As his players trudged to the parking lot Monday afternoon, leaving for their bye-week break, Washington Redskins Coach Jay Gruden lingered in the team’s practice facility fumbling to answer a question that lacks an easy response.
Just what is your team’s identity?
“Well, I know we are talented...” he said.
Almost everyone around the Redskins seems to believe this team can be something. They think that something is good. The players talk about a bond with one another different from what many have felt before in the NFL. Quarterback Alex Smith has said the locker room is filled with players who are “all in,” and that, too, is a thing he hasn’t experienced on every team for which he played. Even Gruden has said he has “all the pieces” for a winner.
But the three games Washington has played this season are so distinctive, it’s hard to know exactly who these Redskins are or who they can become. There was the season-opening win at Arizona when Washington ran at will on the Cardinals and shut down their offense with a stifling defense. There was the listless loss to the Indianapolis Colts, who beat the Redskins with a penetrating defense and simple offensive pick plays they should have seen coming. Then there was this past Sunday’s victory over Green Bay, filled with big plays on offense and huge hits on defense that eventually wore down wounded Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
“I think [finding an identity] takes time,” Gruden continued. “It’s about consistency and production, and the identity will come. Obviously what we want our identity to be is a physical football team on both sides of the ball and a team that’s mentally tough.”
Redskins coaches have demanded their players be more aggressive this season. They have talked about toughness since before training camp, pushing the concept relentlessly with more workouts in pads than in the past and encouraging spirited, aggressive practices when the players’ attention seemed to wane.
Over the past four years, Gruden has added assistants such as offensive line coach Bill Callahan, defensive coordinator Greg Manusky and defensive line coach Jim Tomsula with the intent of building rugged lines behind which they can run and also stop opponents’ rushing attacks. The concept might sound old-fashioned in a more wide-open, pass-crazy NFL, yet many of the players say they can see their biggest success coming when the lines play well.
Despite injuries on the offensive line that have forced the Redskins to shuffle players the past two weeks, Washington is averaging 137.7 yards rushing per game, fourth most in the NFL. A defensive front that was worst in the league against the run last season is a big part of why the Redskins have allowed an average of just 278 total yards per game — second only to the Baltimore Ravens, who have given up 273.
After Sunday’s game, several defensive players said they understood after the loss to the Colts how much more aggressive they have to be in hitting players on the other team, especially on the lines.
Safety D.J. Swearinger complained after the Colts loss that the team had been “complacent” after beating Arizona and said it needed to play with more urgency, which he later said it did against Green Bay.
“We knew last week we didn’t play as physical as we wanted to and that’s not our style of football, so we wanted to come out here and straight up hit people in the mouth,” linebacker Mason Foster said that day.
The staff has become so happy with the play of the team’s most recent first-round draft picks, former Alabama defensive linemen Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne, that they played the majority of the snaps Sunday and will probably do so for the rest of the season. This is how dominant they and fellow defensive lineman Matt Ioannidis have been through the first three games, both in stopping the run and in pressuring quarterbacks.
“The first couple games we had a rotation going to get [Payne’s and Allen’s] feet wet, especially Daron,” Gruden said. “But I think he showed that he can handle the reps, and we want to get him out there. We didn’t draft him in the first round to sit by me. We wanted him to play as much as possible, and I was impressed with the way he and Jonathan played — not only at the start of the game but at the end of the game. They were flying to the football. They were making plays downfield, in the pocket, in the running game.
“Those two guys together, the vision that we had when we drafted them, getting Jonathan and Daron together, came to fruition [Sunday].”
Quietly, the Redskins seem to believe that if the defensive line plays the way it has so far and if the offensive line is deep enough to withstand a recent run of small injuries, this team can control the flow of games on both offense and defense — something Washington has not been able to do for many years.
Where would the Redskins be without Adrian Peterson? When he arrived in Ashburn for an Aug. 20 tryout, Washington was uncertain about its running backs. Rookie Derrius Guice, the presumed starter, tore his anterior cruciate ligament early in the first preseason game. But Peterson dazzled in the tryout and has carried the offense through the first three games, rushing for 236 yards, putting him on a pace for 1,259 for the season. Still, most of his yards came against Arizona and Green Bay. The 20 he produced against the Colts was an alarming total and led to speculation that the Redskins won’t be able to rely upon him, at 33, to be dominant every week.
The offensive coaches are working to teach Peterson plays and roles he used sparingly in the past, including screen passes, sweeps to the outside, and some run and pass blocking. Running backs coach Randy Jordan said Peterson has embraced it.
“I think it’s rejuvenated him,” Jordan said.
And yet what happens when Peterson isn’t dominant, such as against Indianapolis? Gruden continues to say he likes his “skill players,” but the team’s wide receivers have been inconsistent. None has caught more than nine passes, and 2016 first-round pick Josh Doctson has just five receptions for 48 yards (though he did draw two of last week’s pass-interference penalties).
Can Washington really rely on a 33-year-old running back who finished last season on injured reserve? Can Smith throwing the ball to running back Chris Thompson and tight ends Jordan Reed and Vernon Davis be enough? The potential seems to be there for these Redskins to be good, but how good? And what kind of team are they going to be?
Eventually, they would like to know.
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