The most encouraging takeaway from Minnesota’s 38-30 win in Washington was the fact that they played an imperfect game and still won convincingly. It was not a blowout but there was no question who the better team was Sunday, and that was with all the mistakes made on both sides of the ball. As usual with this team, there were more positives than negatives but here are a few of each.
The Keenum-Thielen Connection
These two are so in sync that their production alone should give fans pause about turning the reigns over to Teddy Bridgewater. Keenum had a passer rating of 145.1 when targeting Thielen, which was the best mark for a receiver all week. Thielen caught eight of nine targets and averaged a season-high 6.15 yards per route run.
No single play displayed their level of simpatico more than Thielen’s touchdown reception where Keenum scrambled right, Thielen planted himself in a gap in the secondary and Keenum fired a strike an inch out of the defender’s grasp and right on the edge of Thielen’s catch radius. They have something special going.
The Size of Running Lanes
As good as the offensive line has been in pass pro, they have left something to be desired in opening up running lanes, especially since Dalvin Cook went down. But Sunday, the holes were not only there for the taking, they were often big enough to drive a truckload of Latavius Murrays through them.
The average was not exceptional at 3.7 yards per carry. But a couple of those were short yardage sitations like a fullback dive and a one-yard touchdown run so the true total is closer to four. But considering Murray has been at below two yards per carry more often than not, this was a big step forward.
Tom Johnson and Mackensie Alexander
Cheating a little by putting two names but these are two names who get little fanfare on this defense and they both made things happen. Johnson especially stood out as, without Everson Griffen, no one on the defensive line played particularly well. Not even Linval Joseph, who usually at least dominates in the run game even when the pass rush is ineffective. But Johnson outplayed his interior line mate in both aspects, recording pressures on 10 percent of pass rush snaps and a key solo stop in the backfield on a late fourth down.
Alexander, the birthday boy, had more of an up-and-down day, allowing a long reception and very nearly another. But when the opportunity to make plays came his way he made them. First was an interception, his first as a pro, that the defense desperately needed at the end of the second quarter. The second was a touchdown-saving deflection where he found the ball and made a great break on it in front of the receiver.
Without both of these guys making plays down the stretch the final could have been much less encouraging.
The Typical Strengths of the Defense
Mike Zimmer defenses thrive on great pass coverage and outside pass rush which allows him to utilize the double A-gap blitz he is so fond of. But neither was really apparent Sunday. The coverage was soft all game, even from All-Pro-caliber players like Xavier Rhodes and Harrison Smith. Truth be told, the best cover was Trae Waynes whose only big play allowed was the result of an exceptional catch by Maurice Harris and not bad coverage.
The pass rush was no better. They turned it on late in the fourth quarter when they could let loose since every down was a passing down but Cousins was pretty comfortable from the start. His completion percentage was not exceptional but his receivers did him no favors, dropping two touchdowns and slipping while wide open on a third. And those three happened on consecutive plays. Truth be told, it seems the Redskins too often beat themselves rather than the Vikes’ D beating them.
Dumb Penalties at Costly Times
Two penalties in particular led to scoring drives for the Redskins. First was a roughing-the-passer call on Linval Joseph on a third down incomplete pass where he unnecessarily leaped high to hit Cousins. The result was a Washington first down and they ultimately kicked a field goal.
The second and more egregious penalty was committed by Stefon Diggs. After scoring a touchdown in the second quarter, Diggs jumped up and hugged the field goal post. It was objectively funny but also violated one of the few restrictions that remain with celebrations and led to a fifteen-yard penalty. Washington returned the kickoff to their 40 and scored a touchdown on the ensuing drive. Though Minnesota would shake those mistakes off and build a sizable lead, they were still costly in the moment.
A Definitive Answer at Quarterback
For the better part of three quarters it looked like Keenum had the starting job as locked down as possible for the foreseeable future. Of course, Bridgewater has captured the hearts of many and seeing his emotion on the sideline pregame was cathartic but Keenum was playing better than anyone can really ask for a quarterback to play. The job was his for the taking.
And then he threw interceptions on back-to-back throws and the whole feeling of the game and the quarterback situation shifted. Washington took advantage of the turnovers to turn a near-blowout into a one-score game. The first interception was forgivable; it was third-and-eight, the play had broken down and he was just trying to make a desperate play downfield. It essentially turned into a mediocre punt.
The second was much more worrisome. He completely misread the defense and D.J. Swearinger jumped it and returned it all the way to the two. That play alone could easily have sunk the Vikings.
So now that Keenum’s lasting impressions are more those two throws than the 158.3 in the first half, the clamors for Teddy continue like they have all year. For what it is worth, Mike Zimmer announced today that he will name the starter on Wednesday. Stay tuned.