Five observations from the Redskins’ loss to the Lions

The Washington Redskins likely felt nauseous their entire flight back from Detroit, and could very well feel sick this morning when they look back at their game.

They had the chance to win. They dominated the Lions statistically, but couldn’t get out of their own way.

Here are some things that stand out after another look at Sunday’s game:

1. Costly loss — The loss to the Lions will likely stick with the Redskins for a while. They had the opportunity to go into Detroit, get another win and improve to 5-2. Instead, they threw away a very winnable game thanks to self-inflicted wounds. At 4-3, the season certainly isn’t lost. But the possibility that Washington could have lost the game, and tackle Trent Williams and cornerback Josh Norman, for a now-very-crucial game in London against Cincinnati magnifies the missed opportunity in Detroit.

As mentioned many times before, the second half of Washington’s schedule gets even tougher. The Redskins needed as many wins as possible before the bye. Now, having to face the Bengals and talented wide receiver A.J. Green and pass rusher Carlos Dunlap without Norman and Williams means the challenge of maintaining a winning record entering the bye only intensifies even further. And it’s still unclear whether tight end Jordan Reed will return this week. That means they’re facing the possibility of playing an important game without their three best players. Nothing’s impossible. But the odds certainly aren’t in the Redskins’ favor. That’s why a win in Detroit would have been nice.

2. Jones’s problem — The work that Matt Jones and Randy Jordan did this offseason to cure his fumbling problems has been well documented. (Here, here and here, for instance.) But for whatever reason, Jones still hasn’t found a way to solve this issue. He kept it in check for a bit, but the fumblitis flared back up at the worst possible time.

Coach Jay Gruden said he’s not giving up on Jones because of the fumbles, but he also said, “We can’t keep addressing it.” You have to wonder how long before the patience runs out.

Jones also still lacks some of the natural running back instincts that one needs to succeed in the NFL. He still stutter-steps too much, still doesn’t have that knack for falling forward for extra yards, and he still doesn’t protect the football. Even on his long game-clinching run last week, Jones had the ball in his right arm, where defenders could have stripped it from him. He should’ve had it in his left, on the sideline side, so he could use his body as a shield. And on Sunday, on that goal-line fumble, Jones again had the ball on the side of defenders. Maybe he didn’t have time to switch sides, but he definitely needed to have put his left hand and arm on the ball, completely wrapping that ball up.

Other factors played into the loss, but the argument can be made that the fumble cost the Redskins the game. They lost by three. They could’ve had at least a four-point lead going into the final minute of play instead. The Redskins sat Jones for a series but went back to him. Jones now seems in jeopardy of losing his job with the next fumble. The Redskins, at least by committee, have capable alternatives.

Chris Thompson has actually been the most effective back on the roster. He does a great job of running with patience and letting blocks develop, and then he turns on the speed and picks up crucial yards. Part of what helps him in this area is his understanding of the offense. He knows what’s supposed to happen, and doesn’t guess, like Jones does at times. The only problem for Thompson is his lack of size and his durability. He probably couldn’t hold up on a 20- to 25-carry load. But he’s very effective in this eight- to 10-carry range, plus the five to seven targets he gets in the passing game.

Meanwhile, Rob Kelley has great instincts, runs with quickness and toughness, and he’s a willing blocker from his days as a fullback in college. Together, Kelley and Thompson can get the job done. But you hope that Jones can finally shake this costly bad habit and live up to the expectations that Scot McCloughan had for him when he drafted him in the third round last year, and picked him this past offseason over Alfred Morris as the featured back going forward.

3. Cousins’s play — Kirk Cousins had another strong performance. A week after he displayed improved decision-making and pocket feel, the quarterback had his second-best completion percentage (76.9) and quarterback rating (106.9) of the season. Cousins also delivered with his legs on the 19-yard touchdown run.

Cousins wasn’t the reason the Redskins lost. The fumble on the handoff to Jones as Spencer Long tripped him proved costly. In hindsight, Cousins should have just aborted the play.  But Cousins recovered and gave his team another chance for victory. The quarterback received criticism because of the lack of targets for Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson. But he attacked the Lions’ weakness, which is their linebackers’ inability to cover tight ends and running backs effectively. Cousins went to Vernon Davis, Jamison Crowder and Chris Thompson with the greatest frequency, and he hit on those passes. He made his teammates better Sunday. He directed a clutch drive, but the Lions answered back. True, Cousins had a deep incompletion to Garcon that would’ve put the ball at midfield with 10 seconds left to play. But that was a narrow miss. Obviously, he would have liked to have made that, and taken a step toward a game-tying field goal. But that shouldn’t take away from Cousins’s performance as a whole.

Is Cousins at the level of Matthew Stafford? No. But he definitely played well enough to lead his team to a win, but mistakes elsewhere proved too costly for Washington to overcome.

4 & 5. Barry’s decision-making, and what really went wrong on defense — Yes, this is a two-part and fairly involved item. Joe Barry has got to be one of the most scrutinized coordinators in the NFL. His players second-guess him any time things don’t go right, the fans call for his head and reporters pick apart every shortcoming by his unit as well.

Barry drew praise in the past four weeks during the win streak, but some of his players put him back under the microscope after Sunday’s loss. Redskins defensive linemen Ricky Jean Francois and Chris Baker thought the Lions marched downfield and scored the game-winning touchdown because Barry sent less pressure. Cornerback Quinton Dunbar thought the Lions succeeded because of soft zone coverage and players not doing their jobs.

In reality, that drive came down to misses by the Redskins well before Detroit reached the red zone, and some great play from the Lions. On first down, just give Stafford credit for breaking the pocket and making a great throw for the 23-yard gain to Marvin Jones Jr. But Ryan Kerrigan terribly missed on a sack attempt when he had a clean path to Stafford, and the quarterback ripped off a 14-yard run instead. A sack there would have kept the Lions in their own territory, and would have forced them to burn a timeout with 38 seconds left.

Then Stafford got some help from both the Redskins and Andre Roberts. Kendall Fuller played way too softly in his coverage against the slot receiver, and his reaction was slow. He wasn’t in position to make a play on the ball. Had Fuller been in position, Roberts probably doesn’t make that juggling catch, and it either falls incomplete or goes off his hands and to inside linebacker Will Compton. Stafford said when he let go of the ball, he thought he had just lost the game with an overthrow and interception to Compton. But the usually far-from-sure-handed Roberts bailed his quarterback out.

Barry sent four men on the next play, an incompletion, and five men on the play after that – also an incompletion. Greg Toler forced both incompletions with tight coverage.

Then came the strategy that the defensive players questioned: Barry sent Preston Smith, Kerrigan and Baker, and had Ziggy Hood drop into coverage. Curious decision because that left those three rushers in double-team situations, and Hood isn’t fast enough to pick up anyone in coverage. Perhaps he’s a body there to crowd the secondary and let the inside linebackers drop deeper? But Boldin used his veteran savvy to make that play happen. He faked the rookie Fuller out by making him think he was cutting outside, then swam back inside. Fuller was frozen for half a second. Meanwhile, Compton jumped to deflect the ball but just missed it. The pass hit Boldin in stride, Fuller couldn’t recover in time to make the tackle. Touchdown.

Two other questionable moves in addition to not sending more pressure: Taking Toler off the field for that play. Because of his experience and versatility, I would’ve rather seen him move to cover Boldin in the slot instead of the smaller, inexperienced Fuller. Or, even go man with Bashaud Breeland lined up vs. Boldin and keep an extra pass rusher in. Also, I would’ve preferred to see Trent Murphy on the field over Smith because right now, Murphy’s your best pass rusher and it’s a money down. I understand Barry wanting to keep extra defenders in the secondary because he had backups in the game, and he didn’t want to leave those guys in one-on-one situations. But it’s not like Stafford is inexperienced and would be confused by what he saw. And Boldin is so crafty that he knew how to manipulate the coverage. Dunbar said he was sure Boldin knew what the Redskins were trying to do before the ball was even snapped just because he’s been in the game so long.

But, back to Baker and Jean Francois’s argument for the four-man rush. They likely recalled the situation in a similar point of the field two weeks earlier against Baltimore. Barry did send four that time, and Joe Flacco had to rush his throw. In that situation, Fuller again lost his man (Mike Wallace), but the throw was a bit high and off the mark, and Compton delivered a hit to prevent the catch. Yes, an extra pass rusher could have altered Stafford’s execution Sunday. But, the Redskins definitely had their chances with the pass rush on the previous plays and didn’t get home, and had a chance to prevent the touchdown had coverage been better as well.

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