Taking Stock of Washington Redskins at Halfway Point of Season
You could flip the script from 2016 to sum up the Washington Redskins' 2017 season at the halfway point. Whereas last season was all about a dynamic offense brilliant at gashing defenses through the air, this campaign has so far been defined by Washington's own defense.
When they have won in 2017, the Redskins have done it with a swarming defense and a close-to-the-vest offense no longer boasting an embarrassment of riches at wide receiver.
Just like last season, though, having a team strong in one area but weaker in the rest has led to inconsistency. The disparity between Washington's offense and defense is the main reason the Burgundy and Gold are 4-4 at the halfway point.
It's far from doom and gloom, even though the Redskins trail the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC East. The 17-14 road win over the Seattle Seahawks in Week 9 proved quarterback Kirk Cousins is still the player this team should be built around.
Cousins doesn't have DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon to throw to anymore, but he can still be counted on for big plays in the clutch if the rest of the team keeps a game close. But that's possible only when head coach Jay Gruden trusts his running game and the defense continues to be inspired by the quality additions made during the offseason.
Read on for the biggest takeaways from Washington's season after eight games.
Kirk Cousins Proving He's a Franchise Quarterback
The win in Seattle has put a new spin on the season. One of the implications should be altering the perception of Cousins. He's steadily proving himself worthy of the oft-used label "franchise quarterback."
Cousins' ability to merit this label is still a pertinent issue since he's playing a second-straight season under the tag. It's taken him a while to push the debate in his favor, but Cousins showed in Seattle how he can be the difference between winning and losing.
No. 8's deep throws made the difference on the game-winning drive when the Redskins were down 14-10 and having to drive 70 yards on one of the league's toughest defenses. First, Cousins hit Brian Quick for 31 yards, then he found Josh Doctson for 38 more.
Rob Kelley dove over from a yard out for the decisive touchdown on the next play, but Cousins had made a statement about his significance when a game is on the line. Numbers from Pro Football Focus showed how effective Cousins was in the crunch moments against the Seahawks.
The key statistics include the 39.5 percentage of pressure Cousins faced, and his 113.0 rating when under pressure. Those stats offer a hint about some of the problems Cousins has had to overcome to keep proving himself this season.
Pressure is something he has gotten used to behind an offensive line decimated by injuries. The Seahawks exploited the fact the Redskins played with only one regular starter up front to sack Cousins six times. In the process, Seattle tied, then surpassed Cousins' previous career-high for taking punishment in a game, per NFL Research.
Heavy pressure isn't the only hindrance Cousins has had to overcome this season. He's also dealt with a lack of support from an inconsistent and little-used running game.
Support is something Washington's quarterback hasn't had from his new-look group of receivers. There is no Garcon or Jackson this season, leaving Terrelle Pryor Sr., Josh Doctson, Jamison Crowder and Quick to fill the void.
Pryor hasn't lived up to expectations, Doctson is still working his way into a bigger role and Crowder has dealt with injuries, while Quick has caught just four passes. To make matters worse, Cousins has often been without his favorite target, tight end Jordan Reed.
Any quarterback would struggle when losing this much talent around him. Cousins has had his shaky moments this season, but when he's been good, he's been good enough to beat playoff contenders like the Seahawks and Oakland Raiders.
The Redskins Win When They Run the Ball
There is a simple correlation between running the ball and the Redskins' results this season. Simply put, when they run the ball, the Redskins win.
More to the point, committing to the running game is the difference between winning and losing for Washington in 2017. All four of the team's wins have one thing in common, namely 20 or more rushing attempts.
The Redskins ran the ball 23 times in Seattle. Those attempts only led to meagre output of 51 yards. Yet the steady dose of carries kept the Seahawks honest and backed off the pass rush at key moments.
Kelley managed just 18 yards on 14 carries, but he took two of them into the end zone. It's not often the Redskins come away from trips to the red zone with touchdowns, but then it's not often Gruden is willing to call a run rather than a fade at the goal-line.
Whenever Gruden has been willing to lean on the run this season he has seen his team win. It's how it worked in Week 2 when the Redskins ran the ball 39 times to beat the Los Angeles Rams on the road.
The next week saw 34 more rushing attempts during the 27-10 win over the Raiders. Week 6 featured 33 rushing attempts in a narrow win over the San Francisco 49ers at FedExField.
Just like against the Seahawks, the ground game didn't yield much against the 49ers, totalling 94 yards. Yet the willingness to stay with the run gave Cousins and his offense the balance needed to keep a defense guessing and help overcome deficiencies in pass protection and at wide receiver.
The pattern has been set this season. Gruden doesn't have the weapons to air it out the way he did last season, so he must adapt the playbook to feature the run more often.
Jim Tomsula's Influence Has Transformed the Pass Rush
Better talent isn't the sole reason the Redskins pass rush has made excellent strides this season. Superior coaching has also proved a key thanks to Jim Tomsula's arrival.
It was a coup for the Redskins to snag Tomsula from the San Francisco 49ers this offseason. He had forged a reputation as one of football's best defensive line coaches during his years in the Bay Area.
Tomsula's reputation wasn't just PR fluff. Instead, he's more than lived up to his billing thanks to the way he's transformed what was a vanilla pass rush in 2016 into a game-wrecking one.
The Redskins recorded just 38 sacks in 2016 but have logged 22 already after just eight games this season. More than the sacks, Washington's front seven is regularly creating a ton of pressure, both off the edges and through the middle.
The way the Redskins put a cage around Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson at times was one of the most impressive things about the win in Week 9. It showed how Tomsula's coaching is taking effect.
Washington's pressure specialists are rushing with discipline. They are maintaining rush lanes off the edges, not charging beyond quarterbacks or allowing themselves to simply be shoved off their paths. Nor are they getting reach blocked inside.
Technique has improve all across the line. But it's more than just a collective change. Tomsula has also coaxed improvement from individual players.
Preston Smith is a prime example, having already matched his total of 4.5 sacks from last season. Smith has been posing a major threat off the edge, causing problems for every left tackle he has faced.
It's not just established players like Smith who have been making strides. Even a fringe member of the roster like Anthony Lanier, who was promoted after top draft pick Jonathan Allen was lost for the season, has delivered.
Lanier was all over Wilson as a situational interior pass-rusher early on against the Seahawks, according to Master Tesfatsion of the Washington Post.
A more swarming pass rush is impacting games even when the Redskins don't post gaudy sack numbers. Washington only took Wilson down twice, but the constant pressure he was under wrecked his passer rating, per Rich Tandler of NBC Sports Washington.
The passing game was the driving force of the Redskins in 2016. Now the pass rush has assumed the same role this season, and it's all thanks to Tomsula.
Offseason Additions Have Paid off Handsomely for New-Look Defense
There's no magic formula for success in the NFL, but better players typically breed better teams.
The Redskins may not quite be a better team than they were a year ago, but their defense has certainly improved.
Offseason additions have been the driving force for the significant strides made on this side of the ball. Washington's defense is better at creating pressure because free-agent arrivals Terrell McClain and Stacy McGee are occupying double teams inside and creating one-on-one matchups for Smith, Kerrigan, Junior Galette and rookie Ryan Anderson on the edges.
The run defense is better because inside linebacker Zach Brown has proved a bargain since being signed from the Buffalo Bills on a one-year deal. Brown easily tops the team in tackles with 86, while his athleticism and range have added a new wrinkle to the schemes, specifically the A-gap blitz—seldom seen in 2016, but highly effective this season.
Brown was in on a sack of Wilson this week after logging 1.5 sacks against the Eagles in Week 7.
If you've wondered how an injury hit secondary has been held together, consider the experience and leadership of D.J. Swearinger. The much-travelled safety made the Redskins his fourth pro team this offseason and is playing some of his best football.
Whether the Redskins followed the plan of team president Bruce Allen or stuck to the blueprint drawn up by fired general manager Scot McCloughan is immaterial. The moves made by the franchise this offseason utterly transformed one side of the ball for the better.
Different Wide Receivers Still Struggling to Step Up
They saved the big plays for when it mattered most, but Washington's wide receivers still need to step up this season. Doctson, Pryor, Quick and Co. have been struggling to assume the mantle vacated by Jackson and Garcon.
Doctson is the one wideout providing the most cause for optimism. He had his best game as a pro after reeling in three catches for 59 yards against the Seahawks, including the 38-yard diving grab late in the fourth quarter to position the Redskins to win it.
The spectacular and clutch play was a further hint of the game-breaking qualities Doctson can bring to Washington's offense. It's why the Redskins used a first-round pick to select him in the 2016 NFL draft.
It's also why the team needs to look Doctson's way more often, per Rich Tandler of NBC Sports Washington:
"We thought that Kirk Cousins had some faith in the second-year receiver after they connected on the touchdown bomb against the Raiders. Doctson did have two hands on the game winner in Kansas City the next week but he couldn’t hang on as he hit the ground. Since then, Cousins has thrown him the ball on occasion but he hasn’t taken advantage of his incredible catch radius. Until today, that is. The Redskins need more of that."
Doctson needs more targets, but he also needs to hang on to the ball more often in key moments, the way he did at CenturyLink Field. Hanging on to the ball or rather not being able to is why Pryor has been frozen out.
His inability to replicate 2016's performances has been one of the most disappointing aspects of this season so far. Yet like Doctson, Pryor's big-play potential is too intriguing to ignore for long. His size and speed combination can give Washington the quick-strike capability Gruden craves in his passing game.
The same is true of Quick, whose 6'3" and 218-pound frame came to the fore on the game-winning drive against the Seahawks.
Gruden is facing something of a dilemma when it comes to effectively using these receivers. They are not Garcon or Jackson, but they can each stretch the field.
The problem has been giving Cousins enough time in the pocket for these vertical passing plays to develop.
Coaching Still a Concern
Credit where it's due, Gruden got the banged-up Redskins in the right mindset to win at one of the toughest places to play in the NFL. It's no small feat, since Washington could easily have leaned on a laundry list of injuries as a reason to fold in the Emerald City.
Yet while he succeeded in firing up his players, Gruden's overall performance this season remains a concern. The disparity between running and passing has been critiqued ad nauseam, but it remains a worrying issue.
There is also the inability of an otherwise talented defense to focus on and take away the things an opponent does best. The Redskins beat the Seahawks in Week 9 but could easily have lost because they didn't account for Wilson's scrambling or his fondness for targeting tight end Jimmy Graham.
Wilson ran 10 times for 77 yards, often dashing for key gains and first-down conversions at crucial times. Surprisingly, the Redskins didn't have a spy assigned to track Wilson out of the pocket.
Coordinator Greg Manusky's defense also didn't have a regular plan to double Graham, who caught five passes for 59 yards and narrowly avoided snagging the game-winner in the end zone in the dying seconds.
Graham also fluffed his lines when he had inexplicably been left wide open on a two-point conversion attempt. If he'd caught it, all Kelley's late score would have done was push the game into overtime.
Not applying laser focus to a team's biggest threats has been a season-long problem. It's why Zach Ertz dominated for the Eagles, Travis Kelce thrived for the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 4 and Todd Gurley and Ezekiel Elliott ran riot for the Rams and Cowboys, respectively.
Gruden sets the direction for his team, so he should be calling for more team-specific game plans defensively. Since he calls the offense, the 50-year-old would be smart to scale back his game plans and lean more on the run while the O-line heals up and Cousins continues to create chemistry with unfamiliar receivers.
Doing those things, along with getting healthy, can position the Redskins to win the second half of their season and do enough to produce a late push for the playoffs.