Winners and Losers of Washington Redskins' Week 1 Performance

James Dudko@@JamesDudkoFeatured ColumnistSeptember 11, 2017

Winners and Losers of Washington Redskins' Week 1 Performance

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    Kirk Cousins and his primary new receiver both flopped during the Washington Redskins' 2017 season-opening loss to the Philadelphia Eagles at FedExField on Sunday. Sadly, the pair had plenty of company during what was a shaky performance from the Burgundy and Gold in losing 30-17 to an NFC East rival.

    Cousins and hands-of-stone wideout Terrelle Pryor Sr. weren't helped by an offensive line that was no match for Philadelphia's impressive array of pass-rushers. The continued absence of a running game not sufficiently strengthened this offseason also served to hamstring the Redskins offense.

    Based on Week 1, it could be a long year for Washington's offense. It may be longer still for a Redskins defense worked over in the second half by young Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz and his receivers.

    Incoherent planning from defensive coordinator Greg Manusky, coupled with an inability to finish plays in key moments, wasted some fine individual performances, particularly from newcomers Zach Brown and Terrell McClain.

    Read on to find out who are the winners and losers for the Redskins after a disappointing start to the new season.

Loser: Terrelle Pryor Sr.

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    The stat line may show Pryor hauled in six catches for 66 yards, but those numbers aren't fooling anybody. Washington's primary wide receiver stunk up the joint in Week 1.

    Playing against an Eagles secondary suspect at cornerback should have been Pryor's cue to show the NFL community he is ready to assume the mantle vacated by DeSean Jackson this offseason as the Redskins' big-play threat.

    Instead, all Pryor showed was size and speed count for naught if you can't catch the ball with any consistency. The 28-year-old let several passes escape his mitts, something the converted quarterback assumed responsibility for afterward, per Kyle Tasman of 247Sports: "I don't like (dropping passes). I start looking to run because I want to create a big play and I don't really focus in, especially because [the ball] is a little behind, and I just need to focus more on it and I put this one definitely on me."

    Worryingly, reeling the ball in wasn't Pryor's only problem. He also struggled to find it at times, ruining Washington's plan to stretch the Eagles vertically early in the game.

    Some teething problems are inevitable for a receiver playing on a new team in only his second year at the position. It's true both Pryor and Cousins are going to need some time to forge a true rapport.

    There was a definitely a willingness on Cousins' part to get Pryor going, with the receiver targeted 11 times. Things did look better whenever Pryor worked the middle on crossing routes, as he presented Cousins with a big body who got open quickly.

    Overall though, it was disturbing to see how much work still needs to be done before Pryor can be the catalyst for explosive plays Jackson so often was during his time in D.C.

Winner: Ryan Grant

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    While Pryor needs a few more warm-up gigs to get used to his new role, Ryan Grant made a smooth start to the new season. The fourth-year pro caught four of his six targets for 61 yards.

    Grant impressed in short-range areas by showcasing the core qualities of his game. Specifically, the former Tulane catching machine displayed impressive hands and quick moves in space.

    Perhaps the most encouraging thing to emerge from Grant's performance was the way he was used. Head coach Jay Gruden called well-crafted plays designed to free the 6'0", 204-pounder in underneath zones and the flats.

    These quick-hitters not only let Cousins beat a relentless pass rush. They also took the place of runs as the ground game struggled.

    As a sure-handed, possession-style receiver, Grant can be a vital cog in a passing game likely to be scaled down now Jackson is no longer around to push coverage deep and while the O-line continues to struggle.

Loser: Rob Kelley

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    No offense can function adequately for long without some semblance of balance. Sadly, Rob Kelley failed to provide anything close to this vital quality in Week 1.

    Washington's lead running back mustered a mere 30 yards on 10 carries against a tough Eagles front. There were several things wrong with how No. 20 ran the ball.

    The first was how he rarely tried to test the edges, despite the Eagles routinely creating push and penetration through the middle. Kelley's unwillingness to bounce plays to the outside was a depressing reminder of the key attribute he lacks, namely game-breaking speed.

    He's not quick enough initially to turn inside runs into big plays. On the rare occasions Kelley did hit the middle decisively, he lacked the acceleration to burst away from the front line, often being ankle tackled just as real daylight appeared invitingly in front of him.

    The truth is the Redskins should have already known Kelley lacks explosiveness as a runner. Yet the franchise still stayed content to only add fourth-round pick Samaje Perine, unused on Sunday, to a position weighed down with so many question marks.

    It's a decision made to look foolish by the all-too-familiar meager effort on the ground produced by the Redskins on opening day.

    Team president Bruce Allen would be smart to run the rule over James Starks, Stevan Ridley, Matt Asiata and any of the capable veterans still on the free-agent market. This rotation needs an infusion of experience and talent.

Winner: Chris Thompson

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    Chris Thompson is the only member of the backfield the Redskins can count on for big plays. That most of those big plays come in the passing game only underscores the sorry state of things on the ground, but it does nothing to detract from Thompson's value.

    The archetypal third-down back was at his pass-catching best against the Eagles. He made four grabs for 52 yards, including a 29-yard touchdown in the second quarter that was a highlight-reel play featuring four broken tackles for No. 25.

    He was unaccounted for pre-snap and was instead afforded the freedom to release into space and find a matchup he could exploit. No linebacker, rush end or safety is going to effectively stay with the 26-year-old in space, something Nigel Bradham found out to his cost on the touchdown play.

    The matchup problems he poses to defenses make the two-year contract extension the Redskins recently gave to Thompson look like one of the smartest moves the franchise made this offseason.

    Thompson appears primed to emerge in the passing game while Cousins and his downfield targets work to get in sync.

Loser: Kirk Cousins

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    He may have been battered from pillar to post, but Washington's starting quarterback also found the self-destruct button without any help on Sunday.

    Cousins endured a horrid day, the kind common for the 2012 fourth-round pick earlier in his career, when poor decisions, late throws and turnovers blighted his development.

    All of those things were evident against Philadelphia's blitz-happy defense. Cousins played like a quarterback lacking the composure and authority in the pocket a signal-caller entering his third full season as a starter should exude.

    His fourth-quarter interception to Jalen Mills, when the Redskins were in position to take the lead, swung the game decisively in favor of the Eagles. It came on a late throw over the middle in the red zone. In other words, a checklist of cardinal sins for any pro quarterback.

    Unfortunately, the critical pick wasn't the only blot on Cousins' copybook for Week 1. He was also high on several deep throws, giving receivers no chance to make the big plays the Redskins were counting on.

    More troubling was how Cousins lost two fumbles, one of which Philly defensive tackle Fletcher Cox returned for the clinching score late in the fourth quarter. A player who was a turnover machine earlier in his career is supposed to have put these type of gaffes behind him.

    He should also have mastered some efficiency in the red zone by now, a quality ESPN.com's John Keim noted is still eluding Washington's starting passer: "But last season, one area Washington struggled with was scoring in the red zone. That's where Cousins faltered Sunday, and it's where he must get better—back to two seasons ago, when he went for 22 touchdowns and no interceptions inside the 20-yard line."

    This rough start will only increase the pressure facing a quarterback already under his share of it, thanks to playing a second season under the franchise tag.

    As Thom Loverro of the Washington Times pointed out, this performance will only have served to strengthen Allen's hand in negotiations when Cousins next asks for the big bucks: "He had a chance to walk up to Allen, stick the ball in his gut and say, 'Game ball.' Instead, he gave Allen another win off the field."

    Cousins no longer has the safety net Jackson and fellow 1,000-yard wideout Pierre Garcon provided. Now the onus is firmly on the man under center to prove he can be the catalyst for progress and points on offense.

    Playing calmer and smarter in Week 2 is the only way for Cousins to start repairing the damage done against the Eagles.

Loser: Offensive Line

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    Progress won't be possible on offense unless the line in front of Cousins tightens up considerably in time for Week 2's road trip to take on the Los Angeles Rams.

    How easily Washington's front five was toyed with by the Eagles should be Gruden's biggest concern after Cousins was sacked four times and hurried countless others.

    There were issues everywhere in protection. The edges looked weak, particularly when right tackle Morgan Moses gave up sacks to Cox and Brandon Graham, with both takedowns resulting in Cousins fumbling.

    Things were hardly better up the middle, allowing Timmy Jernigan to notch a sack. Philadelphia defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz also routinely targeted soft interior of guards Shawn Lauvao and Brandon Scherff and center Spencer Long with blitz pressure.

    There was little in the way of recognition, communication and symmetry in the way the Redskins responded to those blitzes.

    Things aren't supposed to look like this for what is meant to be a team strength. The Redskins didn't hire Bill Callahan, one of the premier line coaches in the game, as well as use a top-five pick to draft Scherff in 2015 to field a line capable of sinking the season.

    Callahan and Scherff are supposed to be helping build a formidable front, one fitting for a franchise with a proud history of dominant offensive lines. Yet as Jerry Brewer of the Washington Post chidingly put it, the Hogs these ain't.

    It's on Callahan to coach up the players he has, while it's also on those supporting his line to do a better job. In particular, Washington's fleet of tight ends must do more, after Jordan Reed struggled as a blocker in Week 1, per CSNMidAtlantic's JP Finlay.

    Here's a scary thought: this offensive line against a Wade Phillips-coached Los Angeles Rams defense coming off four sacks in Week 1 and led by dynamic rush end Robert Quinn.

    Cousins should invest in a second set of pads.

Winner: Terrell McClain

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    The Redskins invested heavily in fortifying their defensive line this offseason, so they should be pleased with Terrell McClain's efforts on Sunday.

    McClain arrived from the Dallas Cowboys in free agency with a reputation as a disruptive interior D-lineman who is a force against the run. He justified his billing with some solid and perhaps unseen work against the Eagles.

    Two plays from the first quarter helped showcase what McClain can bring. The first was a stop for a loss on Wendell Smallwood. McClain made the play thanks to his strength and technique. He began by deftly sliding down the line to take on pulling left tackle Jason Peters.

    Staying on the outside of Peters' inside shoulder, McClain was in a great position to shed the block. He did so after slamming into Peters and standing the tackle up, forcing Smallwood to slow down.

    McClain then went low to split the gap and knife into the backfield to drop Smallwood for a short loss.

    This was a heady play all about recognition and execution. McClain read an outside run and didn't let himself get reach-blocked on the edge. He was too strong for Peters and quick enough to halt Smallwood before he built up speed on the outside.

    Later in the quarter, McClain did the unfashionable but essential work to set up a key stop on 3rd-and-short. Zach Brown made the play, taking down LeGarrette Blount to force the Eagles to punt, but the stop owed everything to McClain.

    Specifically, the play was created by McClain's ability to hold a double-team. He held up both the tackle and guard to create a clear lane for Brown to exploit and attack downhill.

    Linemen controlling multiple blockers so linebackers can make the plays is how the 3-4 is supposed to work.

    McClain looked every inch the two-gap monster he's paid to be. His regular-season debut with the Redskins was a far cry from the struggles the 29-year-old experienced during preseason, per Nora Princiotti of the Washington Times.

    Instead, this formidable showing only strengthens the belief McClain should replace Ziggy Hood as Washington's starting nose tackle.

Winner: Zach Brown

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    When the Redskins inked Brown to a one-year deal this offseason, they hoped they were getting a versatile, athletic inside linebacker who would be an all-action playmaker.

    Brown looked exactly what the Burgundy and Gold were hoping for against the Eagles. The Pro Bowler with the Buffalo Bills a year ago was everywhere, getting in on 12 tackles, with seven of them solo stops.

    What stood out most about Brown's display was how quickly he broke on the ball. He was decisive when attacking inside gaps and getting downhill while hitting for keeps per usual once he located the ball-carrier.

    Brown needed just one game to prove he offers greater range and quickness sideline to sideline than previous starter Will Compton. While there were plenty of holes in Washington's defense, there was also enough evidence from Brown and fellow starter Mason Foster to believe inside linebacker can be a position of strength this season.

Loser: Greg Manusky

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    Greg Manusky's regular-season bow as Washington's defensive coordinator does not bode well for the rest of the season. Not after he wasted his improved personnel due to poor scheming.

    Manusky appeared to have no plan for Eagles tight end Zach Ertz. Philly's best offensive weapon was given the freedom of the hook and curl zones too often, as he amassed eight catches for 93 yards.

    The fact Ertz caught all eight of his targets shows what little resistance he faced from Manusky's D.

    There was simply no excuse for the Redskins not to have a plan for Ertz. After all, this is a player who has tormented Washington in the recent past, catching 10 passes for 112 yards in Week 14 last season after putting together a 13-catch, 122-yard performance in 2015.

    The Redskins should have doubled Ertz or at least spied him on every play. It's not as if Manusky doesn't have the athletes to do it, with Brown and slot corner Kendall Fuller capable of staying with dynamic receivers in space.

    A distinct lack of direction was also obvious on third downs. The Redskins showed no coherent strategy for stopping the Eagles on football's money down, often flip-flopping between sending pressure and dropping eight.

    While some mixture is essential for sound defense, better units lean on a core strategy. Contrast the muddled way the Redskins defended third downs with Philadelphia's steady diet of blitzes designed to wreck protection and force quick and hurried throws.

    It's little wonder the Eagles converted eight of 14 third-down attempts.

    Scheming or lack thereof wasn't Manusky's only problem, though. Several members of his unit whiffed on the fundamentals, failing to finish plays and helping the Eagles keep drives going and score points.

    Those problems were detailed well by Michael Phillips of the Richmond Times-Dispatch: "Third-and-long is still an issue, as are missed tackles. D.J. Swearinger whiffed on a touchdown pass early in the game, and Mason Foster and Preston Smith both left sacks on the table."

    Getting the basics wrong and not sufficiently planning for your opponent's best weapons is a pretty lethal combination sure to add up to failure for any defense.

    Manusky wasted good performances from McClain, Brown, Fuller and Ryan Kerrigan, who returned an interception for a touchdown while also getting in on a sack.

    The Redskins have the talent to be a top-10 defense, yet the talent needs to be used more intelligently than it was in Week 1.

Some Positive Signs, but Major Improvement Needed in Key Areas for Redskins

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    An opening-day defeat to a division rival is always tough to swallow, but the Redskins can take a crumb of comfort from some of the positive signs on display in Week 1.

    New recruits on defense already performing well should be cause for encouragement, provided coaches know how to get the best out of them. Similarly, some unheralded weapons on offense, such as Grant and Thompson, appear set to cause teams several matchup problems.

    However, any silver linings are soiled by the major improvement needed in too many key areas of the team.

    Cousins needs to settle down and play the efficient brand of football common for him during the last two seasons. He also needs the help of a running game long overdue to click into gear.

    Most of all, though, Washington's offensive line has to live up to its talent and coaching level. No concern is more pressing ahead of Week 2, since things will turn ugly fast against a swarming Rams pass rush if Scherff, Moses and Co. still aren't up to speed in L.A.

    An 0-2 start would put the season on the precipice, even at this early stage, so the Redskins have a lot of work to do to avoid more misery.