When asked on Thursday about his plans for his starters in the second preseason game, Redskins Coach Jay Gruden said he didn’t exactly have a plan for how long they would play. He would go with his gut.
The Redskins didn’t produce a first down until their fourth possession, and Kirk Cousins & Co. didn’t reach the end zone until 17 seconds remained in the second quarter.
Gruden would have preferred to have pulled the members of his first unit well before that point. But, determined to get some positive results and a scoring drive out of his starters, the coach sent them back onto the field again and again.
A four-yard pass to Jamison Crowder gave the first team their first touchdown of the preseason, and it capped a 10-play, 78-yard drive.
“Yeah, it took a little while,” Gruden said. “We stuttered and sputtered and missed a few throws, and I had a couple runs rejected, but they stuck with it. I think it was good for them to stay out there for the half, at least get a touchdown in there, have something positive happen.”
“We wanted to play. . . . We didn’t feel like we had it going enough to call it a game,” left tackle Trent Williams said. “It happened to be a whole half, but we don’t care. We’re going to play 16 whole games, so a half is really nothing when you think about it, so we wanted to continue to try to get things rolling.”
The scoring drive provided temporary gratification, Williams said. But he and his fellow starters left FedEx Field reflecting on their problem areas above all else.
Washington’s first-team offense didn’t look much better to start the game than last week at Baltimore despite the fact that players called that outing “a wake-up call.”
Coming into Saturday, Gruden really stressed the need to run the ball more effectively. He wants more balance this year. But offensive line coach Bill Callahan’s unit didn’t look like the same unit that garnered respect as one of the best in the league last year. Linemen at times missed blocks, or they got knocked back off the ball, and there were few clear running lanes for the backs early on. After two possessions, Washington had managed only 10 rushing yards on 11 carries. Rob Kelley had a long of four yards and Chris Thompson had a long of three.
Although the line’s play ranked among one of the team’s strengths last year — and was expected to again this year — Williams and center Spencer Long said they saw no reason for concern over the struggles of the last two weeks.
“You’re not going to open a game just gashing people,” Williams said. “Running a ball especially. It’s like pounding a rock. You don’t crack it on your first try. You have to continue to hit, continue to hit, learn and make your sideline adjustments and try to make stuff pop a little more. It’s kind of hard to do that in one half or the first couple drives.”
Said Long, “It’s really making sure 11 guys are on the same page. It has to be. We might’ve had a hole here or there. And you can’t have that. If just one guy gets loose in this league, you’ll have problems. So we need to go back, look at the film and make those corrections.”
One area of improvement: Pass protection. Washington’s offensive linemen did much better in this area Saturday night. After missing some assignments against Baltimore, the unit had no glaring errors against Green Bay. Gruden praised his linemen and tight ends in this area.
Despite solid protection, Cousins didn’t look comfortable for much of the first half. It almost seemed as if the quarterback anticipated more pressure than was actually there. Multiple times he rushed throws rather than setting his feet to ensure accuracy. Other times he missed identifying open receivers, opting more hurriedly for check-down passes.
“Yeah, he was a little antsy,” Gruden said. “I think he’ll tell you that.”
And he did.
“I haven’t played a live football game since last January or late December. So it takes time to get used to that again,” Cousins said. “Practice is a false sense of reality when they’re not actually able to hit you. So it’s a different deal when they can. I probably was moving a little faster than I needed to. My clock was going off a little faster. So I think that the preseason games will help with that. [I’d like to] play a lot next week as well. I’d like to think through those games, with a lot of reps, that internal clock starts to settle in and you get a better feel for it.”
The big play of the first touchdown drive was a 43-yard pass up the right sideline to Vernon Davis. The 33-year-old still has really good speed, but it’s debatable whether he would have beaten a starting safety as handily as he did first-year player Jermaine Whitehead.
Cousins also connected with Josh Doctson for a 12-yard completion. That was Doctson’s first catch since Week 2 of last season (he missed the remainder of the season with Achilles’ tendon injuries).
Mason Foster’s night ended in the middle of the second quarter. He looked good at the “Mike” linebacker position, and there didn’t appear to be any communication issues as he served as the defensive leader. None of the starters appeared to be out of place.
Foster — competing against last year’s defensive captain Will Compton — said after last week’s game and again this week that he felt just fine directing traffic for the defense, just like he did the first four years of his career in Tampa.
He made a nice downhill tackle inside the red zone, shedding a block and stopping Packers running back Jamaal Williams for a one-yard gain. Meanwhile, Zach Brown had four tackles while getting the start at the “Moe.” Brown did give up a touchdown to Martellus Bennett (a three-yard toss from Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers). That’s a tough assignment for a linebacker.
The third-round pick was in the thick of the action all night, both on special teams and defense. On special teams, he had the first quarter hit on punt returner Trevor Davis that led to Niles Paul’s recovery of the muffed punt at the Green Bay 16. On the next Redskins punt, Moreau again beat everyone downfield to make a tackle, holding Davis to a one-yard return.
On defense, Moreau got a little action with the first unit, replacing Josh Norman while the rest of the starters remained on the field.
Moreau gave up a 38-yard reception to Jeff Janis but later had a nice pass breakup on a comeback route by Geronimo Allison. Moreau allowed another eight-yard catch to Janis, but was there to make an immediate tackle. Moreau later had tight coverage downfield, and rookie safety Montae Nicholson came over to help in coverage, forcing an incompletion. All in all a positive night for the rookie cornerback.
The running back was better than last week. After fumbling and appearing tentative against Baltimore, Perine looked much more decisive as he carried the ball. Gruden had said he wanted to see more physicality from the young back, and Perine responded, generating yards after contact.
Perine had eight carries for 45 yards and a long of 14, and afterward he admitted he didn’t have the jitters in this game that plagued him against the Ravens.
Perine also continues to impress with his hands. The Redskins knew he could run when they drafted him. But they didn’t realize he was an effective receiver. Saturday, he did a good job of adjusting to a Colt McCoy pass on a wheel route, gaining 29 yards on the play. Most importantly, Perine did not turn the ball over.
In the second half, McCoy made a great back-shoulder pass to Paul, who did a good job of adjusting to the ball in the air, and hung on for a 16-yard touchdown. That capped a six-play, 40-yard drive to put Washington up 17-14. The sideline erupted, and countless players slapped Paul on the helmet or back as he returned.
It mattered because Paul has seen the last two seasons end prematurely because of injury. He has worked hard to regain his form after shoulder surgery and this preseason has proved his worth as a tight end while playing in place of an injured Jordan Reed, and as a fullback.
Look for the Redskins to carry four tight ends: Reed, Davis, Paul and it appears rookie Jeremy Sprinkle has a leg up on Derek Carrier for the final spot.