Now, at 7-6-1, the Redskins are in serious danger of missing the postseason. But, there’s little time for the team to reflect on this defeat. In just a few days, they play the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field, needing a win to save their season.
But first, here are some observations from Monday night’s loss.
1. Mental block – This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this, but it’s a real problem for this Redskins team, and no one can explain it. But for whatever reason, they do a great job of battling when their backs are against the wall. Backed into a corner, they come out swinging and get the job done. But, for some mysterious reason, when faced with a degree of success, where they need only play from ahead, so to speak, they become complacent and can’t find a way to flip the switch.
A good team must respond well to adversity, but a good squad also knows how to handle success. Earlier this year, after ripping off four straight wins and beating the Eagles, the Redskins proclaimed that they ran the NFC East. They came out the next week and lost to Detroit, and tied Cincinnati after that. They recorded two more victories, and lost to Dallas, but had the perfect opportunity to redeem themselves with a win over Arizona, and maintain their standing in the playoff hunt, and the Redskins came out flat, and blew that chance.
Monday night was similar. The Redskins were coming off a win over the Eagles, having received help from the Cowboys to leapfrog Tampa Bay by beating Carolina. But, the Redskins put on another listless performance. Jay Gruden blamed himself for not coaching his guys up well enough. But it can’t all fall on the coach. This team has plenty of men who view themselves as strong leaders. They needed to have set a better tone to ensure that a debacle like Monday’s didn’t happen. It’s almost like the Redskins expected to roll out there and have the game handed to them. Obviously, players know they can’t underestimate opponents. But it definitely looked like somewhere in their subconscious, they didn’t believe they needed to attack.
By contrast, the Panthers are a team that has struggled this season, and virtually have nothing to play for. But they still played with a sense of urgency and pride. If only the Redskins could adapt the same aggressive kind of mind-set.
2. Cousins goes cold – It certainly could have been worse. We’ve seen uglier performances from Kirk Cousins. Not the reborn Cousins of the past two years, but the trying-too-hard-to-prove-himself Cousins of 2012 to ’14. The performance Monday night very much resembled Cousins’s first outing of this season, where he threw for significant yardage, but looked very tentative and didn’t deliver in the aggressive manner that his team needed.
From about the midway point of the season, Cousins has been sharp, aggressive and very capable of carrying his team. All that went out the window Monday night. He didn’t seem like he could get dialed in when it came to accuracy and touch. He didn’t see the field as well, missing open receivers because he was so locked in on other targets, and he got fooled by coverages. Cousins didn’t have good protection on the sack-fumble (recovered by Carolina at the 1-yard line), where Vernon Davis got thrown into him. But as a whole, Cousins had adequate protection throughout the night. And he definitely had some drops by receivers on throws that should have been completions. However, receivers also made some tough catches to make up for Cousins’s lack of accuracy on some throws. So, it evens out in a way.
Cousins has to be kicking himself over this blown opportunity on a night where he just wasn’t himself. This isn’t to say that he’s not allowed to have bad outings. But in the clutch moments, you would hope to have received better.
3. Lack of run game – The Panthers did a great job of making the Redskins a one-dimensional offense. Since taking over as the starter, running back Rob Kelley has averaged 4.2 yards a carry while helping ensure balance for the Redskins. The rookie back had next to no running room Monday night as the Panthers dominated the line of scrimmage and swarmed to the ball. Kelley managed just 0.9 yards per carry, and the lack of production put the Redskins in second-and-long and third-and-long holes. That translated into poor production on third downs: five three-and-outs, and an ugly 2-for-12 showing on conversions. Struggles against the run weren’t entirely surprising considering the Panthers have the third-best run defense in the league. But Gruden admitted that the way that Carolina so thoroughly shut down his team’s run game surprised him. The usual problems persisted on defense, but without the offense running on all cylinders, this team didn’t have a chance.
4. Defensive backs, young and old – After weeks of struggles, it was good to see Bashaud Breeland break out of his slump and make some big plays to help his team. He looked way more comfortable in the nickelback role Monday night than he did the previous game. Breeland had three pass breakups – two in the red zone – and also defended another pass inside the five-yard line that wound up going for a two-yard loss rather than a possible touchdown. With each positive play, you could see Breeland’s confidence grow.
Quinton Dunbar also made some key plays, breaking up two passes – one of which came in the red zone to prevent a possible touchdown. Unfortunately for Dunbar, his night ended early because of a concussion. It could be hard for Dunbar to make it back on to the field by Saturday, so it would mean a lack of much-needed continuity for the young defensive backs. Because with Dunbar and Greg Toler out, Breeland returned to cornerback and rookie Kendall Fuller took over at nickelback.
But Monday night featured individual victories for the young defensive backs. Unfortunately, it did not feature positives for Donte Whitner. Blown coverages and missed tackles continued for the 11th-year veteran. He didn’t talk after the game, so we have no idea what happened on the 30-yard touchdown that Whitner appeared to give up. Gruden said he wasn’t sure if Whitner and Josh Norman were supposed to be doubling up on Ginn or what. Whitner was frozen as Ginn raced by him and, then by the time Whitner realized what was happening, it was too late.
Earlier in the year, coaches played him over Duke Ihenacho because they valued his experience. But Whitner’s physical skills aren’t matching with his smarts any longer, and he’s having real problems overcoming his limitations. Will Blackmon saw more time in the second half, and he did well in coverage, but struggled tackling at times. It’s clear that the Redskins need to devote resources to upgrading safety. It’s been clear. We’ve all seen it and said it for some time now.
5. Short turnaround – This week’s game will be the ultimate test for Washington, both mentally and physically. Players had Tuesday off, as is in accordance with the CBA, and then will have meetings and walkthroughs Wednesday, a light practice Thursday, a walkthrough Friday and then fly to Chicago. It’s a rather unsettling a setup considering the fact that this group has struggled to come out with the sense of urgency and the crisp execution that they have needed even when they have adequate time to prepare. So, limited prep time does not bode well for them. All hope is not lost for the playoffs. The Redskins need to win out, and they need some help from other teams. But the outlook is bleak. We’ll see what kind of mental fortitude the team really has, if it can come out with a fire and play like its postseason life depends on it. If the Redskins put on another listless performance, it won’t reflect well on Gruden, his assistants or the locker-room leaders.