|The Redskins are set to start RG3 in Week 1 of the season. But should they? (Getty Images)|
The Redskins swept the Super Bowl champion Giants last season but only won three other games. Mike Shanahan was quick to point out that turnovers were a big part of Washington's problems -- the Redskins were 3-10 when the offense turned the ball over two or more times, and for the season they gave it away 35 times. The defense didn't do its part, with only 21 takeaways, leaving the team with a minus-14 turnover ratio.
At practice, defensive coordinator Jim Haslet emphasized ripping the ball away from the ball carrier. And Washington will need its defense to get the ball back on a short field if it wants Robert Griffin III to succeed in his first season. So many people are hoping Griffin can duplicate what Cam Newton and Andy Dalton did as rookies in 2011, and it may happen, but Carolina was plus-1 and Cincinnati was even in total turnover ratio last season.
Like every team in the league there are questions that have to be answered this summer in camp.
1. Will RG3 be ready to start the season?
Just because Newton hit the ground running from Week 1 last season doesn't mean every top rookie QB is ready that early. Eli Manning sat on the bench until November and started the final seven games. Things worked out well for him. I wonder if a timetable like that might be good for Griffin. The Redskins appear to be prepared to start him Week 1, which might work out just fine but it was clear to me at practice that he is having normal rookie struggles. The good news is that starting center Will Montgomery told me RG3 is already capable of going to the line of scrimmage and running the "check with me" run game where he reads the defense and calls the right running play. The offense has installed a pistol package (a running back behind the quarterback in shotgun) and they will throw split-end screens, things he did at Baylor, to help him along. But ultimately Griffin has to throw the ball from the pocket or out on the edge off play action and he needs all the reps he can get in that phase of the game. Right now if he doesn't see his early read he wants to take off and run. Running will be a big part of what he does well but it can't dominate his progressions. As for getting Griffin on the edge with bootlegs, even the Redskins' containment players were smart enough to work outside and pull up the bootleg. Griffin works extremely hard at practice and will become a great player, but my early impression is patience for all concerned.
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2. How will the Redskins sort out their running back situation?
There is a solid stable of backs in Washington, which is a nice problem to have. But who winds up No. 1, or does it matter? Last year Tim Hightower was the starter until he was injured and missed the rest of the season. I spent some time with Hightower and he feels ready to win his job back. It is clear he understands the zone scheme Shanahan uses and looked solid in practice but he faces steep completion from Roy Helu and Evan Royster. In the final six games of 2011, Helu and Royster led a running game that gained 774 yards and looked good in practice. Keep an eye on two other backs that flashed at practice: rookie sixth-round pick Alfred Morris and street free agent Tristan Davis. Hightower was the first to tell me about Davis and he was impressive with his receiving skills in practice. Knowing the Shanahan way, he will keep three backs and rotate them, playing the man with the hot hand, and that could mean a different lead back week in and week out.
3. Where does Niles Paul fit on this team?
A few days ago the Redskins moved Paul from wide receiver to tight end. He is physically capable of the transition and it may give the offense the hybrid tight end so many teams are looking for these days. At practice two things were clear: Paul is a mismatch for linebackers and he needs work on his blocking. With the bootleg and naked pass attack a staple in the Shanahan offense, Paul could be a valuable piece in crossing routes from the backside. He missed safety recognition in the run game but that will come in time. His development could affect the status of Chris Cooley going forward.
4. Will teams try to spread the defense out?
When you look at the outside linebackers, Ryan Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo, you see the strength of the defense. They had 16½ sacks seven forced fumbles and 124 tackles between them last year and look ready for a very big season. I sat down with both of them and from their physical development to the mental part of the game I felt like I was talking with two All-Pros. I wonder how many teams are going to try and spread them out in what we call 2x2 sets and get both of them or at least one of them isolated on a flex tight end or a running back in the slot. Kerrigan told me teams started doing more of that late in the season and he expects more of it this year. Any opponents that let both guys line up near the line of scrimmage just outside the offensive tackles are in for a long day. The opening game is at New Orleans and I wouldn't be surprised to see the Saints force these guys to line up far from their pass-rush set. Keep an eye on how both guys look in pass drops and coverage this summer because teams will be checking it out as well.
5. How will the Redskins figure out the safeties on the roster?
Washington brought in veteran safeties to replace LaRon Landry and O.J. Atogwe. Jim Haslett is excited about Brandon Meriweather, Tanard Jackson and Madieu Williams. He feels like he is going to get what was missing last year from the safeties, whether it is better run support or matchup coverage calls. All three have issues from the past, from health to off-field problems, but all three looked very good at practice. Keep an eye on these three in all the preseason games to see if they will be ready for Drew Brees on opening day.
Finally, the Redskins are headed in the right direction with Griffin at QB, but lowering 2012 expectations and giving the young man some time to develop might be good advice for the fans. There were 25,000 fans at Fan Fest on Saturday and a few thousand at the practice I attended and they were all there to see RG3. I think 8-8 would be a very good start to the Griffin era with an eye on 2013 to make some real noise.