The Washington Redskins pulled off their first comeback victory of the season, and the first since the 19-17 win over Tennessee in Week 7 of 2014.
Now owners of a 2-2 record, the Redskins find themselves in a tie with Dallas and the Giants for first place in the NFC East. Dallas is 2-0 within the division, while New York and Washington each are 1-1. The Eagles, meanwhile, are 0-2 in the division and 1-3 overall.
Up next is a trip to Atlanta, where the 4-0 Falcons and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan — who held the same role in Washington from 2010 to 2013 — await on Sunday. But first, here’s a final look back at Sunday’s victory over Philadelphia.
1. New mind-set – As his team orchestrated its game-winning drive, general manager Scot McCloughan paced the sideline, far away from the coaches and players, nervously watching. Back and forth from the 10 to the 20 and back to the 10, he paced and then stood with his knees on his hands on the final plays of the drive, which ended with a Kirk Cousins touchdown pass to Pierre Garcon with 26 seconds left. After the game, Daniel Snyder came and found McCloughan in the trainer’s room and hugged the general manager. McCloughan then went out into the locker room, congratulating player after player for his effort. The Redskins have a long way to go, McCloughan knows. But Sunday’s comeback victory served as evidence that McCloughan’s plan has started to fall into place. “It’s a culture change,” he said. “These kinds of wins: culture change.”
The victory had all of the elements that he and Jay Gruden seek: physicality on both sides of the ball, aggression on defense, imposing execution on offense, and resilience. Since taking over in January, McCloughan has talked about the need to change the culture at Redskins Park, and for players to learn how to win. Gruden has stressed the need as well. Performances like Sunday’s serve as the cornerstones for a winning organization.
The win two weeks ago, which also featured a fourth-quarter drive, falls under the category of important building block as well. But the Eagles win carries greater importance because, first, the Redskins had to come from behind to win. Second, they knocked off a divisional foe in the process. Wins inside the division are a must for any team with postseason aspirations. This isn’t to say that Washington will make a playoff push this season. But we all know the poor track record within the division. And a loss would’ve dropped this team to 1-3 with two NFC East losses. The season basically would have been over.
There will be low points in the remaining 12 games, but looking at players, listening to them, you can tell they’re beginning to think differently. They were overjoyed about the win. But at the same time, they also had a “Yeah, this is what we’re supposed to do” type of confidence. Rather than crumbling under pressure and turning the ball over, they maintained possession and marched downfield and into the end zone. Rather than going soft while supposedly playing prevent defense, the pass rushers increased their aggression and registered crushing sacks. Trent Murphy, who has been relatively quiet all season, had a big sack and also had a hand in Ryan Kerrigan’s sack down the stretch. The Redskins have to figure out a way to open the second halves of games in better fashion. But the development of mental fortitude has indeed begun.
2. Patience pays off – A week after losing patience with Alfred Morris, Redskins coaches stuck with the back who they have called their workhorse (only to give his carries to Matt Jones) and continued to ride him despite a lack of significant production through 3 1/2 quarters.
Morris and his offensive line achieved the breakthrough when it mattered most. Tough sledding was to be expected. The Eagles entered the game ranked first in the NFL against the run, holding opponents to just 3.1 yards per carry. Morris managed only 1.8 per carry through three quarters. The Eagles went with beef up front, using five defenders around the line for many of Morris’s runs, but committed only four to the line in their nickel packages, and Chris Thompson took advantage.
Running backs coach Randy Jordan, who during the game decides the rotations based on the play that’s coming and his gut feel for who fits best in that situation, continued to go back to Morris. The veteran delivered. Morris said he couldn’t explain what changed, but he appeared to run more decisively as he kicked off that final drive with a 16-yard run and averaged 9.2 yards per carry on that possession. Morris’s vision appeared to improve as he hit cutback lanes hard.
The Redskins’ line also did a better job of blocking. Knocked off the line frequently in the first half, Morris’s blockers began controlling the line of scrimmage. Washington’s huge time-of-possession advantage also likely played a factor in the wilting of the Eagles’ defense.
Morris also had ball security on his mind. He covered the ball with two hands whenever defenders approached.
3. Maturation from Cousins – Whether you’re a Cousins guy (or girl) or a Griffin supporter, you can’t deny the fact that Kirk Cousins grew up a bit in the past week. Cousins, who likes to talk about “the process,” will actually tell you he grew up in the past year, and that Sunday’s decisive performance reflected that. As he left the locker room for the night, he mentioned that last year against the Eagles, with his team in need of a touchdown, he threw a fourth-quarter interception. This time he threw a touchdown pass.
Last week against the Giants, Cousins missed identifying a blitzing defender, didn’t change the protection and missed a touchdown pass to Jordan Reed. On Sunday, he saw an all-out blitz coming, made a change – alerting Pierre Garcon that he would be the hot read – and nailed the touchdown pass.
The change at the line, as well as others that preceded it, represented improved maturity, not only because Cousins recognized things in the defense, but also because he had more confidence in himself and what he was seeing.
Coaches would like for him to cut it loose and go off-script more often if he sees an opening. But Cousins has often felt the need to follow the game plan by every jot and tittle, which is good, but it has also restricted him at times. The great quarterbacks improvise. But that’s because they have clear understandings of their systems and defenses. Cousins’s knowledge of both is steadily improving, and he is starting to understand that he, too, can take liberties within the offense.
Cousins also proved clutch on third downs, when he completed 8 of 13 throws for first downs; Washington went 9 for 17 overall. He continued to get the ball out quickly, easing pressure on his line, and was sacked only once (on a run for no gain out of bounds).
4. Draft picks filling the lineup – McCloughan and Gruden have both expressed a desire to be a team that is constructed almost exclusively with homegrown talent. There are exceptions, and some needs that must be met through free agency. But they want to draft and develop their own talent as much as possible.
With Spencer Long in the lineup on Sunday, Washington played four draft picks along the line (center Kory Lichtensteiger being the lone exception, but he signed here in 2010 and has developed here as well after an unfruitful season in Denver and another in Minnesota). On offense, eight of the 11 starters were draft picks. (Lichtensteiger, Garcon and tight end Derek Carrier were acquired by free agency or via trade).
On defense, six of the 11 starters (Ryan Kerrigan, Trent Murphy, Keenan Robinson, Will Compton, Bashaud Breeland and Kyshoen Jarrett) were Redskins draft picks. Another draft pick, Jamison Crowder, shined on offense as he bumped Andre Roberts from the rotation and recorded seven catches for 65 yards, including a clutch 22-yard leaping catch on a third down. Chris Thompson (fifth-rounder 2013) made contributions as a backup, as did outside linebacker Preston Smith (second-rounder this spring).
5. Concerns remain – The previous note represents progress. And I don’t mean to be a Debbie Downer the day after a win, but some concerns do indeed remain. The biggest involves the health of tight end Jordan Reed, who left the final possession with a concussion. This is now the fourth concussion that he has be diagnosed with in his career (twice at Florida, once as a rookie and now). Reed missed six games with that concussion his rookie year. It’s too early to know how much time he will miss this time. Reed had done a good job of avoiding injury and playing through various ailments during the first four games of the season, but this is a situation where he can’t just suck it up. Reed’s health obviously carries the highest priority.
But Washington loses a big part of the offense if he is unable to make a speedy return. Reed and Pierre Garcon have recorded a team-leading 24 catches. Reed’s 278 receiving yards rank first. Of Reed’s 24 catches, 18 have produced first downs. Derek Carrier is a solid tight end, but he’s not a game-changer like Reed.
The secondary also represents an area of concern going forward. Cornerback Chris Culliver gutted it out and played on Sunday after missing Thursday’s and Friday’s practices with an injured left leg.
But Culliver wasn’t himself on Sunday. The Eagles knew it and went at the defensive back and cashed in on touchdown passes of 62 and 39 yards, and also picked up 45 yards on a pass on Culliver. To be clear, the touchdown passes weren’t entirely Culliver’s fault. Both times he was supposed to have safety help over the top. But Trenton Robinson messed up initially and was late coming over the top to help defend the 62-yard bomb to Riley Cooper, and Dashon Goldson fell for the play-action and was late coming over the top on the Austin score.
But Culliver’s health remains a concern. He dragged his leg off the field and into the locker room after the game, and it’s unclear how quickly he’ll heal up for an important game this Sunday against a potent group of Atlanta Falcons wide receivers. DeAngelo Hall isn’t expected to have healed by then, and so rookie Kyshoen Jarrett likely will again fill in at nickelback, with Bashaud Breeland on the outside. Jarrett wasn’t perfect, but made some key plays as he took every defensive snap. If Culliver can’t play, then it’s Will Blackmon, Quinton Dunbar or Deshazor Everett opposite Breeland, which certainly isn’t ideal.
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