by David Elfin

So what to make of Washington’s preseason-opening 22-21 victory at Tennessee last night?

Normally the starters play a couple of series in the first game each summer. However, Redskins coach Mike Shanahan held out nine regulars: quarterback Robert Griffin III (knee), running back Alfred Morris, receiver Pierre Garcon, left tackle Trent Williams (wrist), nose tackle Barry Cofield, cornerbacks DeAngelo Hall (finger) and Josh Wilson and safeties Brandon Meriweather and Reed Doughty (knee).

That’s more than a third of the lineup absent, making a full read on the 2013 Redskins impossible, but here goes.

Kirk Cousins, filling in for fellow second-year man Griffin, was sharp, hitting six of seven throws (to five different targets) for 52 yards and a touchdown to a wide-open Fred Davis, the tight end who missed the final nine games of 2012 with a torn Achilles. Roy Helu, the leading rusher from 2011 as a rookie, ran well, gaining 57 yards on 13 carries while filling in for Morris behind an offensive line that was crisp even with the raw Tom Compton filling in for Pro Bowl pick Williams.

Shanahan termed Cousins and Helu, who missed the final 13 games of last year with a foot injury, “impressive.”

That wouldn’t have been the adjective to describe the early play last night of third-year receiver Leonard Hankerson and third-string quarterback Rex Grossman, but they improved and combined for the touchdown that tied the game at 14-14 heading into halftime. Backup tight end Logan Paulsen had the catch of the night, a one-handed grab, but Aldrick Robinson and Dezmon Briscoe, who are fighting to hang onto jobs as reserve receivers, each had a bad drop.

The second-string offensive line often left Grossman under siege while not opening many holes for third-string back Evan Royster until late in the game.

The starting defense, albeit minus Cofield, Hall, Wilson and Meriweather — was burned for two long touchdown runs. Pro Bowl outside linebacker Brian Orakpo, who hadn’t played since tearing a pec in Week 2 of 2012, and free safety Bacarri Rambo – one of three rookie starters in the secondary — were the major guilty parties on Chris Johnson’s 58-yard scamper.

“That’s Chris Johnson, one of the best backs in league,” sixth-round selection Rambo tried to explain in his defense or should I say, lack of it. “Any other safety in the open field with him really doesn’t stand a chance either. It happens and I’m just going to learn from it.”

Except that no one got close to less elusive Titans back Shonn Greene a little over five minutes later on his 19-yard scoring burst until Rambo hit him late in the end zone. That was one of Washington’s 11 penalties for 89 yards, an egregious statistic that had to leave Shanahan fuming even if it was preseason.

Injuries to fourth-round safety Phillip Thomas (sprained left foot) and rookie free agent linebacker Jeremy Kimbrough (separated right shoulder) weren’t good news either, especially for the former who has starting aspirations.

Orakpo and fellow Pro Bowl outside backer Ryan Kerrigan recorded sacks as did backup end Phillip Merling while end Kedric Golston and reserve defensive backs Chase Minnifield – in his first game since he was at Virginia in 2011 – D.J. Gomes and Jerome Murphy each blew up Titans in run defense. Richard Crawford was burned for a long, leaping catch in the fourth quarter but two plays later, the second-year cornerback got revenge with a brilliant breakup in the end zone that was oh so close to an interception. Instead, Tennessee kept the ball and scored the go-ahead touchdown four plays later.

However, fourth-string quarterback Pat White – who had been out of the NFL since the 2010 preseason — marched Washington 12 plays in 80 yards, scooting the final nine yards himself and then adding the game-winning 2-point conversion toss to rookie free agent Emmanuel Ogbuehi with just 2:23 remaining.

For what it’s worth, and that’s not much, relentless competitor Shanahan improved to 51-30 all-time in preseason. Now, he has nine days to evaluate last night’s events and prepare for the Aug. 19 preseason home opener against Pittsburgh, a game in which all of the absent starters – save Griffin – are expected to make their 2013 debuts.

Figure the regulars to play about a half against the Steelers, which should give us a better read on what to make of the 2013 Redskins. Of course, nothing really matters until the regular season begins – with Griffin taking the snaps – on Sept. 9 at home against NFC East rival Philadelphia on Monday Night Football.

David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin


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