November 29, 2010

You Can Bank On Brandon

A column for SB Nation DC.
LANDOVER, MD - On a day of underwhelming performances at FedEx Field during a disappointing 17-13 Redskins loss to the Minnesota VikingsBrandon Banks continued to cement his image as the poster boy of NFL special teams in 2010.
The Redskins may have turned in a lifeless 60 minutes of football on Sunday, allowing Brett Favre to power walk his way to a win, but the blame went nowhere near Banks. An older roster is starting to look its age down the stretch and Banks is one of the few players breathing life into a dormant franchise.
On Sunday, Banks had a 65-yard kickoff return to set up a field goal and also had the potential game-winning 77-yard punt return that was called back for an illegal block in the back. He did all this just weeks after undergoing knee surgery, which is visibly bothering him.
In fact, Banks hasn't missed a game since the surgery, and though he has lacked the same burst we saw a few weeks ago in Detroit, he is still presently one of the best in the business. Should he break through and have another banner day by the end of 2010, the entire NFL community will recognize that he is the heir apparent to Devin Hester.
Mike Shanahan spared little praise, speaking highly of the effort Banks gave against Minnesota.
"What a great effort today both with the punt returns and kick-off returns," Shanahan said. "He is getting healthier each day and he is getting back into football shape. It has taken him a while with his injuries, but he is a big play guy. He wants to make plays and more often than not he does."
Banks was a longshot to make the roster in training camp, but his speed and playmaking abilities could not be ignored after he took a punt back 77 yards for a score in the first preseason game of the year against Buffalo. The question was whether a 150-pound wide receiver with fumbling concerns was actually worth a roster spot.
Shanahan and company decided to take a chance and it's turned out to be one of their best moves this year. Banks has 1,109 combined return yards on the season and had 271 of them in a 37-25 loss to Detroit, setting a franchise record for the most return yards in a single game.
Banks' 272 punt return yards mark the most by a Redskin since the 342 yards amassed by Antwaan Randle El in 2006. The kicker is that Banks has only played in seven games and is on pace to shatter Randle El's 2006 totals. Heading into the game against the Vikings, Banks was already ranked fifth in the NFL in average yards per punt return and has returned three kicks for touchdowns this season (two of which were called back due to penalties).
Guys like Dante "the Human Joystick" Hall and Hester became household names despite limited touches in a minor role because they were explosive, creative and athletic. Banks is certainly in the mold of those players: a pint-sized dynamo with a penchant for the big play. The Redskins have lacked a player with Banks' capabilities since Brian Mitchell was cut in 2000, and no matter who they have used to field kicks, the return game has suffered. A good return man is hard to find, but it seems the Redskins may have uncovered the next big thing in game-breaking firepower.
"He's an explosive guy that can make plays," receiver Santana Moss said. "He's a home-run hitter anytime he touches the ball. He's one of those guys that every team wishes they had, and we are fortunate and lucky to have him."
Banks is the type of player who can quickly change the complexion of a game. His returns flip field position, alter the scoreboard, break ankles, you name it. Just add water and you've got yourself an athletic freak who can knock your socks off on command. As long as punters kick to him, Banks will be one of those rare commodities. Seriously, when was the last time opposing teams had to gameplan for the Redskins return game?

November 28, 2010

Postgame Recap: Lifeless Loss To Favre And The Vikes

Trailing by four points to the Minnesota Vikings late in the fourth quarter, the Washington Redskins were in need of a big play to jumpstart an anemic offense. They got one in the form of Brandon Banks' 77-yard punt return for a touchdown, but an illegal block in the back by linebacker Perry Riley nullified the go-ahead score. Minnesota held off the Redskins' ensuing comeback effort as Brett Favre scrambled for a key first down, icing a 17-13 Vikings win in Leslie Frazier's debut as the Vikings head coach.
The Vikings overcame an injury to star running back Adrian Peterson as backup Toby Gerhart ran for a five-yard touchdown in the third quarter to put the Vikings ahead for good 14-7. Peterson was having a tremendous day with 70 combined yards on seven touches before leaving the game with an ankle injury in the first half. Gerhart led a run-based attack with 76 yards on 22 carries, including several key third down conversions to milk the clock late.
But it was Favre's run on third and eight with 2:25 remaining that sealed it. Favre rolled to his right off a playaction fake and finding no one open, he took off. Reed Doughty had a play on the 41-year old quarterback, but pulled him down past the marker. With no timeouts left, all the Redskins could do was watch as Minnesota ran out the clock.
"You either get it done or you don't and today we were off," said Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan. "We were pretty inconsistent against a defense that was fairly good. They played a lot more consistently than we did and they deserve to win."
Minnesota may have outplayed the Redskins, but if not for Riley's blunder they would have been trailing late. Banks, weeks removed from knee surgery, fielded a Chris Kluwe punt at his own 23 and made several nifty moves to get by the first wave of Minnesota defenders. He burst through a seam downfield and left a trail of Vikings in his wake. As the elusive return man celebrated in the end zone, the referees proceeded to mark the ball back inside the twenty as Riley had clipped a Viking from behind covering the kick.
Riley, a rookie out of LSU, was clearly upset after his second penalty on special teams. He left FedEx Field without speaking to reporters, but Redskins PR set up a conference call with reporters shortly after he left.
"It was a return to the left side of the field, he said. "I was trying to get position on my man. [Brandon] Banks did a good job setting the dude up. I thought I hit him on his shoulder rather than his back. Apparently I hit him in the back and the call was made."
The return marked the second time Banks has had a touchdown called back due to a penalty. He has one touchdown on the year and continued to be a catalyst in the return game Sunday.
"The guy just keeps making plays," said center Casey Rabach of Banks. "Then you see a yellow flag on the ground and it just really stings."
Following the penalty, Washington still had a chance to drive down for a score with 6:54 left in the game. But the offense went three and out, punted to the Vikings and never got the ball back.
Linebacker London Fletcher told reporters the team still expected to come back after Banks' return was wiped out, but to no avail.
"I felt like it was a situation where our offense was going to be able to go down there and get a touchdown," said Fletcher. "That didn't happen. So it was on us defensively to give our offense another chance and that was what our job was at that point. We didn't do it."
After throwing 50 passes last week in Tennessee, Donovan McNabb threw 35 times this week as the Redskins ground game continued their inefficient play. Washington ran the ball 13 times for 29 yards behind a makeshift offensive line that lost starting right guard Artis Hicks in the first half.
With the Redskins reduced to the passing game, McNabb went 21-35 for 211 yards, a touchdown and an interception. His receivers dropped six passes including one which Santana Moss tipped into the air resulting in an interception by linebacker E.J. Henderson during the third quarter. The turnover was the only one of the game for both teams and led to Ryan Longwell's 31-yard field goal, which put the Vikings up 17-7.
"I'm not sure exactly what it was, but he does not drop very many balls and when he does it is quite unusual," said Shanahan in regard to Moss' rough outing.
Washington got on the board first as McNabb threw a 10-yard TD pass to Fred Davis on the team's first possession. The drive was one of the most impressive of the season; a 13-play effort that used up 7:53 of clock. The Redskins even used the wildcat in the drive, featuring Banks in the shotgun with McNabb lined up out wide. However after the quick start, they wouldn't get it past Minnesota's 47 yard line for the remainder of the half.
"That's the frustrating part, especially when you go through that first drive and everything seems to be clicking," said McNabb. "Pretty much after that, it was just mistakes that we made that were self-inflicted that we couldn't control."
If not for a 45-yard pass from McNabb to Anthony Armstrong and a 65-yard kick-off return by the elusive Banks, the Redskins wouldn't have even managed the two Graham Gano field goals they scored on in the second half. The field goals made it a one score game, but the closest Washington could get was on Banks' nullified punt return.
"They did a great job," said McNabb. "You tip your hat off to them, but there were mistakes that we, obviously, can correct. If we correct those mistakes then maybe it's a different ballgame."
The loss drops Washington to 5-6 overall, damaging their already slim play-off hopes.
Game Notes: The Redskins touchdown on their opening series was their longest scoring drive of the year. McNabb went 8-8 for 84 yards and a touchdown on the drive.
Banks' 272 yards on punt returns are the most for a Redskin since Antwaan Randle El posted 342 in 2006.
Chris Cooley moved past Hall of Famer Bobby Mitchell for seventh place on the franchise's all-time receptions list. Cooley has 397 catches, surpassing Mitchell's 393 grabs.

Redskins Vs. Vikings: Pregame Notes

Terrence Austin was called up from the practice squad for today's game after the release of Joey Galloway. You have to wonder how much Austin will play given the banged up state of Brandon Banks. Banks is still a great returner, but the knee surgery he underwent during the bye has clearly slowed him down. Austin could handle some of the return duties and hopefully he'll see reps.

Derrick Dockery is inactive, leaving the Redskins with just seven offensive linemen and considering Casey Rabach is coming off an injury, I'm not sure I like that. The Vikings still have a strong defensive line, which will be tough for the depleted Redskins to handle.

Being without LaRon Landry will prove costly. Reed Doughty doesn't have his array of talents and Kareem Moore has been spotty. The back end of the secondary will be a concern as will containing Adrian Peterson. The Redskins are giving up a league worst 5.1 yards per carry so expect Minnesota to stick to the ground game throughout the day.

Meanwhile Washington is without Ryan Torain due to a hamstring injury. Keiland Williams will start and James Davis will back him up just days after being promoted from the practice squad.

Here's the complete list of inactives.

November 24, 2010

New Skinscast: Taking Down Tennessee

Pappas, Reffkin, Murf, and myself break down the win over the Titans and try to determine just how good the Redskins are. The Vikings game is winnable, but with the firing of the much hated Brad Childress, will Minnesota  turn it on in time for the Redskins?

Listen here.

November 22, 2010

An Inoffensive Line?

My bi-weekly column for SB Nation DC.

Good football teams win the battle up front game in and game out. Ask the 1991 edition of the Washington Redskins. The Hogs allowed opposing defenses to sack quarterback Mark Rypien just nine times on the year en route to a Super Bowl trophy. A good offensive line can dictate the line of scrimmage and control the ball, giving their team a legitimate chance at winning every single week.
After experiencing so much success behind one of the greatest offensive lines in NFL history, one would expect the Redskins to always remain committed to building from the trenches out. Unfortunately, a lack of attention to detail has recently left the offensive line undermanned and outplayed for much of the past few seasons.
The Redskins started the 2008 season at 6-2, but since they have gone 11-23 largely due to the woeful state of their offensive line. As bookend tackles Jon Jansen and Chris Samuels faded into the sunset, the Redskins failed to address the need for new blood up front. Throughout the past three years, while Washington has struggled to win football games, there has been one constant. The offensive line has been old, injury-prone, and ineffective for the majority of the past 34 games, contributing heavily to the offensive futility plaguing the team.
This season Mike Shanahan added a crucial piece to the puzzle by drafting Trent Williams to play left tackle. While Williams has been reliable, it's the veteran lineman who haven't been holding up their end. The protection for Donovan McNabb has been inconsistent, playing a factor in his erratic play while the run blocking has been horrid for most of the season.
The Redskins are saddled with a bunch of over-the-hill, second rate linemen once again this year, and it has shown. Shanahan was unable to revamp the entire line in just one offseason, and so the likes of Artis HicksStephon Heyer, and Kory Lichtensteiger have been forced into starting roles. Casey Rabach, once a serviceable center, is now a shell of his former self, as he spends most Sundays tripping McNabb or being pushed into him by defensive tackles. Meanwhile Jammal Brown, the tackle the Redskins traded a draft pick away to get this summer, has been ravaged by recurring injuries.
If it's a bad matchup in the trenches, then it's safe to expect little offensively from Washington. Heading into Sunday's game against Tennessee, there was little reason to doubt that the Titansdefensive line, with their complex schemes and pressure-generating tactics wouldn't win the day.
Instead, injuries allowed the unthinkable to happen. The Redskins were force to unveil a new look offensive line, and it worked, tremendously. Now, the operative question must be asked. Is the unit the Redskins were forced to trot out yesterday the answer, in the short-term at least, to the Redskins blocking inadequacies?
The Redskins surprisingly dominated the line of scrimmage for large parts of the game despite being without Hicks and losing Rabach and Derrick Dockery. The Titans, ranked 11th against the run entering the contest, allowed 107 yards rushing to Washington and were also kept away from McNabb for much of the tilt.
The result was one of the better outings in McNabb's short stint with the Redskins. The offense possessed the ball for over 40 minutes. Kyle Shanahan was able to open up his playbook, as the offense established a rhythm. Meanwhile, the Titans were left gasping for air as the Keiland Williams-Clinton Portis combination proved too much to handle.
When the offensive line plays well, it leads to an improved offensive performance. Though he was sacked three times and threw a costly interception, McNabb made sure to put the Redskins in position to score all day and connected with nine different receivers.
This despite the Redskins using a tackle to play guard and a guard to play center. After Rabach and Dockery went down, the coaching staff threw together a line combination that I'm sure no one expected would be successful. Heyer, normally a tackle, played right guard. Will Montgomery, in his first game all season, played center while Brown, Lichtensteiger, and Williams rounded it out.
I think it's safe to state that Heyer and Montgomery are both utility backups, but yesterday they outplayed the usual starters in Hicks and Rabach. Oddly enough, the latter were featured on Yahoo! Sports' Shutdown Corner No-Pro Team as two of the most disappointing linemen in the NFL. Maybe offensive line coach Chris Foerster missed something when he didn't get those guys out sooner in favor of Heyer and Montgomery.

November 21, 2010

Redskins Roundup: Play-Off Race Heats Up After Win In Tennessee

-Huge statement win today for the Redskins in Tennessee. The Titans are a rough and tumble team with a defensive line that could have dominated. They did have three sacks, but for the most part Donovan McNabb had as much time as he's had all year. Given that it was coming from a patchwork offensive line, Mike Shanahan might want to rework his lineup.

-Today, the Redskins had success with Will Montgomery filling in for Artis Hicks at right guard and then at center for Casey Rabach. I didn't realize how bad Rabach was until Montgomery came in and held down the middle. It made a huge difference and Stephon Heyer did an adequate job at right guard. Keep this combination together, please.

-Chris Cooley had a monster game despite having no catches in the first half. Seven second half grabs. He moved the chains in several huge situations and played perhaps one of his best games of the year.

-Ditto for Fred Davis. Freddie Delight had two catches and he made plenty happen after the catch. His role will expand if he keeps on making plays.

-The running game is on its last legs despite a strong day. Clinton Portis, Keiland Williams, Chad Simpson, and Ryan Torain are all banged up and Darrel Young is a former linebacker converted to fullback. Shanahan will have to find another back this week.

-The secondary held Randy Moss to zero catches. Oh yeah that isn't impressive anymore. Still, the secondary had a decent day, giving up 222 yards. Granted, Rusty Smith isn't Elway, but how embarrassing would it have been to lose the game to Rusty Smith?

-Kareem Moore has to learn to tackle. He isn't the ballhawk we thought he'd be, making his inability to bring down ballcarriers even more apparent. The guy was tracking down everything in camp, but he has been shaky this season.

-You can't say enough about the resiliency of this team. A legion of players go down on a complete joke of a field (seriously the players can't be happy about how poor the condition of the turf was) and yet they gut it out against a mentally strong Titans team. Maybe Jeff Fischer went to Chris Johnson too late, but the Redskins dominated the clock and the game and came away with a hard-fought win just six days after a devastating loss. Good to see the team has a short memory because a focused effort next week should be enough to beat a faltering Vikings squad.

-The NFC East has a key matchup tonight between the Giants and Eagles. The Redskins will move a game behind the loser.

Overall, a key win for the Redskins because Tampa Bay and New Orleans won to stay two games ahead in the wild-card hunt. A loss would have pretty much ended postseason dreams for the 'Skins. They have to worry about Green Bay and Chicago as well. The Redskins may be a mediocre team, but they are in the thick of the race and another win next week will make it interesting down the stretch.

Postgame Recap Vs. Titans: Golden Graham

Coming off a brutal 59-28 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, the Washington Redskins could have thrown in the towel on a season where the play-off race was slipping away. By the start of the second half against the Tennessee Titans on Sunday, injuries had depleted their roster, and the Redskins had blown several opportunities to take the lead. But Mike Shanahan and his players refused to fold.

Despite the injuries, Washington rebounded from a ghastly performance last week, working overtime to beat the Titans 19-16 on a 48-yard field goal from Graham Gano. The embattled Redskins placekicker made the most of his second chance to win the game, drilling the ball through the uprights in a blustery wind at LP Field to keep the team’s play-off hopes alive in a muddled NFC race.

Already without G Artis Hicks, CB Carlos Rogers, and S LaRon Landry prior to the game, the Redskins lost a host of other players on a slick field, but somehow managed to control the flow of play. Washington had more yards, controlled the ball for over 40 minutes, and contained superstar RB Chris Johnson for much of the game.

Donovan McNabb appeared to throw an interception on the winning drive, but Alterraun Verner’s diving attempt was overturned by the officials. Several costly penalties put the Redskins in prime position for Gano and the young kicker, who missed a potential game-winning kick at the end of regulation, stepped onto the field and won it.

While Gano’s fourth field goal of the contest ultimately decided it, the Redskins were anchored by a tremendous effort from a patchwork offensive line. By the start of the second half the Redskins were missing three linemen, but still racked up 32 first downs and converted 8-16 third downs attempts a week after going 0-10 in those situations. The makeshift line, going up against a formidable Titans’ defensive front, surrendered three sacks and paved the way for 107 yards rushing.

Things got off to a dismal start for the offense. McNabb tripped over a lineman, the offense failed to convert a third down, and the Titans had the ball deep in Redskins territory after a 22-yard punt from Hunter Smith. However, the Redskins defense, back to the wall, buckled down and forced a Vince Young fumble to prevent an early score.

The Titans still managed to get on the board first with Marc Mariani’s 87-yard punt return for a touchdown. The play marked the second longest punt return in Titans history and gave Tennessee an early 7-0 advantage. The score woke the Redskins up as McNabb hit Santana Moss on a 48-yard pass to set the table for a five-yard strike to Moss to tie it later in the drive.

McNabb, with a carousel of offensive linemen in front of him had a solid first half going 13-20 for 168 yards and a touchdown. He did throw an interception late in the first half with the Redskins at the Titans’ 30 yard-line, spoiling an opportunity to break a 10-10 tie. Graham Gano also missed a 51-yard field goal attempt at the close of the half, leaving the team deadlocked after a half.

Washington dominated the first half with 242 yards of offense; the 2nd highest output on the season. The Titans failed to establish any type of rhythm as they held the ball for just over ten minutes, and at one point Young signaled the fans to continue booing after he missed a third down throw in the red zone.

Young went 12-16 for 165 yards before leaving the game with a torn tendon in his thumb during the third quarter. The Titans struggled to establish themselves offensively in the first half as Young seemed out of sync and Johnson only received seven touches.

The Redskins’ first half success was fueled by their ability to control the game in trenches. Johnson had 33 yards rushing while Washington’s latest no-name running back, Keiland Williams combined with Clinton Portis for 77 yards. Despite the injuries, the Redskins were able to run the ball with success and offset the pressure with dump-offs from McNabb.

The Titans responded in the second half with an 11-play drive that lasted 5:50, ending with a 32-yard field goal by Rob Bironas. The drive was instrumental in evening out the time of possession, but the Redskins answered on the ensuing drive with a 40-yard field goal by Gano to make it 13-13.

Young hurt his thumb soon after and with Kerry Collins sidelined, Jeff Fischer went with Rusty Smith. Smith threw a touchdown pass to Randy Moss on his first play from scrimmage, but the play was called back as Moss pushed off on DeAngelo Hall to make the catch.

Moss was held without a reception in his second game with the Titans, and was largely invisible throughout the game. The other Moss, Santana had a six catch, 106 yard performance. Nine other players chipped in with catches, including Chris Cooley with seven. All of Cooley’s receptions came after the first half and five of them moved the chains.

The teams traded field goals in the fourth quarter, and Washington had a pair of chances to take the lead after a Phillip Buchanon interception set up the offense at the Tennessee 41. However, McNabb tripped again under center on third down and the Redskins had to punt it back. After a Tennessee punt, Washington drove down the field and had an opportunity to win it, but Gano’s 47-yard attempt fell short, sending the game to overtime.

Game Notes: The Redskins injury report was extensive. Running backs Chad Simpson, Clinton Portis, and Keiland Williams; linebackers Rocky McIntosh, Brian Orakpo and Lorenzo Alexander; safety Anderson Russell; and offensive linemen Casey Rabach and Derrick Dockery all sustained injuries.

November 18, 2010

New Skinscast: Slick Vick, Titans, and More

The latest Skinscast podcast featuring John Pappas, Brian Reffkin and myself. We break down the Monday Night Massacre, the Donovan McNabb contract extension, and this weekend's game against the Tennessee Titans.

Listen here.

November 16, 2010

As Michael Vick Steals The Show, All The Redskins Can Do Is Marvel

Nov 16, 2010 - LANDOVER, MD -
If you happened to tune into Monday Night Football last night (and chances are you did if you're reading this column), you witnessed a historic performance of epic proportions. No, I'm not referring to the MNF record 59 points scored by the Philadelphia Eagles, or the franchise-record 45 first-half points they dropped on the Washington Redskins. Nor am I speaking of the worst defensive game by the Burgundy and Gold since 1954, or the fact that they surrendered nearly 600 yards of offense.
All of those numbers are quite staggering, but the most impressive set of digits I could throw at you would be the stat line of one Michael Vick. The Eagles quarterback went 20-28, for 333 yards and four touchdown passes, plus 80 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. According to Bill Simmons, Vick had 52 fantasy points on the night, likely leading to quite a few miraculous comebacks across fantasy land.
Fantasy football aside, Vick was dazzling, as he amassed 413 yards of offense and accounted for six of Philadelphia's touchdowns. If you were laughing at the hype surrounding Vick as an MVP candidate last week, you no longer have anything to say. He silenced the critics as they turned instead on Donovan McNabb and his newly minted five-year, $78 million deal.
While McNabb continued to struggle with his new team, Vick took a huge leap forward, firmly cementing his spot as the number one quarterback in Philadelphia. When the Redskins contained him, he beat them with his cannon of an arm. When they covered DeSean JacksonJeremy Maclin, and company, he beat them with his electric speed.
Vick had to smile when he was asked if this was the greatest game he had ever played. "I've had some great games in my day," he said, "but I don't think I've had one quite like this."
"He was tremendous," Maclin said. "He played another excellent game and showed the world again why he is still one of the premier quarterbacks in the league and still has the talent that he always had."
McNabb, who mentored Vick last season in Philly, couldn't deny his protégé had raised his level of play.
"I'm just happy for him," McNabb said. "Not by his performance today. I told him I was pissed off at him. I'm just happy at the way he has continued to progress and have confidence in himself and stay humble. That's the most important thing. Good things can happen for him."
Uh, Donovan I'd say good things are already happening. On Monday night, Vick became the first player to ever throw for three touchdowns and rush for two more in one half of play. His 88- and 48-yard touchdown passes to Jackson and Maclin were gorgeous throws to which Washington's secondary had no answer. LaRon Landry, after setting off some pregame fireworks, was helpless to stop Jackson as he scored on the first play from scrimmage. Jackson may have gotten open on the play, but it was Vick who rolled to his right, bought time, and unleashed a perfect throw to jumpstart one of the finest offensive performances in recent NFL history.
"There aren't too many guys that can throw the ball, I am not sure how far it was in the air, 65 yards," Mike Shanahan said. "Very few guys can buy that time and take the ball downfield like that. It was a great play on their part both as a quarterback and a receiver."
But Shanahan wasn't done. "Big credit to Michael Vick, he made some plays that I haven't seen a lot of quarterbacks make for a long time," he said. "When something wasn't there in the passing game, he made plays with his legs. He had a really big time game."
We've heard all about Vick's potential and athletic ability for years. This year it looks like he's finally put it all together as he's playing the best football of his career. The scary thing is: he keeps improving. So effortless was each big play, that Vick transformed FedEx Field into his own personal game of Madden ‘11. However, he told reporters this whole football thing isn't a walk in the park.
"I don't premeditate what I'm going to do," he said. "There's a lot that you have to process within about a second so it's tougher than what it looks. It may look easy from the outside, but it's definitely hard."
Forgive me if I'm skeptical of that statement, but it seemed pretty darn easy for Vick on Monday night. In addition to his early touchdown passes, he pulled off a nifty seven-yard touchdown run in the first quarter where he left Lorenzo Alexander grasping at air. Alexander has made a name for himself with his transition from all-purpose defensive lineman to outside linebacker and also for his weekly bone-jarring hits on special teams (just ask Jorrick Calvin), but he was no match for Vick on that play.