October 3, 2008

First Quarter: Offense Review

Four games into the regular season and the Skins have given us plenty to think about. After a devastating week one loss to the Giants, it seemed as if the transition from Joe Gibbs to Jim Zorn would take some time. Then in week two everything fell into place.

Gone was the timid play-calling and vanilla offense and in was the pass to set up the run.

These are not your average Skins.

After everything went horribly wrong on that opening Thursday night, things changed. Now Washington can only do right and boy, is it sweet.

Of course there's the fear that the Skins will regress back into their impotent selves, but for now they are experiencing the thrills of offensive success.

What have they shown us thus far? Well, taking a quick look, fans can quickly see that Jim Zorn has adapted swiftly to coaching and his decisions have been masterful.

Firstly, the offense has been much improved. It has always had great potential for the past several years and Zorn's play calls have really brought it to fruition.

Zorn has made sure that his top playmaker Santana Moss gets at least five or six touches a game. Moss has delivered with these touches as he has 27 catches for 421 yards and three TDs.

Moss is fully healthy for the first time since 2005 and it shows on the field. The fact that he has Antwaan Randle El and Chris Cooley drawing some coverage doesn't hurt either. By 2005's end Jimmy Farris was playing opposite Moss.

Chris Cooley has made strides as a blocker. He seals off edges with more authority while his pass catching abilities haven't eroded in the least. He has 17 catches for 179 yards.

Interestingly, Cooley hasn't been as big a target for QB Jason Campbell this season. Cooley is still a big part of the offense, but it no longer feels as if Campbell needs him as a security blanket. This is a big step for the offense because it shifts defenses' focus away from Cooley, spreading them thin as they try to account for every weapon.

The offensive line has kept Campbell off the ground for the most part, but there is room for improvement. Campbell has been sacked seven times in four games, leaving him on pace to be sacked 28 times.

Fortunately, Campbell can avoid pressure and has cut down on the fumbles. In fact, his ball protection and awareness in the pocket have improved tremendously. So combining Campbell's newfound awareness with a line that should continue to improve, the sacks totals should decrease. In addition, the line will squaring off against weaker fronts like Cincinnati and Cleveland as the season progresses, meaning the number will drop even more.

Stephon Heyer's injury is a concern, but some of that worry was alleviated by Jon Jansen solid effort on Sunday. Jansen has clearly lost a step and yet he still held his own against a ferocious Cowboys front seven. Chris Samuels remains a reliable blindside blocker, and overall the line has done a good job protecting Campbell since their dismal week one game against New York.

The run blocking opened up holes for a phenomenal 161 yard performance by the backs against Dallas this past week. It has paved the way for the Skins' backs to rush for 132.5 yards per game, 11th best in the league.

Randy Thomas continues to remain a terrific guard whom Clinton Portis loves to run behind. However in the Dallas game, all five Dirtbags were generating a strong push in the second half. Zorn dared the Cowboys to bring up eight men in the box by just pounded the ball down their throats. The Cowboys knew it was coming and they still couldn't win the battle in the trenches.

The line's success has largely been due to clock control. A defense gets tired when they can't get off the field and the Skins' offense has remained on the field for an average of 32 and a half minutes per game. In the Dallas game, Washington had the ball for about 38 minutes. When a team gets a decisive advantage like that, then they have to take advantage of it and wear the opposing team down. The Redskin line does just that as the running game has been very effective in the late stages of the last few games.

Clinton Portis has spearheaded the running attack with 369 yards rushing, tied for fourth most in the NFL. He is coming off of a 121 yard game in which he punished the Cowboys defense with some hard-nosed running. He is averaging 4.3 yards per carry which is up from last year's dismal 3.9.

The running attack is remarkably different from years past primarily because of Zorn's West Coast style. Portis does a lot less running in the early stages of a game as Campbell picks apart opposing secondaries. Once the Skins force defenses to respect Campbell, Portis starts to pick up steam. His power and determination are more apparent than last year as there is no longer a "brick wall" in front of him. There are good holes which he hits hard with positive results.

The main concern here is that the running game has yet to be something that can dominate when Campbell struggles. Should there come a game when the Skins have to establish a threat on the ground early on, things could get tricky. The offensive line has done a solid job up to now, but can they ensure the running game's success early in games? I think the Skins might struggle to dictate the line of scrimmage in a game where Campbell struggles. The line is older and the running game has yet to carry the offense so trouble might arise.

This week's test against Philly might solve the problem. I would expect to see more running in the first half due to the Eagles blitz-happy schemes. After this week we could have a better idea of whether or not the run can set up the pass for Washington.

And finally, Jason Campbell has been near flawless following since his bland start against the Giants. He has not turned the ball over while throwing the ball 124 times. His 65.3 completion percentage is five points higher than 2007 and he has thrown for 6 TDs.

The leadership is there; the confidence is there. His precision and calmness under duress have been fantastic. Nothing proves it better than his game-winning 67 yard TD pass to Moss against the Saints in week two. That throw really opened the floodgates and brought forth a new Jason Campbell.

This new Jason Campbell is winning games and making plays. Drives don't stall anymore; they end in scores. Optimism runs high. Now the team must remain focused on continuing their offensive success.

Next up, I'll offer a look at the defense and what we know so far.

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