Winners and Losers of Washington Redskins' Week 3 Performance
Kirk Cousins needed two weeks of middling football before finally getting his groove back for the 2017 NFL season. The Washington Redskins' starting quarterback was the standout player as the Burgundy and Gold humbled the much-fancied Oakland Raiders on Sunday Night Football in Week 3.
A credible passing game is one thing the usually high-powered Raiders couldn't muster, thanks largely to a pair of young defensive backs who were magnets for the ball.
Washington's coverage schemes were also boosted by the intense pressure generated from a reloaded front seven finally living up to its improved talent level.
Find out who are the winners and losers for the Redskins after a second win in a row.
Winner: Montae Nicholson
Montae Nicholson's interception in the first quarter set the tone for Washington.
The safety, taken in the fourth round of the 2017 draft, showed off an impressive mix of range and physicality as he expertly patrolled the deep zones. As Nathan Jahnke of Pro Football Focus pointed out, Nicholson was put through his paces as a coverage defender but made the Raiders regret going his way early on.
His pick of Silver and Black passer Derek Carr came on a ball launched deep toward vertical threat Amari Cooper. Washington defensive coordinator Greg Manusky wisely had his safeties regularly adopt a two-deep shell to help eliminate Oakland's familiar big plays through the air.
Nicholson's range was a key part of Manusky's plan. Yet it wasn't all about the coverage chops for the former Michigan State ace.
Handling difficult coverage assignments and delivering bone-jarring hits is the standard remit for any pro safety. Nicholson wasn't expected to contribute this soon, but he's offering the Redskins a major boost by standing out ahead of schedule.
If he keeps making this positive an impression, Nicholson will soon make the Redskins forget about no longer having Su'a Cravens available to patrol the back end.
Winner: Kendall Fuller
An interception and a forced fumble proved Kendall Fuller's solid start to his second season has been no fluke. Instead, the defensive back who disappointed as a rookie after being drafted in the third round is quickly becoming invaluable.
Fuller is being asked to man the slot, a task he has taken to superbly through three weeks. He was in the slot when he stepped in front of Seth Roberts and snatched another of Carr's passes.
The turnover was further evidence of Fuller's nose for the ball. Yet he also showed he isn't all about making the highlight reel.
Fuller was also quietly and effectively stingy in coverage, according to Pro Football Focus: "On 37 snaps in coverage, he was targeted four times. He allowed two catches for a total of 17 yards, intercepted a pass and allowed a 21.9 passer rating into his coverage."
Seeing Fuller develop so quickly has helped solve one of the Redskins' biggest dilemmas on defense—finding somebody capable of playing the key slot corner position.
Fuller's quick instincts, willingness to hit and knack for finding the ball are proving natural traits. His ascension is also helping drive the notable youth movement that is powering a burgeoning defense.
The prominence of young players was obvious against the Raiders, as the Redskins "used seven players in their third year or less, including rookies Jonathan Allen, Montae Nicholson and Ryan Anderson," per ESPN.com's John Keim.
Fuller's progress, along with the rapid emergence of a rookie like Nicholson and in complement with the experience of Josh Norman and Bashaud Breeland, is giving Washington a potent blend of enthusiasm and savvy in the secondary.
The mix is turning what looked a suspect position group ahead of the season into a true team strength.
Winner: Front 7
The entire Washington front seven deserves a game ball after the way the group thoroughly dominated the line of scrimmage against a rugged Oakland offensive line.
It would be impossible to pick out one performer for special praise. Jonathan Allen might qualify after the Redskins' top pick in this year's draft registered his first pro sack. Then there was outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan also taking Carr down, as did Preston Smith.
It wasn't just about the pass rush, though, not when inside linebacker Zach Brown led the charge to shut down Marshawn Lynch and the Raiders' running game. Lynch should be dubbed the artist formerly known as Beast Mode after he was limited to just 18 yards on six carriers.
As a team, Oakland managed just 32 yards on the ground, with Brown and his 10 combined tackles a major reason why the visitors failed to establish the run.
Yet the true key to Washington's win was how a revamped D-line swarmed on Carr in the pocket. As Peter Hailey of CSNMidAtlantic.com pointed out, this wasn't just any O-line that Allen, Kerrigan, Smith and Co. beat up: "The Raiders offensive line is regarded as one of the league's elite groups, but they looked pedestrian in D.C. The four sacks they allowed were the most they've given up in their last 20 regular season and playoff games."
The most impressive feature about the Redskins' defensive dominance was how the pressure on Carr usually came from just a four-man rush, per Michael Phillips of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Being able to win with four rushers while committing seven to coverage is the dream scenario for any defense. Washington's ability to do it Sunday vindicated the team's investments up front this offseason, including drafting Allen 17th overall and recruiting Stacy McGee and Terrell McClain in free agency.
Most of all, though, the performance vindicated the decision to bring Jim Tomsula on board as line coach. The fired-up 49-year-old is getting the maximum from his players and helping the Redskins replicate some of what his lines managed with San Francisco 49ers from 2011-14.
Those years saw the Niners field an intimidating D led by a swarming front four featuring Aldon, Justin Smith and Ahmad Brooks. The group routinely generated a ton of pressure while a densely populated and swarming coverage shell blanketed receivers downfield.
It was a simple yet highly effective formula, one reliant on Tomsula's ability to inspire talented linemen. The same gift appears set to take the Redskins and their new-look front seven far this season.
Loser: Jamison Crowder
Honestly, it's hard to pick out losers after such a convincing team performance. However, Jamison Crowder just about qualifies since he was one of the few Redskins guilty of a costly error in Week 3.
Crowder's gaffe was muffing a punt in the third quarter. His botch of what should have been a routine fair catch gave the Raiders a short field, an advantage Oakland exploited to score its only touchdown of the night.
The miscue also spoke to the ongoing struggles the Redskins have in the return game. This team simply cannot find consistency or big plays in this area. Against the Raiders, Washington managed just 23 yards off four punt returns.
Return skills were a laudable part of Crowder's resume when he was drafted in the fourth round in 2015. Yet the ex-Duke return ace has failed to replicate said skills at the pro level.
Instead, Washington has been left to mix and match in this key area. Breeland was given the nod to return punts through the first two weeks, an experiment soon and rightly abandoned.
If Crowder is going to keep the job, he needs to cut out the mistakes and start adding some game-changing runbacks.
Loser: Terrelle Pryor Sr.
Crowder may have spilled the ball on special teams, but at least he can point to a solid night as a receiver after catching six passes for 52 yards. The Redskins are still waiting for output even close to this from Terrelle Pryor Sr.
Sadly, the man acquired to be this team's premier wideout still looks lost in burgundy and gold. Pryor managed just two catches for 19 yards against the Raiders—hardly the type of production his thrilling displays during training camp promised.
What's most concerning is how there is more than one thing holding Pryor back. Not only have his hands been inconsistent through three weeks, but the 28-year-old's route running is far from impressive.
Pryor isn't rounding off his routes at the right depth. He is also looking sluggish out of his breaks and generally uncertain about when to make his cuts and come back to the ball.
All of those struggles showed up when he failed to turn around in time to collect a 2nd-and-9 throw from Cousins in the third quarter. The missed connection was just one more depressing indicator true chemistry continues to elude this pair.
Pryor is still raw as a pro wide receiver, having had just one full season in the role with the Cleveland Browns in 2016. The physical gifts, namely size and speed, are there, but the 6'4", 228-pounder needs to rapidly develop some nuance.
Wide receivers coach Ike Hilliard is one of the league's best, but he's no longer working with players as polished as Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson. Hilliard needs to conjure some magic to get Pryor up to speed.
Winner: Vernon Davis
Pryor should take a page out of Davis' book. Like Pryor, the veteran tight end was being asked to replace one of Washington's most productive playmakers, Jordan Reed, who was inactive in Week 3.
Davis not only rose to the challenge—he virtually made it seem like Reed was still out there by the way he ghosted through Oakland's coverage. The 33-year-old was flawless whenever Cousins looked his way, catching all five of his targets, per Pro Football Focus.
More than his numbers, what stood out most about Davis' performance was the way he was used. Head coach Jay Gruden wasn't afraid to move No. 85 around pre-snap, despite his lacking Reed's natural flexibility and athleticism.
Yet no matter where Davis lined up, the Raiders had no answer for him. He got behind linebackers, split two-deep coverage and won against corners on the outside.
This was true turn-the-clock-back stuff from Davis, once one of football's dynamic tight ends. It was also an exciting reminder the Redskins boast arguably the strongest depth at the position in the NFL.
With both Davis and Reed healthy, who's going to need Garcon and Jackson?
Winner: Chris Thompson
Strength in depth at tight end isn't the only reason the Redskins are getting by without their two main receiving threats from a year ago. The pass-catching exploits of Chris Thompson are also ensuring Washington's air attack remains a team strength.
One of the more underrated third-down backs in the league is putting together an outstanding campaign. Thompson accounted for 188 total yards off 14 touches, including 150 as a receiver.
Of those 150 yards through the air, 22 came on a touchdown grab in the opening quarter. Later, Thompson dug the Redskins out of a hole on 3rd-and-long when he took a short pass 74 yards, prompting Liz Clarke of the Washington Post to salute the mighty mite's ability to deliver in clutch moments.
The lengthy catch-and-run led to Dustin Hopkins' first field goal, meaning Thompson as good as directly accounted for 10 of the points the Redskins put on the board in Week 3.
His overall contribution is much more significant. The fifth-year pro is proving as valuable a go-to target for Cousins as a healthy Reed. Thompson's growing penchant for big plays is even helping to replace the field-stretching and game-breaking capabilities lost when Garcon and Jackson found new homes during free agency.
At this rate, Thompson looks primed to emerge as the Redskins' most important weapon in 2017.
Loser: Samaje Perine
While Thompson and Davis were making the most of their opportunities in the absence of key players, Samaje Perine was squandering his. The rookie running back failed to get on track in Week 3, managing just 49 yards on 19 carries and losing a fumble.
It was hardly the strongest audition for the starting job in the absence of injured starter Rob Kelley. In fact, Gruden is likely to pine for Kelley's quick return after watching the sluggish, one-paced Perine ran the ball against the Raiders.
The fourth-round pick wasn't quick enough diagnosing and attacking holes. There was also a distinct lack of shiftiness as plays developed.
The result was most of his runs ending in a slow plod toward the middle and meager gain. His night was already disappointing, but the fumble in the fourth quarter that led to a Raiders field goal put a major damper on things for the ex-Oklahoma workhorse.
Perine struggled with ball security during preseason, something Gruden wasn't shy about referencing, per Liz Clarke of the Washington Post. The coach ditched Matt Jones because of an inability to hold onto the football and he won't have much patience for Perine's struggles.
Kelley is set to practice Wednesday "albeit in a limited role," per ESPN.com's John Keim, who also expects him to take back his starting job as soon as he's healthy.
It's a more than reasonable assumption based on how Perine has struggled in his absence.
Winner: Kirk Cousins
However, Cousins was well and truly back to his best against Oakland. No. 8 was so good he looked every inch a franchise quarterback.
Cousins was near flawless in Week 3, missing on just five of 30 throws as he amassed 365 yards and three touchdown passes. He was also turnover-free while spreading the ball to eight different receivers.
This wasn't the Cousins of the first two weeks. No, this was Cousins circa 2015 and '16. The difference is best summed up in the staggering change in his average yards per completion.
While he averaged 6.0 yards per pass against the Eagles and 6.6 against the Rams, Cousins torched the Raiders for 12.2 yards per pass. Don't underestimate the significance of the last number. It's proof Cousins can still generate big plays without Jackson and Garcon—no small feat.
Operating without two of the best receivers in the game is just part of the challenge facing Cousins this season. Playing with the tag for another year heaps yet more pressure on a quarterback now expected to lift those around him up a level, rather than rely on being buoyed by a star-studded supporting cast.
It's something Cousins managed against the Raiders, as he delivered a complete performance, per former Redskins general manager and current NFL Network analyst Charley Casserly.
The positives Casserly saw are what the Redskins are counting on from Cousins every week. If he delivers them consistently, the 29-year-old won't have to wait much longer to be rewarded with the bumper contract he seeks.
Waiting to be taken seriously as NFC East and playoff contenders is not something the Redskins are willing to do. Instead, this team is beginning to click on both sides of the ball, with its improvement set for a stern examination from the undefeated Kansas City Chiefs on the road in Week 4.