With five games left in the season, the NFC has four teams with 6-5 or 6-4-1 records, and another at 5-6 in the Philadelphia Eagles. If the Dallas Cowboys lose to the New Orleans Saints on Thursday and the Eagles beat the Washington Redskins on Monday night, the NFC East would have three teams tied for first place at 6-6.
Which means the Redskins continue to have a decent chance to make the playoffs, despite losing two games in a row, three of their past four, and their quarterback to a gruesome leg injury.
“I think there’s parity without a doubt,” Washington Coach Jay Gruden said Monday, the first day his team practiced after Thursday’s 31-23 loss at Dallas.
Asked if he sees opportunity in that parity, despite a season that is starting to unravel, Gruden nodded.
“Oh, no doubt,” he said. “I think when you look at the players on paper we feel good about competing with anybody. Now we got to go out and execute and play hard and play smart.”
A lot has happened to the Redskins in the past month. A team that looked to be sailing toward a division title with a solid defense and an unspectacular offense has seen its defense blown apart by four straight opponents and now has to rebuild the offense after quarterback Alex Smith broke his leg in a loss to Houston. Gruden has remained optimistic about his team’s postseason hopes, but he also understands how much has to change in a short period of time.
This is why he wanted the players to return on Monday after three days off following the Dallas loss. Even though the next game isn’t until the following Monday, he decided against giving the team a second mini-bye week so he could use Monday as a day for creating continuity with the new starting quarterback, Colt McCoy, and the team’s top playmakers. McCoy had not had a chance to do this before, because Smith used to throw all the passes to the first-team offense in practices and the Redskins had only walk-throughs in the two days before they flew to Dallas.
“A little refresher course,” is what Gruden called Monday’s practice.
Most of the session was spent working in individual position groups and basic situations like first downs, third downs and two-minute drills; basically, the kinds of things teams normally practice in offseason workouts and training camp. But the situation demanded it. And not just because McCoy has replaced Smith, but because the offensive line has been rebuilt and the defense has seen some shake-ups, with rookie cornerbacks Greg Stroman and Danny Johnson playing more, along with the trade deadline acquisition of safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
Gruden talked Monday about finding the plays McCoy is most comfortable running — again, something they didn’t have much of a chance to do before Dallas considering there were only three days between Smith’s injury and the Cowboys game.
But the biggest push in recent days is trying to get the team back to playing the way it was when it won three in a row.
“I think we’ve got to go back to playing very smart football,” Gruden said. “There’s a few plays in the game where we didn’t play very smart, and that’s a reflection on the coaching staff. We’ve got to make sure our guys are ready to go and understand exactly what coverage we’re playing, why we’re playing it, what the holes are.
“Offensively, we’ve got to make sure we know the snap count, know our protections, the route combinations, the depths, the splits, all that stuff. We’ve got to be honed in, because if you’re not, you’ll get taken advantage of.”
Several times in recent days, Gruden has said that to make a legitimate playoff run the Redskins have to be able to run the ball much better than they have in the past month, and must be effective at stopping the run. On Thursday, they gave up more than 100 yards to a running back for the first time all year, when Dallas’s Ezekiel Elliott had 121.
The problem with making this work is the offense has to be able to take a lead and then hold onto it.
“You can’t run the ball unless you have the lead,” left tackle Trent Williams said Monday. “You can’t run the ball down 10 points in the third quarter. You got to start picking the tempo up. But as far as stopping the run, anytime the defense stops the run it gives you a leg up as a team.”
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