The Washington Redskins just wrapped up the first quarter of the season, and after this week’s bye, they will kick off the second quarter of the season with a home game against the San Francisco 49ers.
It’s easy to say that at 2-2, the Redskins are right about where they should be. Entering the season, wins over the Eagles and Rams seemed possible, and then the Raiders and Chiefs seemed like daunting tasks. Then, after the Redskins lost the season opener in ugly fashion, it seemed possible that Washington could have slogged its way to an 0-4 start.
However, Jay Gruden managed to push the right buttons, make the proper adjustments to produce a turnaround in the form of a road win in L.A. and a thrashing of the Raiders in prime time. The Redskins arguably should have won Monday night at Kansas City. So, they can draw encouragement from how closely they played the league’s best team. But coaches and players have to be kicking themselves over missed opportunities, because this squad very well could have improved to 3-1 otherwise.
Here are three things we learned about the Redskins during the first four weeks of the season, and three things that they still must provide answers to in the next four weeks.
1.) The departures of Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson left a bigger void than expected
Redskins officials didn’t make an effort to re-sign Garcon despite five rock-solid seasons, and Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers happily rewarded him with a five-year contract that featured a $12 million signing bonus and $20 million in guaranteed money. Meanwhile, Washington had mild interest in retaining DeSean Jackson’s services, but ultimately decided not to try to match or top the three-year contract Tampa Bay gave him, which featured $20 million in guaranteed money, and an average salary of $11.16 million.
The decision-makers expected Terrelle Pryor to step right in and shine because of his size and speed, they thought Jamison Crowder could take over as an outside threat and then shift inside on three-receiver sets, and they had confidence in both Josh Doctson and Ryan Grant.
But replacing Garcon and Jackson has proven more challenging than expected. Cousins looked lost without the two during the preseason and the season opener. No one has demonstrated the ability to make tough catches and gain hard-fought yards like Garcon, and there’s no clear-cut, elite-speed threat like Jackson. Garcon and Jackson combined for six 100-yard games last season, but only running back Chris Thompson has recorded 100 receiving yards in a single game (Week 3).
The offense sputtered out of the gates with Pryor looking like a still-developing receiver and Doctson again battling injuries.
Signs of improvement have started to show in the last two weeks, however. Doctson had a big catch in Week 3, and had several other clutch grabs in Week 4 and nearly hauled in a game-winning touchdown reception. Pryor had his best game and scored his first touchdown in Week 2. Grant has more receiving yards (119) and touchdowns (two) than any other wideout, while Crowder has disappeared at times. Cousins’s trust in his receivers is improving based on some challenging throws he has made the last two weeks. But the Redskins need their pass-catchers to step up further.
2.) Jay Gruden the play-caller is just fine
Some people around the league wondered how well Jay Gruden would do in a return to play-calling after Sean McVay bolted for the Rams. The same wondered if the offense would take a step backwards without the detailed McVay there to assist Gruden in game planning. Gruden made his name as one of the most creative offensive minds in the league during his days as Cincinnati’s offensive coordinator. But in his first season as head coach, he admitted to struggling to juggle play-calling and head coaching duties. However, Gruden decided to return to this task this offseason, and as a whole, appears to have picked up where he left off. He has created mismatches, gotten receivers open, and found ways to ease pressure on his quarterback and called balanced games (displaying an improved commitment to the run). Gruden’s game plans in the last three weeks have been effective. Some took issue with Gruden’s late-game clock management Monday, but this offense has displayed steady improvement and now ranks eighth in the NFL in yards. Opportunities have been there for more.
3.) Changes on defense making a difference
Gruden raised eyebrows with his decision to promote Greg Manusky rather than hire a coordinator with a more impressive resume. But Manusky has instilled an improved attitude and a more aggressive approach. One of the best moves Manusky and Gruden made was to hire Jim Tomsula as defensive line coach and Torrian Gray as defensive backs coach. Both technicians have sparked improvement in the games of returning veterans and young players alike. Free agents Zach Brown and D.J. Swearinger have helped change the mind-set of this unit as well. And growth out of second-year defensive lineman Matt Ioannidis, the draft selection of Jonathan Allen and strong starts to the year by linebackers Ryan Kerrigan and Preston Smith have given Washington an improved pass rush.
Questions that remain:
1.) Can Cousins continue to ascend?
Always under the microscope thanks to the $24 million salary he’s drawing this year under a second straight franchise tag, Cousins embraced the challenge of showing he could lead this offense without proven receivers. However, he struggled out of the gates, which sparked some panic among the fan base. Cousins has shaken off those struggles, however. Gruden helped ease pressure on him by committing more earnestly to the run, and Cousins has found his rhythm more quickly. Monday night he displayed a grittiness as he pulled the ball down and used his legs to help move the offense with receivers covered. He came close to throwing a game-winning touchdown, but Doctson couldn’t hold on. Cousins has more work to do, however. The Redskins still need improvement on third downs (ranking 18th in the league with a 38-percent success rate), and they need more production in the red zone. Here’s where Cousins can earn his paycheck and carry his team.
2.) Can they find consistency?
Gruden and his coaches are preaching the importance of consistency. It’s one thing to flash here and there, but to contend in this division, and league as a whole, Washington’s players (on both sides of the ball) have to show they can execute at a high level week in and out. As was the case last year, the offense has displayed an ability to move the football. But the unit still doesn’t execute as well as needed in the red zone. After displaying improvement on third downs in Weeks 2 and 3, Washington regressed against the Chiefs, and those struggles ranked among the determining factors in the loss.
On defense, although Manusky’s crew has done a better job of pressuring the quarterback and forcing turnovers, consistency remains an issue on third downs. Too often Monday night, Alex Smith and his offense managed to convert third downs. Kansas City converted 62 percent of its third downs for first downs. Washington routinely buckled down in the red zone and forced field goals instead of touchdowns, so that’s a positive. But the unit needed to get off the field when opportunities presented themselves sooner so the Chiefs wouldn’t have even reached field goal range. Monday night’s win very much reflected where the Redskins stand as a whole: Improving on both fronts, but still a play or two, or three away from joining that next level of contenders. Consistency would put Gruden’s squad on that next level.
3.) Can they stay healthy?
Washington received early tests in this department. Their top pass-catcher Jordan Reed got hurt in Week 2, and in the same game, the top running back, Rob Kelley did as well. The team managed to overcome those absences and beat the Rams, and Washington then beat the Raiders without both, and starting inside linebacker Mason Foster. But the rushing attack lacked the needed punch against the Chiefs as Kelley got hurt again.
The defense lost some of its intensity when top cornerback Josh Norman got hurt and did not return in the second half. His attitude and passion rubs off on teammates. The same goes for Swearinger and Brown. Swearinger has made some plays, but not an exorbitant amount. His leadership and communication skills position teammates to make plays, however. If he were to get hurt, this unit would experience a significant drop-off. The same would go for a Brown injury.
On offense, left tackle Trent Williams injured his knee and missed some plays, and the offense lagged during that time. Making matters worse was the fact that backup tackle Ty Nsekhe (who could start elsewhere) wasn’t available after having surgery to correct a sports hernia. Depth has improved on this roster, but injuries at a few key positions would derail the progress that Washington appears capable of. The bye came at a good time for some of the wounded to rest and recover. Their team needs them over the course of the next 12 weeks.
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