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Redskins’ progress under Mike Shanahan continues vs. Ravens

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BALTIMORE

Three mostly meaningless preseason games aren’t enough to reveal everything about the Washington Redskins. Questions remain unanswered. The reconfigured group is still coming together.

They’re getting closer, though. Patterns are beginning to emerge. Washington’s body of work, albeit limited, should stir optimism about the direction of the franchise this season and beyond under Coach Mike Shanahan.

The discovery process continued Thursday night against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium. Facing an opponent considered among the NFL’s elite — with Baltimore’s starters playing into the second half — Washington again showed it is definitely improving despite losing to the Ravens, 34-31.

   In Round 3 of the John Beck-Rex Grossman quarterback competition, both players performed well enough to extend the fight. Defensively, the Redskins continued to display the look of a potentially productive 3-4 team. And Tim Hightower broke another long run as part of another impressive outing, strengthening his position alone atop the depth chart at running back.

  It wasn’t all upbeat for Washington.

Rookie defensive end Jarvis Jenkins was sidelined early with a knee sprain, providing a reminder of how quickly problems could arise. But good outweighed bad for the third straight game.

  Traditionally, the third game is the key test during the NFL’s four-game preseason schedule. Starters usually play deep into the second half as coaches briefly shift their focus from evaluating to preparing for season openers. Guarding against injury, coaches typically limit top players to only a few plays in preseason finales.

   Shanahan tried a different approach with the quarterback battle, alternating quarterbacks in the first half. Bottom line, Grossman found his comfort zone after struggling at the outset against the Ravens’ blitz. He teamed with Santana Moss for a touchdown pass late in the second quarter.

Beck started fast (his 33-yard pass to Anthony Armstrong was Washington’s best passing play) and combined with Terrence Austin for a 13-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter while working with the second-string offense.

The quarterbacks’ play against Baltimore will help Shanahan select a starter for the Sept. 11 opener against the New York Giants. Although some Redskins people believe Beck will be the choice because he has impressed behind the scenes since joining the franchise a little more than a year ago, Shanahan is confident in both candidates.

“I believe in both these guys,” Shanahan said. “They can play.”

  Hard-working and open-minded, Beck and Grossman have earned Shanahan’s trust. He believes either could execute the offense well. Grossman and Beck understand what’s expected of them and are following Shanahan’s lead, which has helped end the drama, at least temporarily, at Redskins Park.

 In addition to the possibility of tranquility at the game’s most important position, the Redskins have better team chemistry overall.

  Unlike last preseason, football is first.

The team’s progress collectively is bigger than that of any one player. The sideshow nonsense is finished. The distractions are gone.

It’s all about simply trying to win now.

Cynics would probably dismiss “happy talk” about team unity. Many would argue that any team could boast of good vibes in the locker room before the pressure of real work actually begins. And Pittsburgh and Indianapolis, Washington’s previous preseason opponents, weren’t trying very hard, they’d say.

But the Redskins’ situation is uncommon. They’ve had so much go wrong for so long, they truly are in a much better place.

Sure, infighting could resume if Washington starts slowly. More finger-pointing is always a possibility. Regardless, the Redskins are beginning on higher ground, with more talent and youth.

“Yeah, I think anybody can see that,” Shanahan said.

Longtime employees tell you they can’t remember the Redskins having a better mix of dependable veterans and eager, talented rookies. They say Shanahan and General Manager Bruce Allen succeeded during the draft and free agency.

After having the league’s oldest roster the past two seasons, Washington will have a more youthful look in 2011.

Many newcomers will get early opportunities to contribute. Rookies and second-year players are prominently in the mix. And they’ll be expected to deliver.

Wisely, Shanahan invested heavily on defense, and he could receive a sizable return quickly.

Nose tackle Barry Cofield and defensive end Stephen Bowen needed little time to show they’ll fit well on a line that lacked talent and presence last season.

Top pick Ryan Kerrigan and second-rounder Jenkins were just what Redskins coaches wanted.

In time, Kerrigan should produce significantly as an edge rusher, even if his transition from a 4-3 end to a 3-4 outside linebacker is somewhat bumpy this season. Initially intrigued by Kerrigan’s strength, coaches also are excited about his smarts. He made a nifty spin move on a sack of Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco.

It wouldn’t be surprising if Jenkins starts sooner rather than later at one end spot. If his knee slows him for a while, the Redskins’ defense could suffer.

Physically, he has impressed since the lockout ended. He has steadily grasped the scheme and the nuances of his position. The rest is just repetition, which Jenkins will get as an important member of the line’s six-man rotation.

Soon, the curtain will rise on the season that matters. From that point, we’ll learn exactly who the Redskins are. And just don’t be surprised if they’re better than they have been in some time.

© The Washington Post Company