The Redskins turned in an uneven preseason Week 3 performance against the Cincinnati Bengals. They came away with a win, but there wasn’t much from the game that made it clear the team was regular season-ready.
After doing another review of the game, here are five areas that stood out:
1. Cousins’s play: Quarterback Kirk Cousins traditionally gets off to slow starts, so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by the preseason struggles we’re seeing from him. He, the Redskins and their fans had just hoped that entering his third season as the starter, some of these kinks wouldn’t have shown up they way they have this preseason.
Cousins has all the knowledge that he needs to run this offense, but his rhythm and confidence still need work. Things look different out there for Cousins. He hasn’t had Jordan Reed to look to until recently, and he doesn’t have Pierre Garcon or DeSean Jackson following their departures in free agency. Garcon offered precision in his route-running, and toughness after the catch. Jackson brought game-changing speed, so Cousins knew he could cut a throw loose and Jackson would outrun the defense and make the grab.
True, it’s just the preseason, but things now seem more challenging for Cousins with his new cast of receivers. Slight hesitations have led to miscues, some of which were more costly than others. The interception by linebacker Vontaze Burfict on Sunday came because Cousins waited a split second too long to throw to an open Chris Thompson. When Cousins reset and patted the ball, then threw, that pause let Burfict make up ground and jump the route. Cousins has had other openings that he has waited on, only to see the windows close. Or, he has locked in on one receiver, missing a better option elsewhere.
Coach Jay Gruden wisely established the run game after the passing attack got off to a slow start Sunday. Rob Kelley started churning out yards, and that helped Cousins, because the Bengals began focusing on the run and biting on play-action fakes. That’s what happened on a slant pass to Jamison Crowder, which set up a Kelley touchdown run.
But Cousins has to get into a better flow early, whether the run game is clicking or not. Coaches seemed to hold Reed back some, but once he’s turned loose completely, that should help Cousins. And greater involvement from Thompson as a receiver out of the backfield also could help provide Cousins another safety valve. But as the leader of this offense, Cousins needs to figure out how to step up on his own. Perhaps the regular season will bring with it a greater sense of urgency. Throwing the interception seemed to ignite Cousins on Sunday. The week before, with time running out in the first half, he played at his best. But he can’t wait for crisis to strike, or for the clock to start working against him to start cranking.
2. Pryor’s struggles: Terrelle Pryor Sr. also looks uncomfortable in the offense. After seeing his workout tapes and highlight-worthy plays in training camp practices, everyone expected Pryor to burst onto the scene. But that hasn’t been the case. It’s not as simple as adding a big, fast guy to the offense and expecting everything to work out. Pryor and Cousins have put in extra work to sharpen their timing, but there’s a difference between practice speed and game speed, and between full-speed routes against invisible defenders and live routes against NFL cornerbacks.
In previous games, Pryor didn’t make an impact because Cousins had accuracy issues, overthrowing him on open routes. Sunday, Pryor had a couple of drops that he’d love to have back. But they weren’t all Pryor’s fault. After the game, Pryor explained that on the first drop, which might’ve ended in a touchdown had he caught it, the ball got to him sooner than he expected, and then he did get his hands on it, he turned to look for running room and lost the ball. That’s something Pryor can fix. He just has to work on his focus. On the other drop, Cousins took the blame because of the spot where he put the ball. The timing was off on that play, too. The ball was supposed to get to Pryor as soon as he took a step off the line, but Cousins was slow to get the ball out, which enabled the cornerback, Dre Kirkpatrick, to get there and knock the ball free.
For the preseason, Pryor has two catches on seven targets, and he has drops on three of those incompletions. Cousins and Pryor both say they’re not concerned. They say this because they’re working to get this right. But Gruden and his staff need to help their new receiver find a comfort level in the offense. So far, they haven’t figured out how to best feature Pryor. They would like to use his size to move the chains. They would like to use his speed to go downfield. But thus far, none of that has happened. Wide receivers coach Ike Hilliard is still working to help Pryor fine-tune his route-running skills, and once that happens, Pryor should serve as a versatile threat. But the Redskins need to expedite the process.
3. Crowded secondary: Now for some positives. After uneven performances in training camp and the first two preseason games, cornerback Bashaud Breeland had his best outing. Sunday’s play showed what the fourth-year pro is capable of when he’s locked in. Breeland was physical against the run. He played tight coverage on his assignments. He also showed good recognition and peeled off his man to go make tackles when passes were completed elsewhere.
Perhaps Breeland’s strong play comes in response to the talent he has behind him. Now healthy, Fabian Moreau looks as if he will indeed live up to his third-round draft pick billing. He plays with good physicality, both against the run and downfield. He had a key pass breakup in the end zone, and again was one of the fastest guys downfield on special teams. Last week, Moreau outshined third-year pro Quinton Dunbar. But Dunbar, who could be battling for the same roster spot, had a strong game against Cincinnati. He made a nice pass breakup on third down and also looked good on special teams.
Seventh-round pick Joshua Holsey had a pass breakup and a sack and also did well in coverage. The Redskins officially have a good problem on their hands. Breeland and Norman remain the starters, and Kendall Fuller the nickelback as he enters Year 2. But it’s hard to envision them keeping another three — Dunbar, Moreau and Holsey. Based on how things looked last week, Moreau and Holsey seemed to have a slight edge. But Dunbar had a good week of practice, and he also played well against Cincinnati. His length and speed aren’t easy to find. Holsey will have a hard time getting on the field with Fuller ahead of him, so perhaps he’s a practice squad candidate. But, given his strong play, he could be on another team’s radar.
4. Roullier at center: During the game, Chase Roullier, the sixth-round pick out of Wyoming, didn’t seem to make any glaring errors at the center position while filling in for the injured Spencer Long. Teammates said Roullier communicated well as he called out blitz protections. Roullier himself said he had a few minor recognition errors, but the good thing is Cousins is there to make any protection changes.
Roullier moved well and did a good job of sliding over to pick up defenders. He got to the next level when blocking out in front on a screen pass. Obviously, Long’s experience is valuable. But when faced with a high-pressure situation, Roullier responded. He is good insurance in case Long doesn’t return for the season opener or in the event of injury later this season. Also, if the team decides not to re-sign Long in free agency next offseason, Roullier could replace him.
5. Gruden’s challenge: Gruden doesn’t at all seem overwhelmed by adding play-calling duties to his plate. His play selection and clock management skills haven’t been seemed problematic during the preseason, even during some two-minute situations.
But the coach has a bigger challenge ahead of him as he enters Year 4. That involves his motivational skills. He has to find a way to coax a greater sense of urgency out of his players. As Gruden said Sunday night, in the NFL you can’t expect to start slowly on a consistent basis and win a lot of games. Gruden has always found ways to get his team to respond well to adversity. They have repeatedly dug their way out of holes. But you don’t want to get into a habit of having to do that.
On Sunday, the offense sputtered early and the defense let Andy Dalton and the Bengals look like Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. And it wasn’t until midway through the second quarter that things started to click for the Redskins. This has to change. Washington has a tough schedule this year both in terms of opponents and travel schedule. The team can’t afford to struggle early on a weekly basis. Gruden knows this, and that’s why he talks about a desire for a more physical rushing attack — to go out and hit opponents and set a better tone. But thus far, that’s just talk. The Redskins have the physical capabilities, whereas making it happen will be largely mental.
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