A Familiar Face and a Familiar Place
Even without Robert Griffin III featuring for the Cleveland Browns on Sunday due to injury, no one in the Washington DC area could escape the motif that hung over the head of every Washington football supporter and almost every former teammate of his on the opposing sideline; the once-anointed son of the city was back in town, the team’s present now running into its recent past.
As the game unfolded, Washington was forced to confront its past in another way, one much more important to the fortunes of its 2016 season. For the fourth game out of four, Washington faced a fourth-quarter deficit. Two of the games were at FedExField, and they fell short in both contests. A case of déjà vu today would force the team to be playing catch-up for the rest of the season and make back-to-back playoff appearances seem like a dream – similar to the dreams Washington fans once had of RGIII leading them to a Super Bowl.
Unlike Weeks 1 and 2, Washington responded to being down in the fourth quarter with the resolve that made them champions of the NFC East last season, outscoring the Browns 14-0 in the final frame to come away with a 31-20 win to even its record at 2-2. Along with the offense coming alive once again at the right time, Washington’s defense forced three second-half turnovers, with two of those resulting in the 14 points Washington put on the board in the second half.
Losses to Pittsburgh and Dallas to open the season threatened to let uncertainty and negativity set in around the team, a regular occurrence that marked most of the RGIII era in Washington. If last week’s come from behind win on the road against the New York Giants acted as an early turning point to the season, their play certainly carried over today.
“Well, I like the way we rebounded from being 0-2,” said Washington head coach Jay Gruden in the postgame press conference. “Didn’t like being 0-2, but it’s good to get our first home win. I think there’s a lot of positives that we can draw from our four-game start and there’s a lot of things we can clean up…It’s our job to keep them coached up and keep working, and it’s their job to want to come in and get better. That’s all we can do.”
Though the job is always to improve, Washington’s first two drives of the game couldn’t have been any more perfect. The first drive of the game went 75 yards and chewed up almost half of the quarter (7:20), with Cousins’ 8-yard pass on a slant pattern to Jordan Reed accounting for the game’s first touchdown. The second drive also was a long, time-consuming foray that resulted in a Cousins’ scoring pass to Reed, this time from nine yards out for a 14-0 bulge. On the two drives combined to start the game, Cousins was 10-of-11 passing for 70 yards and two touchdowns.
“I think it’s just a feel that there is a lot of potential,” said Cousins, sharing his thoughts on the season so far. “We can be a lot better than we’ve been at times, but that’s to be expected in the NFL. You’re never going to play perfect, so while the expectations may be very, very high, we may not reach them every time, but I think we know as an offense we can be very good and we’ve shown stretches of that and parts have been very good.”
That was said by Washington’s present under center. The past, RGIII, greeted some of his former teammates after the game before heading to the Browns locker room to confront his present: 0-4, injured, and wishing things were more like the past, when he was the toast of his former town in his rookie year in 2012.
While Matt Jones was biding his time to show what he could provide to Washington’s spotty running game over the last two years, he was also learning from his peers who also play the position. Today, his patience and his learning paid off.
Jones used his hard-charging, north-and-south running style to churn out 117 rushing yards, his second career 100-yard rushing performance in his young career. Though his 117 yards did not mark a career high in that category, his 22 carries did. Jones only got seven carries in the season opener against the Steelers, but his workload has increased with each passing game. While he hasn’t seen the consistent carries that featured backs across the league usually get, Jones has tried to emulate those stars as much as possible even before he takes the field himself.
“I’m learning from guys around the league,” said Jones in the postgame press conference. “You know, Marshawn Lynch last year, and you know, guys like Adrian Peterson. They get downhill and they finish runs so I try to learn from these guys like that. Just keep being decisive and hitting the hole hard.”
And at 6’1″ and 235 pounds, Jones really can hit those holes – and defenders – hard. Jones’ impact on today’s game really was felt in the second half. Jones had the same number of carries in each half (11), but 79 of his 117 yards came in the second half as part of Washington’s strategy of taking advantage of Cleveland’s second-half turnovers was to wear the Browns down up front.
When asked if Jones runs better with more attempts or if more attempts helps Jones run better, Gruden said, “Probably a little bit of both.”
“A big back like that runs better when the defense gets him worn down and he gets in the flow of the game,” Gruden continued. “It’s hard for a running back to get into the flow of the game with six attempts. With the type of game that we had today, we were able to give him more carries. He did a good job and took advantage of it.”
Most people who follow football know Terrelle Pryor Sr. as the dynamic quarterback out of Ohio State who spent time as the starting quarterback of the Oakland Raiders in 2013. It’s still taking time for opponents to adjust to trying to stop Pryor at his new position of wide receiver.
Josh Norman included.
Norman, seen as one of the best cornerbacks in football, was lined up across Pryor for most of the game, and Norman didn’t particularly get off to a good start. Pryor caught all four passes that were thrown his way – with Norman lined up across from Pryor each time – for 42 yards, including a nine-yard touchdown pass from Cody Kessler on a crossing route midway through the second quarter.
Having a receiver running circles around Norman wasn’t something the 2015 first-team All-Pro was used to.
“I was trying to figure this man [Pryor Sr.] out,” said Norman. “I was figuring him out the whole first half. I was kind of, not getting frustrated with myself, but not really like getting down either, just know that my opportunity is about to come. I know it’s coming, I know it’s coming. When it does, make sure you execute.”
That opportunity came at the 6:37 mark of the fourth quarter, and Norman made the most of it to help Washington seal the game. After a punt was downed at its own 2-yard line, Cleveland, down 24-20, had just picked up a first down on a 10-yard run when quarterback Cody Kessler decided to look Pryor’s way again. The pass on the slant pattern to the left was slightly behind Pryor, and that allowed Norman to step in front of him and record his first interception of the season. Norman did incur an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after the pick, but that didn’t deter Washington’s offense from punching the ball into the end zone after the turnover to build a 31-20 lead and put the game on ice. Pryor only caught one pass in the second half (was targeted five times) for four yards.
How did Norman put aside his rough first half to play better in the second half? According to him, he had to go to the dark side.
“I came back in the second half and went to a dark place,” said Norman. “Went to one of those places that shut him down, locked him down. Feet in the ground and just play your game. Don’t worry about anything else. Coach [defensive coordinator Joe Barry] called this, called that, execute flawlessly. And then I did. I saw the play coming. I knew it, going through the film, studying what he liked to do and as soon as I did, saw my moment and captured it.”
[Cover photo (Robert Griffin III/Chris Thompson) courtesy of Patrick Smith/Getty Images]