CLEVELAND — Anyone who talks privately with Coach Mike Shanahan would tell you he truly believes in Washington Redskins rookie quarterback Kirk Cousins. Shanahan often goes off-topic to reveal something Cousins does during practice — such as the wise decisions Cousins usually makes against blitzes — that has inspired confidence in the inexperienced backup. It’s getting easier for Redskins fans to understand what Shanahan sees in the fourth-round pick out of Michigan State.
Making his first career start, Cousins delivered a big-time performance to help the surging Redskins move into a first-place tie atop the NFC East with a convincing 38-21 victory over the Cleveland Browns.
Playing in place of injured star rookie Robert Griffin III, Cousins passed for 329 yards and two touchdowns in the Redskins’ fifth consecutive victory. (Griffin’s season high is 323 yards.) Cousins overcame a slow start, got into a good rhythm in the third quarter and led Washington to a 28-point second half.
But the Redskins’ late-season run has been all about a group effort. Sunday’s victory here was another all-in production.
Although rookie running back Alfred Morris’s run of consecutive 100-yard rushing performances ended, he again provided rushing balance to complement the team’s success in the passing game. The offensive line, despite losing right tackle Tyler Polumbus to a concussion and center Will Montgomery to a knee injury, continued to pass-protect and run-block better than most Redskins observers ever thought they could entering the season.
Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett’s opportunistic squad is short on talent but big on forcing turnovers: Washington intercepted two more passes. And offensive play-caller Kyle Shanahan remained on a better roll than anyone in Washington not named Griffin. Shanahan modified the game plan and play-calling to accentuate what Cousins does best, and the Redskins still amassed 430 net yards.
It’s all going right for the Redskins, who now expect to win each week. And they’re starting to make it look easy.
Cousins is not one of the Redskins’ leaders — but he was definitely in charge against the Browns.
A week ago, Cousins came through off the bench — he threw an 11-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Pierre Garcon, then ran for a tying two-point conversion with 29 seconds left in regulation — to spark the Redskins’ victory in overtime against Baltimore. Cousins took the bulk of the first-team snaps in practice last week while Griffin, who also practiced, tried to prove to the Shanahans that his sore knee had improved enough for him to play against Cleveland. Griffin wasn’t persuasive.
Cousins started, veteran Rex Grossman backed up Cousins and Griffin was inactive. No problem.
Kyle Shanahan eliminated the read-option and pistol-formation plays that have helped the athletically gifted Griffin terrorize opposing defenses. Cousins can move a little in the pocket, but running the option isn’t what he does best. He’s a classic pro-style quarterback. That’s how Kyle Shanahan utilized him against the Browns.
Shanahan, however, did continue to call play-action misdirection plays, which worked especially well after halftime.
Kyle Shanahan, who noticed that Browns defensive players were over-pursuing on play-action rollouts, saw a weakness and attacked it. On one play early in the third quarter, Cousins faked a handoff to Morris, rolled right and passed to wide receiver Santana Moss, who was wide open, for a 17-yard gain. On a similar play, Cousins capped the drive with a two-yard touchdown pass to wideout Leonard Hankerson. Cousins and Hankerson teamed on a 54-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter.
Cousins completed 70 percent of his passes and had a 104.4 passer rating. You know what you call that? A first start that’s as good as it gets.
No Redskins player has benefited more than Morris from Griffin’s dual-threat skills. Griffin’s ability to elude linebackers and safeties, especially on designed runs during the season’s first three games, quickly established the Redskins as the NFL’s top rushing team. Opponents have been so concerned with trying to contain Griffin on Redskins option plays that Morris often goes untouched through holes while defensive players pursue Griffin.
The Browns weren’t worried about Cousins regularly bolting from the pocket, whether by design or because of broken plays, so they aligned their defense to slow down Morris and essentially ignored Cousins. The first-half results were good for the Browns, who held Morris — who was coming off three consecutive games of at least 100 yards rushing — to only 18 yards and a 2.0-yard average.
The Browns’ defense, however, clearly wore down as the Redskins took almost a 13-minute advantage in time of possession for the game. And the hard-charging Morris is usually at his best in the second half, when defensive players are a step slower. Morris averaged only 3.2 yards per rush, his second-lowest mark of the season, but he finished with 87 yards and rushed for two touchdowns in the Redskins’ breakout second half.
Morris consistently gained yardage in the third quarter to help the Redskins take control of the game. He bulled his way into the end zone from three yards out to put Washington ahead for good early in the quarter, and he put the game out of reach in the fourth with an eight-yard score.
Morris established a new Redskins rookie record with nine rushing touchdowns, breaking the mark Skip Hicks set in 1998. Morris had to work even harder than usual to increase his season rushing total to 1,322 yards. But hard work is Morris’s thing.
Haslett deserves credit for getting the most out of Washington’s talent. The Redskins are good at producing turnovers and Haslett is putting players in position to make plays.
Linebackers London Fletcher and Rob Jackson intercepted passes. The Redskins have had six multi-interception games and rank 10th in the NFL in takeaways.
Browns rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden (66.8 passer rating) held the ball too long and made many poor decisions. Still, Haslett contributed to Weeden’s confusion by mixing coverages. That’s exactly what Haslett is supposed to do.
The Redskins (8-6) have a backup quarterback who’s comfortable on the big stage. Washington is riding its longest winning streak since the 2005 season and is in first place in the NFC East for the first time since last winning the division in 1999. It seems the Shanahans can do no wrong. Times have certainly changed.
For previous columns by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.
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Summary: Redskins 38, Browns 21
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