The 5th Quarter: Redskins 26 Vikings 20

THE GAME TURNED WHEN…

Reeling from giving up 20 unanswered points in the second quarter, the Skins came out in the second half determined to stuff Minnesota’s offense and take the game back. That’s what they did. After a 12-play drive that ended with a field goal cut Minnesota’s lead to 20-17, the Skins defense forced a three-and-out. Washington got the ball back after a punt and mounted an 11-play drive that ended in another field goal to tie the game at 20.

Washington’s defense then forced a five-and-out and got the ball back for the offense, which scored another field goal to take a 23-20 lead after a seven-play drive. Minnesota’s next drive ended in an interception by OLB Preston Smith. What happened in the second half was the Washington defense clamping down hard on the Minnesota offense and the Washington offense mounting one long drive after another. None of the drives ended in touchdowns, but all four of Washington’s drives in the second half (not counting the kneel-down to the end game) resulted in points.

THE GAME WAS OVER WHEN…

OLBs Trent Murphy and Preston Smith finally put pressure on Vikings QB Sam Bradford on their final drive, with Washington clinging to a six-point lead. With 40 seconds to play, Murphy notched his seventh sack of the year on 2nd and 10 from Washington’s 21-yard line when he got around the right end and pulled Bradford down for a seven yard loss, bringing up third and 17. An incomplete pass (and declined holding penalty) on third down brought up fourth and 17 from Washington’s 28 yard line. Once again, the Skins’ pass rush got to Bradford, with Smith pursuing him outside the pocket and bringing him down for a 14-yard loss. Washington took over on downs and QB Kirk Cousins kneeled down to end the game.

THE GOOD

Love to see the Skins begin the game by getting a quick three-and-out, featuring a nice open-field tackle by Donte Whitner and good coverage on third down by Bashaud Breeland.

Great protection on Washington’s second play on offense, allowing Cousins time to let Jordan Reed get open for a 25-yard gain.

Cousins came back from a very bad decision (see below) with a terrific play on the very next down, throwing an intentionally low pass to Jamison Crowder near the goal line. Nobody could catch the ball, but a shrimp like Crowder and the result was a touchdown to cap Washington’s very impressive opening drive.

Vernon Davis got wide open on Cousins’ second touchdown pass and you could see the Redskins’ coaches correctly diagnosed the only glaring weakness in that Minnesota defense — they can’t cover good tight ends. Reed and Davis were open early and Cousins found them repeatedly. Later, the Vikings did a better job of covering the tight ends, but that opened up opportunities for the Redskins ground game, which they exploited in the second half.

The second half domination I wrote about above can be demonstrated in the Skins running 21 plays in the third quarter, to only four for the Vikings. Those long drives the Skins mounted — even if they resulted only in field goals — took the air out of the stadium for the Vikings, sapping any momentum they had from their tremendous second quarter.

Nice to see PK Dustin Hopkins return to form, going 4-4 on field goals — including a 50-yarder — and destroying one kickoff after another. Considering all the close games the Skins play, they cannot afford problems in the kicking game.

Just as he did two weeks ago in Cincinnati, RB Robert Kelly started slow and then became a real difference-maker in the second half. In the first half against the Bengals, Kelly didn’t really break tackles and looked ordinary or worse. In the second half and overtime of that game, however, Robert looked like a rugged runner, bashing through defenders and cannily spotting holes in the defense. We saw a lot of that again against the Vikings, and Kelly has a knack for rarely having a negative run. On numerous occasions he took what should have been no-or-minimal gain and turned it into four-to-six yards of offense. Kelly’s 4.4 average per carry against a stout Vikings defense reflects the hard running he put in on Sunday. Kelly should and will remain the starting running back for the Redskins.

Superb work from the Redskins offensive line today, which was playing without their start left tackle Trent Williams. His replacement, Ty Nsekhe, lived up to the expectations of his general manager, Scot McCloughan, who proclaimed Ty could start for many teams in the NFL. He looked like it on Sunday, drawing no penalties and keeping Kirk Cousins’ jersey clean all day. The Skins averaged 4.6 yards per carry and Cousins, who was sacked only once, usually had a clean pocket from which to throw. This was one of the better performances by the line, on a day when it might have been expected to fall short.

I loved TE Vernon Davis miming a jump shot over the goal post after he scored on a 38-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter. Take that, Commissioner Gooddell.

THE BAD

Terrible decision by Cousins to throw a side-armed pass into coverage on second and goal from the four yard line on the first drive. Nobody was open and Cousins felt pressure. The obvious decision is to throw the ball at one of the cheerleaders, but Cousins tried to fit the ball into a very tight space when he was not throwing off his proper foot. It’s decisions like that which continue to trouble his critics.

Washington’s first three-and-out of the game, followed by the defense allowing a long touchdown drive by the Vikings, continued a season-long trend for the Skins of stepping off the gas on offense, followed by a quick collapse of the defense. The Skins need to find a way to avoid these long lulls in games that allow teams to come back or take control.

The fumble by RB Chris Thompson at the end of the first half cannot happen. I didn’t like the play call — the Skins had timeouts and plenty of time on the clock and should have been throwing — but a running back knows his first priority in that situation is to hold on to the ball. Inexcusable that Thompson did not do that.

THE UGLY

Washington’s red zone troubles continue and, in some ways, seem as bad as ever. On four trips inside the red zone against Minnesota, the Skins came away with one touchdown — on their first drive of the game. The Skins are playing close, down-to-the-wire games because their offense stops executing at the other team’s 20-yard line. IT. MUST. STOP.

MVP, OFFENSE

QB Kirk Cousins had a very strong game, completing two-thirds of his passes and throwing two touchdowns and no turnovers. Cousins averaged 7.9 yards per attempt — not great, but quite good against a very good defense — and a QBR of 87.6. That is now four straight quality games from Cousins.

MVP, DEFENSE

Obviously, OLB Preston Smith wins this award, for two sacks and a key interception. One of the sacks was a lot of luck — great coverage by the secondary and Bradford stepping away from one part of the rush and into Smith’s arms, but the other sack was Smith all the way and the interception shows what a great athlete he is.

ISN’T THAT SPECIAL?

The Skins have their kicker back. Dustin Hopkins was fantastic on Sunday, blasting kickoffs deep into the end zone and hitting all four of his field goal attempts, including a 50-yarder that gave the Skins a second half lead they would never relinquish. Hopkins, in fact, accounted for all 12 points scored in the second half and for a team that relies on winning close games as much as Washington does, this is the kicker they need Hopkins to be.

AND THIS IS WHAT IT MEANS

Washington is now 5-3-1 and will remain in 3rd place in the NFC East if the NY Giants beat the Cincinnati Bengals on Monday Night Football. The Skins will move up to second place if the Bengals can beat the Giants in New Jersey, something they have never done.

Washington’s offense continues to be impressively prolific in piling up yards and moving the ball against any defense. However, it also continues to struggle badly in the red zone, a problem which seems to defy explanation at this point. It remains true that Washington is capable of making the playoffs and even doing damage in January if it can just start scoring in the red zone at a normal rate, let alone an elite one.

Defensively, the Skins also continue to offend and delight in equal measure. The team gives up a lot of yards and the pass rush was absent for most of Sunday. However, Washington’s defense now has five straight games with 3 or more sacks, something the franchise has not done since 2009.

The Skins should be better than their record, but their accomplishments also feel very fragile. With games against the Packers, Cowboys, Cardinals, Eagles and Panthers coming up in the next five weeks, we will finally learn what sort of team the Skins are. A division title is probably out of the question, but a wild card spot is there for the taking.