6 Biggest Takeaways from Washington Redskins' Week 1 Loss
When you start 0-1, perhaps the only true silver lining you have is there's 15 more games left to put it right. Fortunately for the Washington Redskins, they did enough things right during their season-opening 17-10 loss to the Miami Dolphins to believe they'll be much better in Week 2.
The most notable is a ground attack that looks ready to dominate this season. After piling up 161 yards against a formidable-looking Miami front seven, Washington's running backs showed they won't be awed by marquee defenders. That will be important against the Rams' D-line blue-chippers in Week 2.
Of course, a prolific rushing attack will only take a team so far. It always help to have an effective complement from the quarterback position.
At least Kirk Cousins showed enough positives in Week 1 to indicate he can offer credible support for Alfred Morris and company. He can be helped by another surprisingly strong effort from his offensive line.
Yet these things will count for naught if some of Week 1's biggest problems aren't fixed. So that means there's no time to waste improving the special teams, finding a way to expand a passing game missing its primary deep threat and generating a more consistent pass rush.
Find out how Washington's biggest takeaways from the opening week relate to the team's second game.
There's Still Room for Improvement, but Kirk Cousins Showed Promise
When you're evaluating Kirk Cousins' performance you'll soon find yourself at a mental crossroads. You see, there was enough good plays to see the positive difference Cousins makes to the passing game in place of Robert Griffin III. Yet there were also enough ugly moments to leave you concerned about No. 8 staying under center for 2015.
Beginning with the good stuff, Cousins made a series of smart reads followed by quick and accurate throws. He was particularly effective on third downs, especially in the first half.
Overall, the Redskins converted six of 14 third downs. Cousins made tight end Jordan Reed a familiar target, as well as wideout Pierre Garcon.
More importantly, he spread the ball around. He targeted seven different receivers in total.
Some of his 21 completions were exceptional throws. Grant Paulsen of 106.7 The Fan detailed one particular connection with Reed, a 25-yard touch pass.
As DC Hot Read's Chris Russell pointed out, Cousins made a series of throws no other quarterback on this roster can make. That was the good stuff.
But Cousins also made the type of bonehead mistakes he's in danger of turning into a speciality. The most obvious was his first-half interception thrown to stellar Dolphins cover man Brent Grimes.
It was a badly telegraphed pass from an unnecessary risk Cousins had no business taking. That it ruined a superb display of footwork and escapology in the pocket only sums up the central issue with Cousins.
He does so many things right, but ultimately, he's too often let down by his penchant for self-destruction.
Cousins' second pick came late on and was admittedly a great play by Miami defensive back Brice McCain. Yet, there was no doubt Cousins had gambled on more than one throw during that particular series by pitching jump balls for his receivers to try to reel in under pressure.
The Week 1 book on Cousins should read that he was generally solid, but there are still some rough edges. He'll have to be just as quick making reads and getting rid of the ball against a St. Louis pass rush that's even tougher than the Dolphins.
What he can't do is let himself be forced into taking some of the same risks. The Rams have opportunistic cover men, cornerbacks such as Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson, who love to clamp down on receivers.
He can be helped to avoid the latter problem by some tweaks to the passing game.
The Passing Game Is Too Condensed Without DeSean Jackson
It stands to reason the Redskins had to scale down their passing attack once DeSean Jackson left the field. After all, he's perhaps the best vertical receiver in football, a playmaker who can take the top off a defense on any snap.
When No. 11 left the field with a hamstring strain, per Mike Jones of the Washington Post, it became easier for Dolphins defenders to keep the game in front of them. Jones also reports Jackson will undergo an MRI.
If the news is bad, head coach Jay Gruden has to find a way to compensate. That won't be easy considering most of the team's other pass-catchers are at their best attacking underneath routes over the middle.
But Gruden and offensive coordinator Sean McVay still have options. Garcon can work deep, particularly off double moves.
The other choice would be to extend some of the teams crossing patterns. This is still a West Coast-style offense, so hi-lo concepts can create room for vertical crossers running underneath decoy post patterns.
Reed's seven-catch, 63-yard effort offered a timely reminder of his big-play potential. Having Reed stretch the seams would also open things up in the passing game.
Perhaps the Redskins can develop their aerial assault without being too concerned about going long. For instance, a few more option routes from the slot for Ryan Grant and rookie Jamison Crowder would also be welcome.
Both have the short-area quickness, subtle moves and route-running chops to thrive underneath. The ability to garner yards after the catch was a positive from Week 1's performance. Grant and Crowder can offer even more improvement in that area.
In particular, they'd both be excellent man coverage-beaters. That's something Washington will need against a Rams secondary rarely afraid to line up in single coverage and try to press receivers early in their breaks. They are certain to rely on that ploy if Jackson is missing.
Gruden and McVay must strike the right balance between pushing the ball a little further through the air while still maximizing all of their underneath weapons.
Washington's Offensive Line May Be Better Than Advertised
Who would have thought that when facing a Miami D-line featuring Ndamukong Suh and Cameron Wake that Washington's patchwork offensive front would surrender just a single sack? No, me neither.
But credit where it's due, this new-look O-line was better than advertised. In particular, the inexperienced right side of rookie guard Brandon Scherff and tackle Morgan Moses coped admirably with the Suh-Wake combo.
That's excellent news on so many levels. First, it showed how Scherff has taken some steps forward since his preseason struggles.
It was perfectly natural for anybody to be concerned by the initial bumps in the road experienced by the former Iowa standout. After all, he's a top-five pick and the player Washington is relying to finally fortify what has long been a dire line.
So it was great to see Scherff do his bit to help keep Suh, one of the game's most disruptive defensive tackles, quiet. A frequent tactic involved Scherff taking Suh low.
Miami's mega-money offseason import may not have liked the tactic, but if he's going to adopt a tilted stance, maybe he should expect it. But it wasn't just Scherff earning some props.
Right tackle Morgan Moses was also impressive, particularly in the running game. Paulsen detailed one particular toss play to Matt Jones that involved Moses making it to the second level and clearing a path for the rookie runner.
On the other side, left guard Shawn Lauvao also produced his own share of noteworthy moments, knocking open holes for grateful ball-carriers to exploit.
Sure, there was still the odd breakdown in pass protection, although nothing like last season, and not what things would have looked like with RG3 under center.
The Dolphins' lone sack came when rookie nose tackle Jordan Phillips whipped center Kory Lichtensteiger. While the veteran pivot man was soundly beaten, Phillips certainly caught me by surprise.
Hands up for all those who expected a 329-pound rookie behemoth to use such a deft spin move. No you didn't, put those hands down immediately.
Wake got a sack that was wiped out by penalty. But this breakdown was more a scheme than a personnel issue.
Moses had blocked down to double-team Suh. It was one of the many things Washington did to neutralize No. 93.
To account for Ware, the Redskins sent 5'8", 193-pound running back Chris Thompson from the other side of the formation to meet him. Needless to say, disaster soon followed.
This is definitely a protection scheme O-line whisperer Bill Callahan needs to ditch before next week.
Speaking of Week 2, the next challenge for Washington's revamped line will be tougher still. The Rams boast arguably the most dynamic defensive line rotation in the NFL.
Robert Quinn, Chris Long, Aaron Donald, Michael Brockers, William Hayes and Eugene Sims can trash any protection scheme. They certainly did when the Rams shut out Washington 24-0 at FedEx Field in Week 14 last season. St. Louis logged seven sacks, with the D-line accounting for 4.5 of them, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com.
But while this game initially looked like a death knell for the Burgundy and Gold's quarterbacks, the offensive line showed enough in Week 1 to indicate it will make things more difficult for St. Louis pass-rushers this time.
The Running Game Is Ready to Dominate
When you trample over a defensive front with Suh and the underrated Earl Mitchell at the heart of the line, covering up 249-pound middle linebacker Kelvin Sheppard, you should feel pretty good about your running game.
The Redskins know that feeling after watching Morris plough his way through the Dolphins for 121 yards on 25 carries. Even Jones and Thompson showed some promise despite having their touches limited. The fringe duo combined for just nine carries.
Yet, Washington still proved it boasts a versatile and productive ground game, one capable of dominating games. Winning on the ground is the formula for success for this season's offense. It worked against Miami and can be just as effective against the Rams.
The Redskins have to be every bit as bold attacking the line of scrimmage as they were against the Dolphins. Sure, the Rams have big names up front, but so do Miami.
Based on Week 1, the running game, which was a weakness in 2014, even if being underused hardly helped, seems primed to resume its rightful role as the driving force of this team.
The Pass Rush Must Be More Consistent
The stat sheet will show Washington's defense registered three sacks. But that figure won't fool anybody who saw the game into thinking the Redskins applied consistent pressure in Week 1.
Miami passer Ryan Tannehill routinely had too much time to launch throws from a clean pocket. This proved most costly during the second half on crucial third downs.
Part of the problem was so many members of Washington's revamped front seven didn't deliver. Defensive tackle Jason Hatcher and outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan certainly did.
They pushed the pocket, obscured Tannehill's throwing lanes and swatted passes at the line. But the dynamic duo received little help from players such as Stephen Paea, Ricky Jean Francois, Terrance Knighton and Trent Murphy.
Part of the problem also stemmed from new coordinator Joe Barry's rigid fidelity to rushing four. Leaning heavily on four-man pressure and seven in coverage only works if your front four is outstanding at bringing the heat. Washington's refreshed group certainly isn't there yet.
It will help if Barry varies his pressure calls. Even blitz plays were designed to create the illusion of extra rushers before morphing into just another variation of four-man pressure. For example, sending a defensive back off the edge in nickel while end Murphy bails into coverage may cause some confusion once, but there's no need to make that your go-to pressure call in every obvious passing situation.
Washington's defense must find the happy medium between Barry's desire to create safe pressure and former coordinator Jim Haslett's mad scientist with his finger pressed firmly on the blitz button.
Using personnel in more creative ways is the best way to strike that balance. It was disappointing to see Knighton, a premier run stuffer but not an elite quarterback hunter, rushing so often out of nickel sets.
Barry should have put Murphy or rookie Preston Smith inside instead. There are a multitude of ways to mix and match personnel to still create ample pressure with a four-man rush.
Washington needs Barry to find those ways before Week 2. Although Rams quarterback Nick Foles is a boom-or-bust passer, any signal-caller is going to be better than average if he's given all day to throw.
Special Teams and Penalties Still the Bane of Washington
Yellow flags and gaffes on special teams go together like cheese and wine in Washington. In Week 1, that combination let the Dolphins escape FedEx field with an undeserved win.
ESPN.com's John Keim details the folly count: "They committed 11 penalties and allowed a game-changing punt return for a touchdown."
To many, these are mere intangibles, gristle after the meat on the bone has been picked away by the offensive and defensive battles. But these intangibles can kill the teams who consistently fail to get them right.
Washington remains firmly in that category after letting Jarvis Landry return a punt 69 yards for the go-ahead score. Punter Tress Way has since admitted his culpability in out-kicking his coverage, per another report from Keim:
I was trying to flip the field a little bit and get momentum going. I usually hit the ball straight up in the air and specialize in hangtime. I tried to unleash it and flip the field.
Usually my punt has a wobble to it so when it came down pretty quick, I had a bad feeling in my stomach that I gave him too much room. Sure enough he came up the gut and took it to the house. I left everyone hanging out to dry.
Whatever the reason for the breakdown, coordinator Ben Kotwica has to get things fixed before the Rams come to town. Tavon Austin is one of the most dangerous return men in football, as he proved by slicing through an above-average Seattle special teams for a 75-yard score.
Of course, Washington hardly needs proof of Austin's excellence in football's third phase. He ran a punt back 78 yards for six against the Redskins last season.
As much as the special teams needs to tighten up, Gruden has to make his players more accountable for penalties. Not tolerating them in practice would be a great start.
A rebuilding team that gives away yards for free so consistently is never going to turn things around.
Washington has the chance to build on the positives from Week 1. But if the same issues that were also evident against the Dolphins, resurface against St. Louis, the Redskins will fall to 0-2.
All statistics and player information via NFL.com, unless otherwise stated.