NASHVILLE — Despite kicking off the preseason on Thursday night with eight starters shelved with various bumps and bruises, the Washington Redskins pulled off a 22-21 comeback victory over the Tennessee Titans at LP Field.
Among the highlights were quality showings by Kirk Cousins and the first-team offense; a late-game touchdown drive and successful two-point conversion from Pat White and the third-team offense; and the impactful return of linebacker Brian Orakpo.
Meantime, there were a few lowlights too. They included poor tackling, a disappointing night for rookie safeties Bacarri Rambo and Phillip Thomas and late-game separated right shoulder to backup linebacker Jeremy Kimbrough.
“In the first game, what we try to do is find a way to win, evaluate a lot of personnel, which is what we did today,” Coach Mike Shanahan said. “There were some good things and some poor things. We’ll take a look at the things we did poorly, and hopefully we can improve on those things. And the things we did good, hopefully we can build on that.”
Charged with leading the offense with Robert Griffin III still working his way back on his surgically-repaired right knee, Cousins delivered.
After struggling with consistency in the first two weeks of training camp practices, the second-year pro looked sharp and accurate during a 13-play sampling in the first quarter.
Cousins completed six of seven passes (the lone incompletion a drop by tight end Logan Paulsen) for 52 yards and a touchdown.
Cousins did his best on the second possession.
After opening the possession with a six-yard pass to Josh Morgan, Cousins then connected with Aldrick Robinson for 15 yards on an out route. Titans safety Bernard Pollard drilled Robinson in the back as Robinson was stepping out of bounds, drawing a 15-yard penalty.
After back-to-back runs by Roy Helu Jr., Cousins completed an 11-yard pass to tight end Fred Davis to put Washington in scoring position.
A six-yard Helu gain followed, and then came Cousins’s touchdown strike. Lined up under center, Cousins took the snap and faked a pitch to Helu on the left, prompting the bulk of the defenders to shift that direction. But Cousins rolled to his right, scanned the end zone and found Davis in front of the goal post for a three-yard scoring strike and a 7-0 lead.
Davis drew a penalty for excessive celebration as he went to the ground, and the 15 yards were assessed on the kickoff, which followed Kai Forbath’s successful point-after attempt.
Aside from the precision of his passes, an impressive aspect of Cousins’s night proved to be the way he distributed the ball.
He completed his first five passes to five receivers after scanning the defense and finding holes in the coverage.
“I really was just going where the call dictated,” Cousins said. “It’s unique that it was to five different guys. It’s neat to get everyone involved. I think that’s something we’d like to see happen in the offense, but it wasn’t by design. It was simply where my reads were taking me.”
Cousins’s ability to do so came thanks in part to the effectiveness of the line in front of him. Despite the absence of Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Williams, Washington’s line didn’t surrender a sack nor a hit on the quarterback during Cousins’s time in the game.
Second-year player Tom Compton — a sixth-rounder out of South Dakota in 2012, who spent the bulk of last season on the practice squad — started in place of Williams.
With no veteran left tackle on the roster other than Williams, Compton’s development is crucial for Washington, and Thursday’s game afforded him his most extensive playing time of his short career.
Compton’s performance wasn’t flawless. He got knocked back off the line on some running plays and his initial step didn’t always prove fast enough for him to get squarely in front of pass rusher Kamerion Wimbley. But Compton managed to adjust and rode Wimbley just wide enough to allow Cousins to get the pass off on three such instances.
Meanwhile, the other backup in the starting lineup — Helu — appears to have recaptured the form that made him a big-play threat as a rookie.
Sidelined for the bulk of last season with toe and Achilles’ tendon injuries, Helu rushed for 57 yards on 13 carries (4.4 yard-per-carry average). Helu displayed the burst of speed and shiftiness that make him an ideal complement to hard-running, workhorse back Alfred Morris.
Helu’s best run of the night — an 18-yard zig-zagging gain — got called back because of a holding call on Josh LeRibeus.
“I felt fine the whole time. There really wasn’t too much rust,” Helu said. “Going into the game, watching film of Tennessee, I had a feeling they’d kind of extend our wide zone plays, so that was to be expected. But you could see, as we run, run, run, we were able to keep them off balance and get running lanes.”
Washington’s only other score of the first half came on an eight-yard touchdown pass from Rex Grossman to Leonard Hankerson, forcing a halftime tie at 14.
Washington’s defense saw mixed results as the unit welcomed back top pass rusher Orakpo, and also trotted out three promising rookie defensive backs in cornerback David Amerson and safeties Rambo and Thomas.
Orakpo, who missed the bulk of last season with a torn pectoral muscle, made his presence felt almost immediately as he pressured Tennessee quarterback Jake Locker, coming off the edge and forced Locker to the right, and into the arms of fellow linebacker Ryan Kerrigan. Orakpo later recorded a sack of his own, coming around left tackle Michael Roos and dropping Locker from behind.
But later still, Orakpo whiffed on a tackle on the speedy Chris Johnson at the line, and Johnson raced into the secondary, badly juked Rambo and raced untouched to the end zone for a 58-yard touchdown.
Rambo, a sixth-rounder out of Georgia, didn’t make any obvious errors in pass coverage, but in the first quarter couldn’t get the necessary angle on running back Shonn Green, who came through the line untouched and scored on a 19-yard touchdown run.
Rambo shoved Green in the back after the back crossed the goal line and drew a 15-yard penalty.
Thomas, the Fresno State product taken in the fourth round, left the game with just less than five minutes left in the first quarter after suffering a right shoulder and left foot injury on the same play.
Amerson, the second-round pick out of N.C. State, meanwhile, narrowly missed an interception on one play, and also recorded three tackles.
Neither team scored in the third quarter, but Tennessee ended the drought when third-string quarterback Rusty Smith completed a dump-off pass to fullback Quinn Johnson, who turned and scored untouched from nine yards out with 7 minutes 55 seconds left in the game.
White made good on his late-game opportunity, marching the team 80 yards in 12 plays. The former West Virginia star attempting to make a comeback after being out of football the past three seasons scored on a nine-yard run up the middle, and then completed a pass to tight end Emmanuel Ogbuehi for the two-point conversion that gave the Redskins the lead for good.
“It was good to get out there and see some of the younger guys make plays,” wide receiver Santana Moss said. “You just build off of coming in here. You’ll have a lot to look at after watch the film and see where we go from there. But, getting a win is very important, any time we step on the field, we want to get that.”
In addition to playing without Griffin, Williams and Morris, the Redskins also played without wide receiver Pierre Garcon, defensive backs DeAngelo Hall, Brandon Meriweather and Josh Wilson, and nose tackle Barry Cofield.