Though the Washington Redskins stumbled out of the gates in their second preseason game Saturday night, a 21-17 loss to the Green Bay Packers at FedEx Field, they did eventually show some signs of life.
Much work remains, particularly on offense, but the picture is starting to take shape elsewhere as players continue to battle for key roles and roster spots.
Here are five observations from Saturday’s game.
Proper mind-set — We talked about the offensive struggles during another slow start. The offensive line again struggled to get going in the run-blocking department, and Kirk Cousins couldn’t get comfortable despite solid pass protection. Redskins players admitted frustration but not concern. Coach Jay Gruden said he knows assistant head coach Bill Callahan’s work, and he has faith in the linemen because of their body of work. Another reason he has confidence in the line’s ability to improve is the mind-set that his players have. Gruden wanted his starters to play until they manufactured a positive drive. But the players also had no intention of leaving the game without a touchdown. Trent Williams said at one point Callahan called for the second unit, unaware Gruden was going to stick with the starters. Williams said he acted like he didn’t hear and grabbed his unit and went and stood, ready to retake the field. “They were going to have to call time out and tell me to get out if they wanted me out,” he said. “I wasn’t going to leave on that note. Not again; not two weeks in a row.” Spencer Long echoed Williams’s sentiments and said that the players understand that these preseason reps are the only way they will get in sync again. “Knocking the rust off and being in a real-life situation and establishing a drive is what it takes,” he said, “especially as an offensive line when you’re needing to get back to really grinding it out and pounding your way down the field.” Likewise, Cousins said he feels like practices haven’t given him a full game feel, so he was glad to play for a entire half and he wants to play as much as possible next week against Cincinnati. This is the kind of mind-set that these players must have if they expect to fix things, because right now, although it’s doing better in pass protection, this line isn’t moving as one unit in the run. And as mentioned, Cousins isn’t yet in midseason form, either. Last year, Washington got off to a slow start offensively, and limiting the starters reps so severely (Cousins didn’t play in the second preseason game, and the linemen only made a brief cameo) could have had something to do with that. With Cousins now working with a new cast of receivers, it’s evident that the trust factor isn’t there yet. Too frequently, he locked in on Jamison Crowder while missing other open targets. So, gaining a better feel for guys like Terrelle Pryor and Josh Doctson while logging another substantial workload will help.
Preston Smith’s debut — You could make the argument that Preston Smith has more pressure riding on his shoulders than do many of his defensive teammates. Following a slow start to training camp, a week on the sideline with an ankle sprain and positive play from Junior Galette and Ryan Anderson, Smith needed to have a good outing Saturday — and he did. Smith played only 18 snaps, but he recorded a sack, a hit on the quarterback and another hurry during his limited action. He looked more decisive coming off the ball than we’ve seen in practices, and he did a good job of not losing sight of the quarterback while rushing. That enabled him to make better adjustments as the passer moved in the pocket. Smith still needs to work on bringing that effort consistently. On Aaron Rodgers’s 13-yard run, Smith was lined up on the left and came back to the right as Rodgers scrambled. But he didn’t go all-out even though he would have had a good angle, and Rodgers raced by, picking up another four yards. Overall, however, Smith looked good for a guy that has had limited practice reps as of late. He showed an ability to rush from both sides as he and Ryan Kerrigan flip-flopped with frequency. But as was the big problem last year, Smith still needs to string together positive performances. So, that means building on Saturday night’s outing and having a greater impact next week against Cincinnati.
Bright spot for backs — Although they didn’t have the overall positive performance that they would have liked, Washington’s running backs found ways to impact the game even though the ground game continued to sputter. Chris Thompson had an active night running a variety of routes and caught all five passes that came his way, tallying 52 receiving yards. Rob Kelley struggled as a pass-catcher last year, but he made a nice catch and would have likely had another had Cousins not underthrown him. Meanwhile, Samaje Perine made a good adjustment on a wheel route from Colt McCoy that he turned into a 29-yard gain. Thompson has proved his versatility, but Kelley and Perine (who had the best rushing night of any back) are still working to prove themselves in this regard, and Saturday’s outing should help. On another running back note, battling backups Mack Brown and Matt Jones produced mixed results. Brown wasn’t used as a ballcarrier, but he had two catches for 17 yards. Jones, however, had only two carries for four yards and still has yet to display the power and explosion that he seems capable of at 6-foot-1 and 234 pounds.
Young safeties — After missing all of the offseason workouts and the first two weeks of the preseason while further strengthening a surgically repaired shoulder, fourth-round pick Montae Nicholson made his debut against Green Bay and finished with four tackles. That’s nothing to write home about, but the Michigan State product did look comfortable out on the field. Nicholson did a good job of trusting his eyes. He appeared to remain aware of his assignments, but quickly recognized where the quarterback was headed with the ball and made the adjustments needed to provide help in coverage or support against the run. On one downfield throw that wound up falling incomplete, Nicholson came cross-field and just underneath the receiver in an attempt to pick off the pass with Fabian Moreau covering over the top. But he just mistimed it. Still, Nicholson generally appeared to be in the right places at the right time. And he looked just as comfortable playing deep center field as a free safety as he did while playing closer to the line at strong safety. Meanwhile, Deshazor Everett appeared to have a solid game while starting in place of Su’a Cravens. Everett had a nice play in the red zone where Kendall Fuller and Quinton Dunbar both got juked by receiver Geronimo Allison. Everett darted over and made a touchdown-saving tackle at the 7-yard line. Nicholson spent the bulk of his night playing on the second unit with Will Blackmon, but did get a little time with the other starters and alongside Everett. Neither appeared to have communication issues or find themselves out of position.
Backups battling in the trenches — The starting defensive line remains uncertain, but Jim Tomsula keeps preaching the importance of players embracing whatever role they are given. Second-year pro Anthony Lanier is doing just that. He mostly sees the field in nickel packages, and twice his work in the trenches led to sacks for others. In the first half, Lanier took on a double-team that allowed Chris Carter to get into the backfield and flush Brett Hundley further up into the pocket to a rushing Joey Mbu (who was also unblocked because of that double-team on Lanier), and Carter and Mbu combined for the sack. Carter said he was really motivated to make an impact after committing two penalties (hands to the face and offsides) earlier in the game. He was signed primarily as a special teams contributor but because of the thin ranks at outside linebacker, he wants to show he’s capable of more. He took a step toward redemption with that sack, and then took that further later in the game when he and Lanier again rushed from the right side, Lanier drew blockers and Carter rushed. Carter had his helmet ripped off as he got downfield, but he shook free and came back upfield and sacked Hundley from behind with his helmet laying on the ground several yards away. On the defensive line front, give Phil Taylor another positive grade. After starting in the last game, he came off the bench at nose tackle Saturday night and recorded a sack on a rush up the middle.