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Redskins mailbag: Looking at the Chiefs loss, the first four weeks and expectations going forward

The Washington Redskins find themselves in a fairly decent position as owners of a 2-2 record at the bye. They’ve displayed growth over the past four weeks, but more growth is still necessary.

In today’s mailbag, we look back at some of this, talk about expectations going forward, and also take one last look at Monday night’s loss to the Chiefs.

I need your advice. This season has been very difficult for me.  I think I speak for many Redskins fans who are having a hard time figuring out if we want Kirk Cousins to succeed or not due to the looming contract negotiations this spring. Sometimes I feel myself rooting for the defense to pull out the win, but for Kirk to play poorly so maybe we can sign him for a discount this offseason. Could you please help me out and give me some advice so I can stop having these mixed feelings toward my beloved Redskins?

— Robert Fox, confused Redskins fan, Lincolnton, N.C.

You can’t worry about the contract negotiations. Jay Gruden and Cousins aren’t thinking about that. None of Cousins’s is either. They want to win, and you should want them to win as well. If the Redskins enjoy success this year, and Cousins thinks he’s grown because of the work with Jay Gruden, then he’ll be more comfortable with this arrangement and want to stay. Cousins has the best opportunity to have long-term success, and if the Redskins post a third straight winning season, return to the playoffs, and win a playoff game, this suddenly becomes a very desirable situation.

Gruden: Josh Norman could return as early as Week 6, but Redskins won’t risk setback

If Cousins struggles with consistency and the Redskins lose, he’ll receive all kinds of criticisms (fair or not) and there will be talk about changes to the coaching staff. That’s not the stable situation Cousins wants.

So keep rooting for him to make big throws and carry the offense. Obviously, root for game-changing plays from the defense as well. Winning is the name of the game.

What do you think was most costly/worrisome from Monday night: Gruden’s clock management at the end of the game, defensive penalties that resulted in Chiefs first downs, Redskins pass receiver drops, Redskins faltering running game or injuries?

— Tim Foisie

Man, there are concerning elements to all of those items there.

I understand the frustration and confusion over Jay Gruden’s decision to call a timeout before that third-and-2 play with 57 left on the clock. Even brother Jon said during the broadcast, “Plenty of time. Jay Gruden using all the clock. Do not leave Alex Smith with anything.” So you weren’t alone in your thinking.

But as Jay Gruden explained, he wanted to give himself and his players enough time to make sure they were not working so frantically that they were ineffective. Here’s his explanation:

“I let a couple of seconds go to try to drain just a little bit, but we had a play where we had a couple shots in the end zone with Josh [Doctson] and obviously Jordan Reed, but also, if they played zone, we had two shorter routes — one to Jamison [Crowder] and one to Terrelle Pryor — and of course our back out of the backfield. Had we completed one of those, the clock’s going to be running, we needed time. I wanted to make sure we had enough time to score if we did get the first down. I mean, obviously hindsight, but even if we did kick the field goal there and left the Chiefs only 45 seconds or so, we expect our defense to make a play. Alex Smith made a great play off-schedule and completed a long one to get them in field goal range. I wanted to make sure I had enough time where we weren’t in panic mode if we did get the first down at the 20-yard line and only have one timeout left. I wanted make sure we had ample time to score.”

That Jay Gruden timeout might have been more frustrating than the Josh Doctson drop

I felt that, coming out of the timeout, they should have picked up the first down to ensure they had multiple chances at the end zone with the clock running. But Cousins saw Doctson open and pulled the trigger. Doctson goes up and gets it, just couldn’t hang on.

I do think the defensive penalties were concerning. They continued to give the Chiefs more chances. A defensive player would make a good play on one side of the field, and a teammate on the other side would commit a penalty to negate the good play. Or, the Chiefs would find themselves in a difficult situation, and Washington’s penalties made things easier. That’s all stuff that can’t happen.

But the most pressing concern has to be the injuries. Rob Kelley had a bruised rib and damaged rib cartilage and missed a game, so it’s understandable that cornerback Josh Norman could miss time with a fracture. You hope that Quinton Dunbar and Fabian Moreau could combine to hold down the fort, but there’s a significant drop-off. And there are other injuries as well: Kelley (ankle), Doctson (shoulder), Montae Nicholson (shoulder). The bye comes at a good time. The players get a week to rest, then face San Francisco at home, and then go to Philadelphia to take on the Eagles, who they need to beat after losing the season opener at FedEx Field.

I don’t buy Gruden’s explanation for Chris Thompson having so few touches, especially in the passing game.  What did KC do to take Thompson out of the passing game?

— Robert Voigt

Gruden’s explanation was that because Washington had the ball for such short amounts of time in the second half, it limited the number of plays that he could call and thus limited opportunities for Thompson.

Kirk Cousins ran for a career-high 38 yards against the Chiefs, which was good and bad

I get that. The Redskins have a lot of weapons. Nine players received targets (Pryor and Jordan Reed 5, Vernon Davis and Doctson 3, Ryan Grant and Thompson 2, Jamison Crowder, Kelley and Chris Paul 1). Could Cousins have better spread the ball around? I think he did a pretty good job of that. The Redskins go into a game with a plan on how to attack the weaknesses of the defense, and at times, Reed or Crowder are the hot target, and another week it’s someone else. I didn’t care for the decision to pitch the ball to Samaje Perine, who fumbled it out of bounds. I would’ve rather seen that go to Thompson. I also didn’t like the called handoff to Thompson on second-and-a-long-2 on Washington’s game-tying drive. Thompson ran up the middle and got stuffed. He’s better on the edges. But the Redskins had a pretty well-rounded game-plan, and had Doctson made that catch, we wouldn’t be talking about this. Don’t worry. Thompson still remains very much a part of this offense. Gruden generally tries to get him 10 to 15 touches a game, so with eight touches (six carries, two targets), Thompson was a little on the low end. But it all depends on the flow of the game, and the plan of attack. Next game, Thompson probably receives a heavier workload while someone else gets a lighter load.

On the Chiefs’ game-winning drive, Alex Smith got out of the pocket and threw a 37-yard pass to Albert Wilson. It looked like Smith was beyond the line of scrimmage when throwing it and Sean McDonough’s expression seemed to echo that but nobody looked into it or even talked about it. This was one of the back breaking plays of the game so I just didn’t know if I was crazy or if this is a valid question.

 — Eric Powell

I initially wondered the same. Smith — in real time and without the television graphics — looked close to the line of scrimmage. But when I looked back at the game, I saw that he wasn’t nearly as close to the line as I thought. He was actually three full lines behind the line of scrimmage when he let go of that rollout pass.

What’s your take on the team’s prognosis?  Can they make strides (again, especially seeing how banged up their defense has gotten)?  I think they’re the most improved same-old Redskins team I’ve ever seen (can’t score TDs in the red zone and defense can’t get off the field on third downs).

— Glen Mingee

Gruden: Josh Norman could return as early as Week 6, but Redskins won’t risk setback

Injuries are always tough to predict. But if the Redskins can get healthy over the bye week, then they should continue to improve. Kirk Cousins has gotten better, and the offensive line also has broken out of the funk that slowed them in the preseason and season opener. Doctson and Pryor appear to be finding greater comfort in the offense and confidence in themselves. And Gruden has settled into a more balanced rhythm as play-caller. So those are all positives. We see this defense flying around and making plays. Monday night, some defensive players ran a little short on focus and discipline while committing all those penalties. But as a whole, the defense has displayed marked improvement, and I expect the strides to continue. The biggest thing this team needs is consistency. They have to show they can play at a high level on a weekly basis. They didn’t play as well as they could/should have and still had a chance to beat the Chiefs. So, that’s a positive in the grand scheme of things. You just hope that the end of the season doesn’t get here and we’re all saying, “Man, they had a chance to win a lot of games, just fell short.” The players need to capitalize, and if they live up to the potential they have shown in spots during the first quarter of the season, the Redskins should be able to make some noise.

I wanted to know how much the improvement on defense can be attributed to the coaching staff versus talent? Seems like bringing in guys such as secondary coach Torrian Gray and defensive line coach Jim Tomsula has not only improved the overall unit, but has improved players from a preparedness standpoint, as well as the fundamentals like tackling. Guys who were here last year (Matt Ioannidis, Martrell Spaight, Kendall Fuller, etc.) have made noticeable improvements, and I feel like the coaching staff now is mostly to receive the credit.

 — Jey Williams, Irmo, S.C.

The coaching staff does deserve a lot of credit. New assistants Tomsula, Gray and outside linebackers coach Chad Grimm are all described by peers as very good instructional coaches. Inside linebackers coach Kirk Olivadotti, who has been here for a while now, falls in this category as well. They preach technique and fundamentals. They pay attention to detail, and those little things often pay off in a big way. That’s part of why you’re seeing growth from young players who either couldn’t get on the field last year, or took quite a few lumps.

Also, give credit to these players because it takes a want-to on their parts to buy in, spend extra time trying to improve their bodies and learn what the coaches are trying to help them fix.

Five observations from the Redskins’ loss to the Chiefs

How much time should the team (and the fans) give Josh Doctson to pan out? I think the TD pass he caught last week and the long reception Monday extended our patience for a bit, but the last pass of the game definitely should have been caught. In fact, it’s the reason we drafted him, instead of going defense in that year’s draft. I’m beginning to lose my patience with him.

— David Kim

The repeated injury absences have tried the patience of some fans and people within the organization. But the Redskins do know that Doctson has the potential to be something special, and so that’s why they’re wisely not giving up on the 2016 first-round pick. Fans should be patient as well. In two weeks we’ve seen the flashes that made the Redskins select him last year. I think Doctson deserves the benefit of a doubt on that catch. It was definitely a tough catch. But he went up, grabbed it with both hands, had it secured in the crook of his arm, then it came out after he crashed to the ground. Photo evidence showed that Doctson actually had a knee and elbow down with the ball secure, and that he was getting poked in the eyes and/or face-masked just before the ball came out (see below). I would challenge you to go and try to make that catch in such circumstances. But I think we know how that would turn out.

Give the kid time. He’s making strides and will continue to do so.

Without the injuries, it does not look like there are many positions of need on the defense. Maybe strong safety depending on how they feel about Montae Nicholson, a pass rusher (can never have enough), and another solid DL wouldn’t hurt. No glaring needs though. On the offense, if Cousins re-signs QB isn’t a need. I don’t see running as a HUGE need with Gruden as the head coach because he likes to use the committee approach — I think he’s fine with who he has now. Left guard and wide receiver are probably the two biggest needs to me, especially with Pryor’s struggles. What are the biggest needs in your opinion? Given how Pryor has played, do you think they re-sign him to a small deal or at all? Lastly, why is Crowder not being involved in the game plan as much even when Reed is out?

And if you don’t mind answering, what will your job at USA Today involve? I’ve heard it’s to do with national news but that’s it. Are you going to be reporting all national football news sort of like what Adam Schefter/Ian Rapoport do or something completely different?

Also, just wanted to say thank you for providing the best Redskins coverage over the years. Wanted to say thank you for taking time to respond to my email about becoming a reporter or scout a few years ago too. It meant a lot and I have taken some of your advice. Good luck!

— Justin Nicely

It’s still early, so I don’t think that we can really make a call on Pryor or some of the other areas of need. Pryor had his best game on Monday (three catches, 71 yards, one touchdown). But he did have another untimely drop. So he remains a work in progress. At least there’s progress, though. He has another 12 games to continue to make strides and prove his worth.

Brewer: Redskins are on the cusp, but loss is an opportunity squandered

I think the Redskins need more consistency from their running backs. Rob Kelley has looked very good at times, but injury has limited him. So the biggest thing for him is durability. It’s evident that Perine is still learning and trying to get a feel for this game. It’ll take a little more time to know what exactly the Redskins have there. Mack Brown is another talented guy, but he doesn’t get many opportunities.

I think this is one of the strongest teams we’ve seen in a while in terms of depth. Safety could use a little more help. But DeAngelo Hall’s return in a few weeks could help there.

And obviously, the quarterback situation will remain a question until next offseason.

But if we’re talking about needs in the final 12 games, I’m pointing to consistency and health. We’re seeing a lot of strong performances. The Redskins just need more of them and over a sustained period of time.

And yes, you’re right. I’ll be covering the NFL as a whole for USA Today starting the latter part of next week. A lot of news coverage of the league and its 32 teams, as well as enterprise stories and analysis pieces. It’s a lot like what I’ve done here, just now about keeping tabs on more than one team.

Thanks to you and everybody else for taking part in the Mailbag. It’s been fun.

Read more:

Redskins buckle late, fall to unbeaten Chiefs, 29-20

Against Chiefs, Redskins’ persistence can’t overcome costly penalties

Best and worst moments from the Redskins’ 29-20 loss to the Chiefs on ‘Monday Night Football’