Jason Witten spent the last 15 years with the Dallas Cowboys, which means he knows a thing or two about the Washington Redskins. Now in his first season as part of ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” crew, Witten will be on the call when the Redskins visit the New Orleans Saints. Ahead of the game, Witten talked to The Washington Post about his impressions of the 2-1 Redskins in the wide open NFC East, the team’s effective defense thus far, and why Alex Smith is a better fit for the offense than Kirk Cousins.
The Post also talked to Witten about his first month on the job in the announcers’ booth and overcoming some early hiccups.
The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
The Post: The Redskins are 2-1 and have looked better perhaps than some prognosticators expected. What has stood out to you through three games?
Witten: We called a preseason game and I was at practice in Richmond [and I was impressed then]. The situation is a tale of two different teams. They go out there and are in complete control of Green Bay, but the week before they didn’t look so good against the Colts. I always felt like if that defense can play well and specifically get stops — and that was the thing last year with the rush defense. They weren’t able to get many stops. They were last in the league in yards given up on defense. With [Jonathan] Allen, [Daron] Payne, and then linebackers [Preston] Smith and [Ryan] Kerrigan, they’re stopping the run.
Now they get the Saints, so this is going to be a big test for them. I think a lot of people thought they would be 2-1 at this point, but maybe not the way it turned out. Now they have a chance to go on the road and the NFC East is wide open. They have to go up against Drew Brees, so this is a test for Jay Gruden.
The Post: You’ve prepared for the Redskins in previous years as a player, so as you study up for Monday night have you noticed differences between this year’s team and previous iterations?
Witten: The difference is how good they are playing on defense and Greg Manusky. I mean Jay’s tried to do it a lot of different ways and now in Year 2 with Greg you can see the way they play, the way they fight. They’ve given up a couple plays and when you look at that defense by names and numbers it doesn’t jump out, but there’s a toughness and a mentality. Josh Norman looks like he’s back to playing at his level and there’s a physicality they bring.
The Post: What about the offense?
Witten: They’ve always wanted to run the football behind that big offensive line and the wrinkles come after that — that’s the play action and all that. The thing that I’m seeing that’s different is they’re staying ahead of the chains and then can do the run-pass options. I see Alex Smith’s playmaking ability. At critical times in the game, third and seven, he’s diving for the first down, he’s doing it with his legs. He’s under-handing it to Chris Thompson and allowing him to go do the work.
What I am also seeing is they are going to have to have a receiver on the outside step up. Because if you’re not able to control the line of scrimmage, you’re not going to be able run play-action all the time. We know Jordan Reed’s a mismatch, we know Chris Thompson is one of the best scatbacks in the league. Josh Doctson has got to be the guy who can go in on one-on-one coverage or make those big plays at critical times.
They want to run the football and everything else comes off that and they’ve been very efficient with the wrinkles, Jordan Reed and Chris Thompson are the matchups ... But you need guys to be able to make the plays on the outside, because at times — much as I love throwing it to tight ends — teams can do things to take that away so you’ve got to have the weapons. I like the roster, the line’s playing well and I would think that if Adrian [Peterson] can keep that juice going [they’re in good shape].
The Post: What about the differences between Kirk Cousins and Alex Smith?
Witten: Alex is so smart and so poised. And I might be reading too much into it and I’m a fan of Kirk Cousins — by no means am I saying I’m not — I just think Alex brings something to this team. There’s always going to be that question: Alex Smith is great, but can he win the big game? Can he make a playoff run? Until you do it that’s always going to be the question about a quarterback. But I like that Jay Gruden said, “He’s my guy. I like all these traits about him.” And I can see his imprint on this offense. It adds a nice touch to what they want to do and like I said it’s those off-script plays that he brings. ... Kirk Cousins put up unbelievable numbers — he’s a franchise quarterback — but you’re seeing through three weeks that the formula Jay Gruden’s tried to put in place is starting to show up.
Alex hasn’t hit on a lot of them, but the one thing I was anxious to see is how aggressive he’s been. Really, four or five times a game he’s trying to strike down the field. ... At the end of the day for the offense and this football team, when you play their style of game the margin is so tight. I had it in Dallas and you’re seeing it with Dak [Prescott] and [Ezekiel Elliott]. You have to stay ahead of the chains [because it’s hard to come from behind with this style].