The Washington Redskins improved to 2-0 on the preseason with a 24-13 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers. But the outcome of the game is overshadowed by uncertainty now hovering over the quarterback position as Kirk Cousins exited FedEx Field in a walking boot and on crutches.
The Redskins are hoping that it’s just a mild sprain. X-rays were negative, but that is exactly what they said about Phillip Thomas’s foot injury, which wound up ending his season.
Cousins is scheduled to have an MRI exam Tuesday morning, and the Redskins will get a clearer idea on the extent of his injury and how long they will be without him.
There were positives, as well as some other negatives, that came from Monday night’s game. Here are five areas that stand out:
1) Pass rush — The Redskins struggled in this area last season, thanks largely to the absence of Brian Orakpo. A reunited Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan showed against Tennessee that they just may pair together to give Washington a dangerous tandem this season. Monday night’s showing proved more encouraging for the Redskins because although Orakpo watched from the sidelines with a bruised knee, his teammates still generated an aggressive pass rush. Kerrigan came away from the game with a sack, forced fumble and interception returned for a touchdown. He also had a hand in a couple other sacks and pressures as he provided good penetration while his teammates were in position to get to the quarterback.
On two separate plays, Darryl Tapp and Brandon Jenkins came off the edges and hurried the quarterback. Last week, Haslett raved about Tapp’s smooth transition from 4-3 defensive end to 3-4 outside linebacker. Monday night, Tapp was disruptive in the pass-rush department, and also made key stops in the run game.
On top of that, Barry Cofield — who entered camp saying he wanted to be more disruptive in the pass-rush department — made the Steelers’ three-time Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey look bad as he seemed to effortlessly blow past him and record a sack, a pressure and fumble recovery. Yes, it’s the preseason, where there’s only minimal game-planning done by the opposing team. But the Redskins should feel encouraged by the confidence that their pass-rushers are playing with.
2) Run defense — As impressive as the pass rush was, there still appear to be issues when it comes to stopping the run. It wasn’t as bad as last week against the Titans, but the Redskins still didn’t look exactly formidable against the Steelers’ rushing attack. London Fletcher seemed to struggle to get off blocks, and the Steelers managed gains up the middle.
Bacarri Rambo had two more misses in the open field, but rebounded with a tackle behind the line of scrimmage and forced fumble. The rookie has to get better at tackling. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. The scouting report on him coming out of college was while he has impressive ball skills against the pass, he struggles at taking proper angles against the run. Fortunately for Rambo, he has positives to take away from Monday night. He likely will continue to take his lumps, but the hope is that his growth comes sooner than later.
A couple times, it looked like E.J. Biggers got pinned inside when he was lined up in the slot, and he as a result was out of position to stop ball carriers.
The Redskins’ starters held Pittsburgh to 73 rushing yards in the first half, which is an improvement on their initial preseason outing, but the Steelers did average 4.1 yards a carry during the first two quarters. For the game, Washington held Pittsburgh below 100 yards (95 yards, 3.5 yards per carry), so that’s decent overall. But they still need to improve. It’ll be interesting to see how they fair with Brandon Meriweather and Josh Wilson back in the mix. Meriweather should be an upgrade over DeJon Gomes, and Wilson is a more sure tackler than Biggers.
3) Young pass-catchers — Leonard Hankerson recorded a touchdown catch for a second consecutive preseason game, and appears to be playing with more confidence than he did this time last year. He just needs to show improved consistency. Hankerson did miss one pass off his hands, but the two catches he had on his other two targets were impressive. He now has six preseason catches on eight targets. Rex Grossman said Hankerson has the total package, describing him as the team’s best route-runner, the biggest target with impressive speed. If Hankerson can put it all together and provide contributions on a bigger scale, he could wind up overtaking Josh Morgan.
Meanwhile, another young pass-catcher made his debut: tight end Jordan Reed. The Florida product had one catch on three targets. He kicked himself for dropping one pass, and he said that he ran the wrong route on the play near the end zone, where Da’Mon Cromartie-Smith stepped in front of the ball and intercepted it. Reed said he should have run the route just like he did until right before he got to the goal line. There, he should have slanted inward, and in front of Cromartie-Smith, where he would have been in perfect position to catch the pass. Reed chalked the night up to a learning experience. He drew encouragement from the fact that the speed of the game didn’t overwhelm him. He said the Redskins’ practice pace basically mirrored that of games. It’ll be interesting to see how Reed does in his next outing.
4.) Helu’s big run — Roy Helu Jr. did well as he got the start against the Titans, and Monday night, although he received far fewer opportunities, he made the most of them and showed why coaches are excited about inserting him back into the offense. Helu got open for a 14-yard catch, and then, on his lone carry of the game, he showed great explosion and speed, going 30 yards on a run off the left guard. The Steeler defense had frozen for a split second because of the uncertainty over whether Pat White would keep the ball on the zone-read play, or if he was indeed handing off to Helu. Helu then took the ball, slipped through the opening and was off to the races. That home run threat, coupled with Alfred Morris’s punishing style, will indeed make the Redskins’ run game even harder to stop.
5.) Griffin’s progress — The questions will continue to swirl until Robert Griffin III makes his return to action. Everyone involved will welcome the day that the uncertainty ends. But it’s not here yet. Griffin did receive another positive development when orthopedic surgeon James Andrews observed him for the first time since the week before training camp kicked off, and then relayed to Redskins officials that the quarterback remains on course to start Week 1 if there are no setbacks. However, no decision has been made and set in stone. And it won’t come until after the final preseason game. Griffin said on the ESPN broadcast that the decision can wait, and may drag on until the day before the season opener. Don’t be surprised if that is the case, because we all know Mike Shanahan never wants to tip his hand to opponents.
The Griffin seen Monday night on the sidelines and in the locker room after the game was different than the guy that stood at the podium and struggled to hide his frustrations over the slow process. Gaining clearance for 11-on-11 action last week helped some, but the positive showing in his workout Monday, and the feedback he received from Andrews evidently served the quarterback well. After the Titans game, he was more tense and surly. After the Steelers game, Griffin’s entire body language was different. He was more loose, smiled and joked around. Three weeks still remain until the season opener, and anything can happen between now and then. But for Griffin, Monday was just one more step in the right direction.
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● Washington is off on Tuesday, practices Wednesday through Friday, and hosts Buffalo at FedEx Field on Saturday afternoon.
More on the Redskins:
Against Steelers, win is marked by loss of Cousins, Cofield
The Takeaway: Grossman suddenly back in the spotlight