sees the linebackers reacting to the potential run. They’re reading their run/pass keys, and when they see the C and LG pull they move in response. Keenum pulls the football and throws to Sprinkle on the crosser, and puts this throw in a good spot given the safety crashing downhill:
Again, you might notice McLaurin uncovered along the right sideline.
The ineffectiveness in Washington’s offense continued into last week, however, and after Keenum struggled early Gruden was forced to go to the bench and call upon the rookie. Keeping with the theme of missed opportunities, here is how the offense opened the game against the New York Giants:
Again working off play-action, Keenum takes the snap and fakes a handoff to his right, before dropping into the pocket. Gruden has called for a two-man vertical concept to the left consisting of a deep comeback route along the sideline and a seam route from Quinn. (This is a route concept the Patriots call “seam.”) From the backside there is a dig route, which works to give the free safety something to think about. Keenum influences the safety by looking at the dig first, causing the defender to collapse down on the dig, and it frees up Quinn on the seam route.
But Keenum misses the throw badly.
Another miss to Quinn was likely the reason Gruden went to the bullpen. Midway through the second quarter the Washington offense takes the field following an interception thrown by Jones. Facing a 1st and 10 on their own 47-yard line, and trailing by 14, the visitors have a chance to get right back into this game.
Gruden calls for a four verticals concept off of play-action, from a 3x1 formation:
The Giants show press coverage on the outside, and run a Cover 1 Robber scheme while blitzing one of the linebackers:
As you can see, this single-high coverage is almost ideal from an offensive perspective on this play. Keenum can influence the free safety with his eyes to either the vertical route bending across the formation from the tight end or to the seam route from Quinn out of the slot. Once the free safety commits, Keenum can throw to the other route away from the safety’s rotation.
Keenum gets the free safety to move toward the bender, but then misses on the seam:
Again, another opportunity in the vertical passing game off of play-action, that Keenum misses.
It is not like the situation improved when Gruden when to the rookie. Haskins threw not one...not two...but three interceptions during his time in the game. This one, from late in the third quarter, gets returned by Jabril Peppers for a touchdown:
Haskins (#7) is reading a simple go/swing combination on the left, and the coverage is sound. That should be something he sees immediately, but he stays on that a bit too long. He then comes to the dig route in the middle of the field from his tight end, but he locks his eyes on that route too long as well. That gives the free safety a chance to jump the dig, and Peppers returns it for six.
But as we heard Wednesday, they certainly have a plan.
Jay Gruden on the Redskins QB plan for Sunday: “We don’t have one right now.”— Nora Princiotti (@NoraPrinciotti) October 2, 2019
Rough seas ahead.
So, while Washington might be struggling overall, Gruden is still calling plays off of play-action that have worked, or at least put this offense in position to produce. Also, we have seen McLaurin work himself open early and often this season. Whether this offense can put these plays together remains to be seen - as does who takes the snaps for them on Sunday - but the Patriots’ defense will be facing some designs that could cause them problems when this game kicks off.