Adrian Peterson rushed for 97 yards in the Redskins' win over the Panthers. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
Columnist

Well, you know what we always say about Jay Gruden’s Washington Redskins: They’re known for running the football and playing good defense. Or something like that.

Okay, so this has been true only since September. But the trend has lasted for five whole games now, which seems like forever because this team is such a week-to-week enigma. Despite all the inconsistency, an early-season pattern has developed. When Washington rushes for triple digits, allows no more than 17 points and takes command early, it wins. When it can’t run and can’t rely on stellar defense and can’t play from ahead, it loses in humiliating fashion.

The good news is that this is an age-old formula for football success. The bad? If this proves to be the team’s only route to victory, you must worry about sustainability. It’s wonderful to be developing an identity; every team covets that at this point in the season. It’s a problem, however, if the style of play is a crutch. In an NFL built on parity, with teams that scrutinize and overanalyze everything, Washington can be a streamlined squad but not a simple one.

After years of watching Gruden’s teams throw for a gazillion yards but stall in the red zone, after years of watching them fail to play anything that resembled defense, it’s both disturbing and refreshing to watch a 2018 version that offers a dissimilar style. But when you look beyond the joy of a solid 3-2 start and marquee victories over Green Bay and Carolina, you see a team relying on a 33-year-old, Hall of Fame-bound running back who wouldn’t even be on the roster if not for injuries, and you see a revamped defense that is still too unproven and too prone to absent-minded communication issues to expect consistent excellence.

So for as much as the players recognize the signs of a major identity shift, they’re not willing to declare this style the new normal. They seem to understand, over the long haul, they’re not yet good enough to keep winning this way.

“We’re definitely not a one-dimensional team,” tight end Jordan Reed insisted. “We can do everything. We’ve got talent at every position, and we’ve just got to keep getting better.”

Although they want more, there’s nothing wrong with appreciating progress. If the players had told you a year ago that they would win by running the ball and playing defense, your response would have been: “Win, huh? Which game?” There was no hope that such an approach could turn into a trademark. They have a chance to be different now. It remains uncertain whether those strengths are potent enough to carry the team through a 16-game schedule. But while the players and coaches search for ways to grow and become a more well-rounded team, there is a fascination with developing this rugged style.

“That’s our identity,” left tackle Trent Williams said. “We have to be a grind-it, physical-up-front, gritty team. We’ve got to win those tough games. That’s just the way we’re designed. We have to grind everything up. Obviously, hitting big plays, that’s great. But that’s like video-game ball. You hear people saying, ‘You need to throw the ball downfield.’ But it’s more than that. It’s never that simple. Obviously we want to be aggressive and air it out and have big plays all over the field, but I think we play our best football when we’re balanced.”

In a 23-17 victory over Carolina on Sunday, Washington had to wrestle with an opponent that has had great success playing classic smashmouth football. The Panthers (3-2) have made the playoffs three of the past four seasons with a run-centric, defense-first system. In 2015, they finished 15-1 in the regular season and advanced to the Super Bowl with this physical style, not to mention the MVP theatrics of quarterback Cam Newton.

To go a step further, the past six NFC champions have all featured powerful rushing attacks. Only the Atlanta Falcons, who won the conference two years ago, didn’t also have a highly ranked defense. For as pass-happy as football has become, the NFC has made the old school seem chic. Of course, Washington isn’t anywhere near being a team worthy of carrying a standard, but it is starting to fall in line with what wins.

In its three victories, Washington has averaged 160 rushing yards per game. In its two losses, it has averaged 52. Adrian Peterson, the rejuvenated old man, has run for 313 yards and averaged 5.0 yards per carry in the wins. He has just 26 yards on 15 carries in the losses.

The defense, which has been the team’s most consistent unit, has experienced fluctuation, too. Its winning stats: allowing 13.3 points and 301 yards per game. Losing stats: allowing 32 points and 364 yards per game.

The sample size is small, yes. But the pattern is a little stunning, right down to Washington taking early double-digit leads in victory and falling behind and losing composure in defeat.

On Sunday, Washington took control by establishing Peterson and taking away Carolina’s running game early. The Panthers entered the day with the NFL’s best rushing offense, gaining more than 154 yards per game. They managed 81 against a Washington run defense led by tackles Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne. The Redskins were especially effective in the first half, holding Carolina to 35 yards on 11 carries at a time when the Panthers were adamant about trying to impose their will. In the second half, Carolina gained a few yards with clever play designs or off Newton’s knack for improvising. But running back Christian McCaffrey never got going. He gained just 20 rushing yards on eight carries.

Asked about the impact the two running games had on the outcome, Carolina Coach Ron Rivera said: “Well, I think it does. It does contribute a little bit. You got to run the ball successfully to make your entire offensive arsenal palatable. They had success running the ball, so their play action was very palatable. They did a nice job mixing up their play-calling — got to give them credit. They came to play hard.”

As Gruden, quarterback Alex Smith and the rest of the offense try to figure out how to improve the passing game, they can take comfort in three things they are doing well: running the ball, limiting turnovers and playing better situational football than in the past. Carolina’s three turnovers proved costly. Meanwhile, with Smith directing the offense, Washington isn’t going to kill itself with foolish giveaways. He may have several more 163-yard passing performances left this season, but his history of taking care of the football matters. In the absence of explosiveness, Washington is competent. It works, for now. The offense must get better and show more dimensions, but at least the consequences for slow growth aren’t as severe as they could be.

“I love when you can win and don’t play your best football,” Williams said. “You’ve got a lot to learn. If you come out and play a dominant game, there’s really nothing to take from it. Sometimes you can get caught off guard the next Sunday because you’re not worried about fixing mistakes. So now, we had a lot of mistakes we made. There were a ton of missed assignments, some penalties that we could have prevented. Now, with a good taste in our mouths, we can go back and be hard on ourselves.”

There’s no danger of overconfidence. Washington has been too up and down to think of one victory as a cure-all. The latest win simply buys time to develop a more diverse arsenal. Still, it’s good to know this team can win an old-fashioned fistfight.

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