The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why the Redskins’ biggest problem isn’t their QB

Washington Redskins head coach Jay Gruden stands on the sideline during the Redskins game against the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving. (AP Photo/Roger Steinman)
Placeholder while article actions load

Redskins coach Jay Gruden is using an extended break to try to reboot a 6-5 team on the verge of losing its share of the NFC East lead in the season’s final month.

Washington will have had 11 days between its Thanksgiving Day loss in Dallas and Monday night’s game against the Eagles. On top of being a chance for a battered team to heal, the break is an opportunity to determine why the run defense and run game have declined after playing well in the season’s first half.

Sure, Gruden has talked about the benefit of extra practice time this week for Colt McCoy, who faced the Cowboys without getting a chance to work with the starters even once after taking over for injured quarterback Alex Smith against Houston on Nov. 18. McCoy hadn’t thrown a regular-season pass since 2015, so he now has played in two losses without any practice reps with the regulars.

[Can the Redskins still win after Alex Smith’s injury? History says yes.]

But McCoy isn’t the reason for the Redskins’ two-game losing streak. The problem is they simply can’t stop the run.

The “Alabama Wall,” once an insurmountable barrier, has fallen. And without persistent pressure up front, the secondary has been stripped naked by opposing passers.

The run defense has faltered in part because of its failed blitzing. Opponents gash the Redskins for big yards in the middle while Washington is concentrating on the ends.

It doesn’t help that its three prominent players on the line have minor injuries. Tackle Daron Payne (shoulder) and ends Jonathan Allen (knee) and Matt Ioannidis (calf) are getting ground down, and the defense suddenly seems unable to stop runners, much less halt mobile quarterbacks who are extending plays.

Some of that falls on the middle level. Outside linebackers Preston Smith and Ryan Kerrigan are better against the pass, and Smith tends to be streaky. Inside linebacker Mason Foster is not having his best season. The unit is vulnerable to short passes and too often is caught out of position for inside runs. Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott gained 121 yards despite his longest run covering just 16 yards. Houston rushed for 139 yards by exploiting the middle.

Washington’s run game could get a boost Monday if third-down specialist Chris Thompson, who has missed six of seven games with broken ribs, can return. But Adrian Peterson hasn’t cracked 70 yards in four straight games. Gruden blames poor run blocking outside for Peterson’s slump.

“Up front, we can do a lot better,” Gruden said, referring to tight ends, wide receivers and backs. “I think everybody can improve a little bit, and I’ve got to do a better job of sticking with it.”

If McCoy plays well, that’s a bonus. Either the Redskins fix their run game and run defense or their postseason hopes will be trampled.

Read more from Rick Snider:

Can the Redskins still win after Alex Smith’s injury? History says yes.

Redskins deserve a little more love from fans

Redskins: 5 things to watch for in the second half of the season