In what has become a familiar routine this season, the head coach of the top team in the NFC East stood behind a lectern the day after a key victory and talked about an offense that has yet to come to life.
“We’re close,” Redskins Coach Jay Gruden said.
Which was similar to last Monday’s: “We will get better on offense, the numbers will come.”
But despite the appearances of a passing game that has produced yardage totals of 156, 175 and 178 in the last three weeks, Gruden insists the productivity will get better. He swears the timing will come, a bond between receivers and quarterback will be made and Washington will move with the quick, methodical precision the organization’s leaders imagined, last spring, when they traded for quarterback Alex Smith.
After spending hours watching game tape of Sunday’s 20-13 victory over the New York Giants, Gruden said he sees small signs the Redskins will be able to pass effectively as the team moves into the middle of the season.
“We just got to keep working and keep running and let Alex do his thing,” Gruden said. “There’s still some nuances whether [it is] a choice route or an option route where it’s just a little hesitant here and there. Or maybe it’s a deep route where we’re not letting go or letting loose or we haven’t had time to let loose, whatever the reason. We have to keep plugging away at what we’re doing and [good] things will happen.”
So far the Redskins haven’t had to rely on Smith’s passing to lead them through games. The late August signing of running back Adrian Peterson has given the offense a dynamic that neither Gruden nor his staff expected. They had always hoped to have a run game that would set up the pass, but no one could have imagined that Peterson, at 33, would be the NFL’s fifth-leading rusher with 587 yards.
Gruden has seemed increasingly more comfortable with the idea of being a team that controls the clock with lots of runs and short passes, using punts to push opponents deep into their own territory and then rely on an aggressive defense to keep those teams from moving too far downfield. He talks more and more about winning “the field position battle.”
“The object is, obviously, to win the game,” he said.
It is one thing, however, to rely on a strong defense and a running game to beat teams like Arizona, New York and Dallas, who have not had powerful, high-scoring offenses this year. But the Redskins have not shown they can play from behind this year — something that was shown in losses to Indianapolis and New Orleans.
Looming ahead the next three weeks are Atlanta, Tampa Bay and Houston. All are teams with offenses that can quickly put up lots of points. The Bucs have produced the most yards per game in the NFL this season, while the Falcons rank seventh and the Texans are 15th. Washington will probably have to get into higher-scoring games than they have in recent game to win. So far, the Redskins are 5-0 in games in which they have held a lead and not given it up. They have lost the two games in which they fell behind and have just two offensive touchdowns in the second half this year.
“We don’t ever anticipate a team coming in here and scoring a lot of points,” Gruden said Monday. “We don’t say ‘it’s gong to be a shootout,’ we anticipate our defense playing well and offensively stick with our plan.”
He added that the running game has several different approaches now that Peterson has adapted to the Redskins' system, and can attack defenses on the outside and inside.
But Washington probably will have to be more effective throwing the ball in coming weeks. So far, Smith has not made much of a connection with his receivers and tight ends. Some of this comes from a lack of familiarity, as Smith didn’t arrive until March and then wasn’t able to work with key receivers and tight end Jordan Reed at times during the summer because several of those players were recovering from injuries.
Some of his throws have been off, however. In one glaring example Sunday, wide receiver Paul Richardson was open on a deep route that could have been a touchdown, but Smith’s throw sailed far to the left, several feet out of Richardson’s reach.
“It was a mis-throw a bit,” Gruden said, explaining that Smith was getting some pressure from pass rushers and wasn’t able to fully step forward when throwing.
“We’re going to take a few shots and hopefully connect on a few,” he said.
He said this with the same confidence he had the week before, in a season that has seen the Redskins storm into first place — just not in a way anyone expected.
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