If there's a silver lining to Monday night's loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, it's that the Washington Redskins won't have to face quarterback Carson Wentz or the Eagles' top-ranked run defense again this season.
The 34-24 loss completed a sweep by the Eagles over Washington and relegated the Redskins (3-3, 0-2) to third in the NFC East, just behind the Dallas Cowboys (3-3, 1-0).
But the Redskins' schedule doesn't get easier over the next four weeks.
"Yes, the next several games are going to be a challenge," quarterback Kirk Cousins said. "Not only that, I feel like the first [six] games have been a challenge when you look at the whole thing."
The Football Outsiders website backs Cousins up, ranking the Redskins' schedule to date — which included the Eagles twice, the Rams in Los Angeles and the Chiefs in Kansas City — as the NFL's second-toughest. Things ought to get easier in the second half of the season, which includes two games against the New York Giants (1-6). But the next four are difficult, starting with NFC East rival Dallas, which visits FedEx Field on Sunday.
Then comes a trip to Seattle (4-2), which boasts the NFL's stingiest scoring defense, allowing just 15.7 points per game. And the din at CenturyLink Field, where the Seahawks have lost just once in the last two seasons, will test Cousins's ability to communicate with an offensive line that may well include backups finding their way.
That's followed by a home game against the NFC North-leading Minnesota Vikings (5-2) — another stiff challenge for the Redskins' offense. The Vikings rank third in the NFL in run defense (76.6 yards per game) and fifth in scoring defense (17.0) and have already tallied 21 sacks. Then a visit to 4-2 New Orleans, currently atop the NFC South, whose prolific offense ranks fourth in scoring (28.5 points per game) and passing yards (269.3 per game).
With 10 games remaining, it's far too early to write a postmortem on the 2017 Redskins or declare them playoff-worthy. But it's not too early to take stock of what has gone better than expected, what has gone worse than expected and what their postseason prospects look like.
Injuries have been the dominant story line. No one could have predicted the foot surgery that landed rookie defensive lineman Jonathan Allen, the team's first-round draft pick, on injured reserve. On Friday, the team announced that linebacker Mason Foster also is out for the season, opting for surgery after battling a shoulder injury for weeks.
The secondary has been battered, and the offensive line has been decimated. With four of five starters and a key backup tackle unable to practice, Gruden gave the squad an extra day off and didn't hold a single padded practice this past week — unprecedented in the run-up to a Cowboys game.
In terms of factors in the Redskins' control, three former NFC East players who follow the division closely in their role as NFL analysts — former Cowboys quarterback Babe Laufenberg, former Redskins cornerback Fred Smoot and former Eagles wide receiver Mike Quick — agree that the team erred in letting wide receivers DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon depart in the offseason, underestimating how difficult it would be to replace a pair of 1,000-yard receivers.
Said Smoot: "I always felt you had to keep one. And if I had to choose one, as a former cornerback, it would have been DeSean. He takes the top off the defense when he's on the field. All four defensive backs have to be aware of him, and everyone is playing on their back feet."
"From an outsider's perspective, I think it really hurt their whole offense," Quick said. "I think it really hurt Kirk Cousins. I think it really hurt [tight end] Jordan Reed. It hurts [wide receiver] Jamison [Crowder]. When Jackson is on the field, he's always a threat. Every time he came back and played against his old team that drafted him, Philadelphia, somewhere during the course of the game he torched the defense. That's what you can count on with D-Jack in that offense. No, he's not going to get eight, 10 catches a game, but he's going to have two or three that are backbreakers."
Smoot argues that Jackson's greatest value wasn't simply the catches he made but the implied threat he presented, demanding attention from defensive backs who left the middle of the field open for Reed and Crowder.
Six games into the 2017 season, neither Josh Doctson nor Terrelle Pryor Sr., the rangy, athletically gifted wide receivers Redskins officials counted on to fill the breach, has posed enough of a downfield threat to occupy more than one defender.
"That's why Reed, Crowder aren't having career years," Smoot said. "Defenses are taking away the middle of the field."
Added Laufenberg: "Timing is so imperative in the passing game. You don't get timing without continuity. Obviously, Cousins had it with Jackson and Garcon."
Nonetheless, all voiced regard for Cousins's ability to still move the offense despite not only the lack of a go-to downfield threat but also the lack of a long-term contract. The contract issue baffles Laufenberg in particular.
"You've got a guy — and you're going to go spend a long time trying to find a guy as good as he is? And you're going to spend a lot of money and a lot of draft picks doing it?" Laufenberg said. "I'd bet if he was the second pick in that draft and not a fourth-rounder, they'd be anointing him. I've seen Kirk Cousins play a lot, and I'd just say, 'Give him to me!' "
And all still view the Redskins as contenders for the postseason.
The Redskins no doubt improved the defense in the offseason, committing their top three draft picks to shoring up a unit that ranked 28th in the NFL and dragged the team down over the previous two years.
"I don't count them out at all," Quick said. "I just think they're too talented. I like Jay Gruden; I like the way he puts a game plan together. And I think the quarterback is a real fighter."
Speaking from a defensive back's perspective, Smoot says he's impressed by Doctson, despite the Achilles' ailments that scuttled his rookie season and his slow start (seven catches) this season.
"His talent level is immense," Smoot said. "Now, the question is, 'How tough is he?' "
Smoot posed the same question about Pryor, the 6-foot-4 quarterback-turned-wide receiver whom the Redskins signed to a one-year deal in March. "That's what neither one of them has shown: toughness."
That may come in time. Doctson has only appeared in seven NFL games, and Pryor is nearing the midpoint of just his second full season at wide receiver. Their predecessors had two decades' worth of pro experience between them.
In Quick's view, what the Redskins need to make a playoff push in the interim isn't so much new players as it is veteran leadership.
"In times like this, you've got to have veterans step forward and make it known, 'We're in this fight. We're not going anywhere.' "
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