On Tuesday afternoon, the head coach of the first-place team in the NFC East seemed anything but happy. The Redskins' Jay Gruden tried to sound excited about the 2-2 record that has given his team a half-game lead in the division, but he frequently gave way to discussing the disappointment he felt over the team’s most recent performance.
“We have a cloud looming over our head with issues we have to clean up,” he said on a call with reporters.
Gruden and his assistant coaches had spent the previous hours dissecting the debacle that was the previous night’s 43-19 loss to the New Orleans Saints. The game tapes they watched revealed little surprise: This Washington team has problems it needs to fix. Lots of problems.
The offensive line has not been as dominant as many expected, and it gave up three sacks Monday. The new quarterback, Alex Smith, hasn’t been able to effectively distribute the ball to the Redskins' playmakers — a group that struggled against the Saints even before several members suffered injuries. But perhaps nothing was worse for the coach than seeing his defense look utterly flummoxed against New Orleans.
Three blown coverages led to 180 yards for the Saints. Those botched plays weren’t the entire difference in a 24-point defeat, but they were significant. Combined with three third-down penalties in the first quarter that kept drives alive, leading to two New Orleans touchdowns, a pattern quickly emerged of a team that is somehow not fully engaged.
“I can’t live with giving up easy plays on defense,” Gruden said.
Asked to explain how this can happen — how the Redskins, with a bye week giving his staff 14 days to prepare for the Saints, could look so discombobulated — Gruden seemed unsure. He kept repeating varying versions of the same phrase: We will get it fixed.
“I have faith that this veteran team will clean it up,” he said. “They won’t accept that game, and we have to make sure it won’t happen again.”
There are so many questions he and his coaches can ask in the short week before they play the Carolina Panthers on Sunday. Why can’t Smith, the quarterback known for his accuracy and dependability, appear to get the offense moving efficiently? Are the Redskins players too unfocused, as safety D.J. Swearinger and defensive lineman Jonathan Allen have suggested at times? Why has Josh Norman, the cornerback whose $16 million contract takes up nearly 10 percent of the team’s salary cap, seemed at times so lost on the defense that Gruden benched him at the start of the second half on Monday?
Norman followed his poor game with a Twitter argument with Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas, inviting more criticism from the media, including former teammate DeAngelo Hall saying Norman is “in love with being a celebrity right now and not necessarily being a football player.” The sideshow seemed to call more attention to what appeared to be an unfocused defensive performance.
“Communication was horrible,” Allen said Monday night about the repeated defensive breakdowns. “I mean, it’s worse when you do a lot of things to beat yourself. It’s not like [the Saints] came out there and straight powered us. I mean, they did beat our ass, but we didn’t help our cause having guys getting wide open, not having pressure, not stopping the run.”
Gruden was careful to not criticize Norman on Tuesday’s call. “It’s not always the one guy everybody wants to point to,” he said. Instead he blamed the defense as a whole, saying that mix-ups keep happening throughout the group.
He had not spoken with Smith before the call Tuesday, and he said he wanted to hear the quarterback’s view of what happened to an offense that failed Monday to move the ball against an often-criticized Saints defense. He repeated, too, his suggestion from Monday night that he needs to find more plays that Smith is comfortable running.
“We had some plays we left out there for whatever reason” Gruden said. “We have to make sure we get on the same page as him and dissect his brain a little bit and make sure that we’re all on the same page with what we are trying to read on each given play. I am a firm believer in really, really close communication with head coach and quarterback, especially the play-caller and quarterback. That’s something we’re working on . . . and we’re going to get him in better situations to succeed.”
The Redskins targeted Smith this offseason as the replacement for Kirk Cousins, who was headed off in free agency. But so far, with one fewer game than Cousins, Smith has thrown for 646 fewer yards and seven fewer touchdowns while being intercepted as many times as the new Vikings quarterback. In nearly every metric, Smith finds himself further down on the list than Cousins through the first quarter of the season.
Gruden wondered aloud if Smith has not had enough time to fully learn his new playmakers in Washington. During training camp, the Redskins didn’t play Chris Thompson and Jordan Reed, who were both coming off surgeries, and Smith didn’t have much time with wide receivers Josh Doctson and Jamison Crowder, who missed time with injuries. That lack of familiarity could be affected again by health issues, as the team awaits word on injuries suffered Monday by running backs Thompson and Adrian Peterson, tight end Vernon Davis and wide receiver Paul Richardson Jr. Doctson didn’t play Monday because of a heel injury suffered in a practice last week.
“I believe in this football team,” Gruden said. “The offensive line, receivers, backs, I think obviously Alex. I firmly believe in this football team, and I have a strong belief in what they can do. We just have to get on the same page and take some accountability for what happened last night and move forward. If we can do that, we have a good opportunity to put our best foot forward.”
Even as the cloud of uncertainty lingers over his team’s head.
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