Alex Smith wants to play. Fans are anxious to see him play. Jay Gruden isn’t so sure.
The Redskins head coach was noncommittal about who would suit up for the second game of the preseason when Washington hosts the New York Jets on Thursday.
The team has yet to debut its two biggest offseason acquisitions in Smith and first-round pick Daron Payne, but both have a chance to see limited action. Gruden said the defensive starters will probably play, which would include Payne, but he continues to be cautious with those dealing with injuries. Three players went on injured reserve last week, including another key addition, second-round running back Derrius Guice, who suffered a season-ending torn anterior cruciate ligament in the preseason opener.
Payne missed a couple of weeks with an ankle injury, but returned to the practice field for the final days of training camp. Gruden acknowledged the injury situation is on his mind as he makes decisions on the game plan.
“But, eventually, we’re going to have to get them out there and play,” Gruden said, “and the fear of people getting injured can’t cross your mind. We have to go out and play football and we have to coach it … get guys on the same page. So, whether it’s game two, game three or game four, we’ll get them out there eventually.”
Smith was pleased with the offensive progression as training camp in Richmond wrapped up on Tuesday. The 14-year veteran complimented the intensity and attention to detail he saw out of his new teammates, with whom he tried to develop chemistry while mastering a new offense.
The Redskins spent a lot of time on situational football — third downs, short-yardage, red-zone, two-minute drills — but Smith pointed out there’s a difference between working that in during known practice periods and the spontaneity of games.
“The biggest thing as a quarterback is being able to handle all the situations,” Smith said. “You don’t just roll it out there and play. … There’s all these things that you have to be able to balance and compartmentalize. That’s what this time’s about, as a quarterback, being able to mesh all those things.”
In camp, Smith was as advertised — he was accurate, made good decisions and put pass-catchers in good positions to make plays. He made an early connection with slot receiver Jamison Crowder and has continued to get on the same page with deep threat Paul Richardson, who signed in free agency.
The two players Smith has been able to work with only sporadically are tight end Jordan Reed (limited by injuries to his big toes) and former first-round pick Josh Doctson (heel), but Smith said he isn’t concerned.
“Jordan’s played a lot of football at a really high level,” Smith said. “Making sure that they have him on a good plan coming back and having him full-go for the season is most important. It’s no different than what takes place at a lot of other places. You just take advantage of the reps when they’re out there. Jordan’s done a great job. When he does come out, we get a lot of work.
“Same with Josh. I thought Josh had a great first chunk of camp, rolling. Obviously [he] got a little dinged. It’s football, that’s part of it. You have to be able to work through those things. Him getting out here the last few days has been good to keep that rhythm rolling.”
On the opposite side of the ball, Payne has made an immediate impact on the defensive line in practices. The next step is to show it in a game, even if it is preseason. The 6-foot-3, 311-pound defensive tackle has been a load inside, plugging up rushing lanes and giving interior offensive linemen all they can handle. The Alabama star was drafted to help address the team’s weakest area a year ago — a run defense that ranked dead last in the NFL. The pairing of Payne and Crimson Tide teammate Jonathan Allen, the team’s first-rounder in 2017 who had his rookie season cut short by injury, has made a clear difference in practice, and fans are eager to see that carry over into games.
Another area to watch will be the defensive backfield after Orlando Scandrick was released Tuesday. The coaching staff has committed to a youth movement, and all eyes will be on cornerbacks Quinton Dunbar, Fabian Moreau, Greg Stroman Danny Johnson and Ranthony Texada.
The running back rotation may be the only starting position truly undecided now that Guice is unavailable. Rob Kelley, last year’s starter until a season-ending injury, is the favorite, but 2017 fourth-rounder Samaje Perine has played well in camp. Pass-catching back Chris Thompson didn’t play in the first preseason game, as Gruden continues to be careful with him as he recovers from a season-ending injury suffered last year.
In the end, the status of Smith, and his development with the offense, is the biggest story line heading into this game, and the 2018 season as a whole.
“Everybody’s feeling it out,” Smith said. “See what our strengths are, see what we need to improve on. . . . For us, it’s just to embrace every play. Go out there and try to execute, continue to work on the fundamentals. … That happens intuitively with our offensive coaches — here as we get more reps, they’ll continue to put us in positions where they think we can succeed best.”
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