Atlanta Falcons cornerback Brian Poole stops Washington Redskins quarterback Alex Smith's long run. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Sports Columnist

Despite leading the NFC East with a 5-3 record — the best eight-game mark of coach Jay Gruden’s five-year tenure — the Redskins landed at midseason with a thud. After a 38-14 thumping by Atlanta on Sunday at FedEx Field and a devastating injury report Monday, Washington could be destined for a second-half slide similar to two past squads that started hot but missed the playoffs: the 1996 team that was 7-1 under Norv Turner and the 2008 team that began 6-2 under Jim Zorn. Here are five areas to watch in what figures to be a wild second half of the season.

Alex seems to lack Kirk’s comeback skill

Eight games is enough to see that last season’s success in Kansas City was an aberration for Alex Smith. He’s simply the latest overpaid, recycled quarterback finishing his career in Washington. Smith is just a guy throwing to other guys in an offense that now has lost seven prominent players to injuries. The one great thing about predecessor Kirk Cousins was that a late comeback was always possible. Smith offers no such sense of urgency. Given the crumbling line, he better start getting rid of the ball faster, too. More sets with double tight ends also would help.


Washington Redskins running back Adrian Peterson in action against the Atlanta Falcons. (Erik S. Lesser/EPA/EFE/REX)

The rushing attack runs hot and cold

In victories, Adrian Peterson, above, looks like the star he was. In losses, he looks ready for retirement. In Washington’s three losses, he has run for 20, 6 and 17 yards, respectively, averaging 1.8 yards per carry. Meanwhile, he has gained at least 96 yards in each win. The low totals aren’t all Peterson’s fault, given that the offense must pass more when it’s trailing, but they show that when the run game stalls, the Redskins lose. That third-down back Chris Thompson has missed four games and guards Brandon Scherff and Shawn Lauvao suffered season-ending injuries doesn’t bode well.

The pass rush hasn’t been overwhelming

If not for defensive end Matt Ioannidis, the pass rush from the outside would be disappointing. He might be the Redskins’ best overall defender with a team-high 6½ sacks and solid run stopping. Linebacker Ryan Kerrigan needed 4½ sacks in the last three games to start meeting expectations after just one in the first five games. End Jonathan Allen has four sacks. And linebacker Preston Smith has none after eight last year. The spotty pressure has let good passers pick apart the secondary. More interior pressure would create outside rush lanes for linebackers — and they must take advantage.

The Alabama Wall is holding up nicely

Nicknames usually don’t work. Remember Capital Punishment from a few years ago? Of course not. But the Alabama Wall — led by Crimson Tide first-rounders Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne, alongside a guy from Temple (Matt Ioannidis) — is holding up. The Redskins have largely plugged a big hole in their D, preventing opponents from using long inside runs to set up long outside passes. Payne needs to penetrate a bit more and be more aware of the play around him, but he’s met expectations after eight games. Allen also needs further seasoning, but could be the next Charles Mann.


Dustin Hopkins of the Washington Redskins kicks a field goal in the fourth quarter against the Carolina Panthers. (Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images)

Special teams have been a plus so far

Overall, special teams have played well. No more backbreaking opposing returns. Kicker Dustin Hopkins, above, and punter Tress Way have been excellent. But the return game has shown little. Greg Stroman has 11 fair catches and five punt returns for an average of 5.6 yards. He’s averaged 18.3 on kick returns. Danny Johnson is averaging 21 yards on four kick returns, which is OK, but nothing sexy. Maybe the Redskins should keep looking. And with the offense struggling, it wouldn’t hurt to try a trick play. Way could have run for a first down several times against Atlanta.

Read more from Rick Snider:

Redskins thrive by putting the emphasis on the linemen

Redskins are on track to win the NFC East

The Redskins may have picked the wrong quarterback with Alex Smith. They need to deal with that choice.