Well, that’s not how they drew it up. The Washington Redskins failed to cure the ills of the preseason and instead endured one of their ugliest outings in recent memory, losing to the Philadelphia Eagles, 30-17.
As Coach Jay Gruden said, “Four turnovers, 0-for-2 in the red zone, 3-for-10 on third down. They were 8-for-13 on the third down. You don’t have to look at the stat sheet for very long to see who won and lost” — and why.
Here are some of the key areas that stood out in the loss to Philadelphia.
1. Pass game struggles: We already went over the drops. But there’s more to the passing struggles.
One of the more perplexing areas of Sunday’s outing involved the offensive line’s inability to hold off Philadelphia’s pass rush. Yes, the Eagles are good, but the Redskins made them look better than they were. The Eagles registered four sacks and another 11 hits on the quarterback. Kirk Cousins — sacked four times just once last season — found himself under pressure numerous other times, as well. It’s no wonder the quarterback completed just 57 percent of his passes (fourth worst of his tenure as a full-time starter since 2015) and a passer rating of 72.9 (his ninth-lowest as a starter).
For a quarterback, confidence is just about everything. If he can’t get comfortable in the pocket, it hinders his poise, his decision-making, his fundamentals and execution. That’s why we saw Cousins throwing balls off his back foot as he tried to make something happen with the rush coming, or force balls into double coverage (like the near interception in the first quarter), or overthrow receivers (like the goal line interception). At times, Cousins couldn’t step into throws because of oncoming pressure. Other times, the pressure wasn’t there, but the rattled quarterback still didn’t give himself time to use the proper technique. As was the case in the preseason, the protection issues can’t be pinned on one particular area or player. Some plays, right tackle Morgan Moses got overwhelmed by the rush and surrendered pressure or a sack. Other times, it was a rush up the middle that either center Spencer Long didn’t pick up because he was helping Brandon Scherff, only for Shawn Lauvao to fall down while trying to slide over to that spot. It was more disjointed play from the line again and again.
There was a stretch in the middle of the third quarter where the Redskins looked close to their best because Jay Gruden dialed up a series of quick-hitters which enabled Cousins to get the ball out quickly and keep the pass rush at bay. But things eventually bogged down again. Of course, there were times when the Redskins did have opportunities, but receivers dropped passes to kill drives. That’s why Gruden summed up the passing game this way: “It’s frustrating. I think we’re better than that up front. We’re better than that at receiver — dropping balls — and we’re better than that at quarterback. We all had our hand in it — play-callers, offensively, it wasn’t good enough obviously.”
2. Run blocking: Everyone always wants to kill the offensive line when the run game isn’t working. But those five weren’t solely at fault Sunday.
Running backs Rob Kelley and Chris Thompson combined for 34 rushing yards on 13 attempts for a 2.6-yard average. Kelley had a long of six yards and Thompson a long of four. It was Cousins who led the team in rushing with four carries for 30 yards, some on broken plays and a couple on designed runs (and he took some hits you definitely don’t want your quarterback taking, so that wasn’t good).
Yes, linemen missed blocks at times, but on five of the 13 running back runs, tight ends Vernon Davis and/or Jordan Reed struggled, missing blocks, which led to stops for a loss or minimal gains. Davis is generally an effective blocker, but wasn’t on point Sunday, and had some struggles in the preseason, as well. Reed has improved some here, but needs improvement. Another run got foiled because wide receiver Terrelle Pryor couldn’t nail his assignment.
Another interesting factor in the run game struggles involved play design. Gruden and offensive line coach Bill Callahan decide on the run plays, and they routinely opted for power runs, which proved ineffective. Some of Kelley’s better runs came on stretch zone plays. Kelley picked up yards to the outside, or by hitting the cutback lanes. But such plays were few on Sunday. Another curious decision involved Niles Paul’s involvement in only five plays. The tight end/fullback possibly could have helped either as a lead blocker for the running backs, or as an end-line blocker in place of Reed or Davis. Lastly, Cousins has talked about wanting to use his legs more to hurt defenses. But for the sake of everyone involved, the Redskins have to get better execution and perhaps better play design in the rushing attack.
3. Defensive standouts: The Redskins defense had a pretty solid outing. The unit limited the Eagles to just 2.4 rushing yards per attempt. They forced two turnovers — one of which was the Ryan Kerrigan interception returned for a touchdown — and registered nine hits on the quarterback along with two sacks.
There were some missed opportunities — Josh Norman, Bashaud Breeland and Kendall Fuller all narrowly missed out on interceptions that they couldn’t quite hang onto. Carson Wentz proved too slippery for both Jonathan Allen and Preston Smith on the play that resulted in the first-quarter touchdown pass.
But as a whole, Washington’s defense showed promise. Zach Brown makes a difference. With 12 tackles (two for a loss), a would-be sack (a penalty negated it), he led the defensive charge. The Redskins received strong play as a whole from their linebackers: Kerrigan, of course, with his interception, but he also had a hand in a sack and had three tackles; Preston Smith had a sack and four tackles; Mason Foster had nine tackles and a fumble recovery. That fumble was caused by Fuller, who had probably his best outing as a pro both against the run and the pass. He recorded five tackles (one for a loss) and a pass breakup. Safety D.J. Swearinger appeared to get turned around in pass coverage a couple of times. But he made up for it on other plays as he came over the top to provide support, breaking up passes or making a touchdown-saving tackle.
4. Third downs: But despite all those positives from the defense, the Redskins needed more from the unit. Washington allowed the Eagles to convert on eight of 14 third downs. Philadelphia had 19 first downs (17 passing), which is entirely too many. What’s worse, five of those third down conversions came with the Eagles facing difficult situations, needing 12, 10 (three times) and seven yards to pick up first downs. That can’t happen. Better pressure, and better coverage will make the difference.
Meanwhile, third downs also proved problematic for the offense. The Redskins converted only three of 11 third downs for first downs. A big reason for this problem was ineffectiveness on first and second downs. Seven different times the Redskins needed nine yards or more to pick up a first down. Meanwhile, the team had only one third-down situation that required less than six yards for a first down. Turnovers came on two of the third downs. It’s such a small margin for error. Say the Redskins get the sack to prevent the touchdown pass to Nelson Agholor, and Cousins makes a touchdown throw instead of interception on third-and-6, this game could’ve ended very differently.
5. Preparation: The Redskins can’t panic, but they do indeed need a greater sense of urgency. It’s a long season, but as Kerrigan said, “You can’t lose at home, Week 1 to your division rival.” Now the Redskins fly west for a meeting with Sean McVay and the Rams, before a home game against the Raiders and a road trip to face the Chiefs. So, the going is rather tough.
Gruden and his assistants have to figure out what about their approach isn’t working, because the same problems that the coach and players dismissed in preseason, attributing to a lack of game-planning, all still remain. Gruden & Co. talked about having more up-tempo practices, and really focusing on details, but for whatever reason, that work didn’t carry over into Sunday’s game. Something isn’t clicking.
The Redskins are indeed typically slow starters. Although players talked often this week about the message that they needed a fast start, that remained just talk.
This week, however, as they prepare to face a coaching staff that knows just about everything they want to do both offensively and defensively, the Redskins have no margin for error.