Biggest Takeaways from Washington Redskins' Week 4 Win
Narrowly beating a struggling Philadelphia Eagles outfit at home wouldn't be considered much of a statement for most teams. But Week 4's last-minute 23-20 win is exactly that for the Washington Redskins.
It's proof that a rebuilding roster is ready to take a positive step forward during the 2015 NFL season. A 2-2 record at the quarter mark is ample evidence of that.
So is the continued success of many of the key changes general manager Scot McCloughan and head coach Jay Gruden implemented to improve the team that won just seven games in the previous two seasons.
At the top of that list is the decision to replace Robert Griffin III with Kirk Cousins as starting quarterback. It's been a fairly rocky road for Cousins so far, but he might well have come of age courtesy of the game-winning march he engineered against the Eagles.
Cousins' day in the spotlight highlights the main takeaways for the Burgundy and Gold from Week 4. Read on for a full breakdown of everything Washington can take into Week 5's tough-looking tilt with the unbeaten Atlanta Falcons.
Creative Aggression Sparks the Defense
What a difference a week and a bit makes. The Redskins looked as though they'd never even heard of the concept of a pass rush during Week 3's loss to the New York Giants. Yet against the Eagles, Washington's D turned up the heat to dole out a relentless beating of quarterback Sam Bradford.
Aggressive creativity was one of the main keys behind the five-sack performance. Coordinator Joe Barry mixed in just enough sophisticated pressure concepts to throw off Philly's already-beleaguered O-line.
Clearly mindful of how vanilla things looked against the Giants, Barry moved his personnel around to create varied fronts and favorable matchups. His best ploy involved standing outside linebackers Trent Murphy and Ryan Kerrigan inside and having the pair run a twist game through the middle. At the same time, safety Trenton Robinson rushed off the edge on a delayed blitz.
This call led to one sack and forced a few incomplete passes by disrupting the timing between Bradford and his receivers.
But just as important as any schematic wrinkles Barry introduced, his front-line players won most of their individual battles. That hasn't been a trend this season, but it certainly was in Week 4.
Players such as Murphy and defensive tackle Chris Baker consistently had the beating of their blockers. The latter took Bradford down twice and was happy to lead a spirited response from the pass rush, according to Stephen Czarda of the team's official site.
"We have a dominant defense and we are going to try to come out and dominate each week," Baker said. "The Giants game was a little different for us, because they were moving the ball so quick so it was really hard to generate a good pass rush. We came back here this week and responded well."
The challenge now for Baker and Co. is to keep it going. Before the Eagles game, Czarda noted how the last sack had come "in the first quarter of the Redskins’ Week 2 24-10 victory over the St. Louis Rams when defensive end Stephen Paea stopped Nick Foles in the backfield after he fumbled the ball."
Washington's defense will need to generate consistent pressure to rattle Falcons passer Matt Ryan in Week 5. Protection has been one of the few failings of Atlanta's offense, with Ryan already absorbing six sacks this season.
Barry needs to stick to the formula of just enough creative aggression to go with his fidelity to a four-man rush. If Washington's primary pass-rushers can win their matchups again while Barry mixes in a few surprises, the Redskins can make life uncomfortable for Ryan.
Alfred Morris Is Still a Clutch Performer
He was slow and diffident for most of the day, but Alfred Morris saved his best running for when the Redskins really needed him.
As much as Cousins and Pierre Garcon deserve the plaudits for their last-gaps heroics, it was Morris who kick-started the 15-play, 90-yard drive. No. 46 ripped off his longest runs of the day.
Where he'd been timid previously against a tough Eagles run defense, Morris suddenly attacked every crease with gusto. He was decisive in the way he identified and exploited cutback lanes. There was also some welcome power to make the first tackler pay, something that hadn't happened through the opening three quarters.
The impressive late show owed a lot to Gruden and offensive coordinator Sean McVay's willingness to stick with the run even when the Eagles were stuffing Morris in the early going. As ESPN.com's John Keim pointed out, patience is the key. That's especially true for a grinder like Morris.
While his final stat line of 17 carries for 62 yards doesn't make for particularly impressive reading, Morris proved he can still raise his game when it matters most. It's a quality that makes him one of the few truly clutch performers on the roster.
That's something that should be on the minds of McCloughan and Gruden when it comes time to talk a new contract with 2012's sixth-round steal.
Morris will know he needs a few more big games before then. That might not be easy against Atlanta's fifth-ranked run defense. The Falcons have size at the heart of the trenches, with nose tackle Paul Soliai particularly tough to shift. They also love to stack the edges with an outside linebacker. Morris should expect another difficult start in Week 5.
But he did himself plenty of favors in Week 4 in his battle to stay ahead of rookie Matt Jones as Washington's workhorse of choice.
3rd-Quarter Woes Must Be Solved
In three of Washington's four games this season, opponents have outscored the Redskins 31-3 in the third quarter. The Eagles were the latest to capitalize on Washington's now-serial slump after halftime.
Philadelphia's offense, dormant through two quarters, suddenly found a pair of touchdown passes. After trailing by 13 at the break, the Eagles entered the final period facing just a three-point deficit.
As with any slumber, the Redskins took a while to get back on track, leading to Philadelphia actually opening up a four-point lead. Had it not been for that improbable, length-of-the-field late march, the game would have gotten away from Washington.
This team simply can't afford to keep giving points and leads away in the third quarter. Better teams than the Eagles, Giants and the St. Louis Rams are sure to make the Redskins suffer for their generosity. Those teams are on the schedule.
To get anything from those games, a team built to win close has to play steady, error-free football. So Gruden must snap the habit of collecting penalty flags as though they are about to go out of fashion.
Against the Eagles, the Redskins drew 10 flags to give away 110 yards, as noted by the league's official site. Many of the penalties were incurred during the second half.
Adjustments also have to be better. The Eagles couldn't get their passing game going in the opening two quarters, but they found ways to stretch the field vertically during the third period.
Too often, Gruden's men are being caught cold after the break. While the temptation to maintain the status quo is obvious when you're playing well, the Redskins must also be more aware of how their early superiority can change a game.
When a team is facing a deficit, it's natural to assume it will look for a big play to spark a revival. Tweaking things to play the clock more when in the lead would be a great start toward arresting Washington's third-quarter woes.
Pierre Garcon Still a Quarterback's Best Friend
It doesn't matter who plays quarterback for Washington, Pierre Garcon is still the best target for the man under center. No. 88 made that crystal clear on the game-winning drive against the Eagles.
Garcon earned the game ball for the Redskins, according to ESPN.com (h/t John Keim), for his gutsy efforts late on: "He returned from a knee injury to catch two passes on the 90-yard game-winning drive, including the touchdown pass. On both catches, he was leveled as soon as he caught the ball. He finished with seven catches for 55 yards."
When his team and his quarterback needed him most, Garcon came through. He did it by relying on the qualities that have become staples of his game since he joined the Burgundy and Gold in 2012.
Garcon used excellent hands and unerring concentration to snag Cousins' four-yard, game-deciding toss. Earlier on the march, he absorbed contact to hold on to a clutch third-down grab and keep Washington's hopes alive.
His ability to work the middle and make the tough catches has always made Garcon Washington's go-to man when it counts. He's become so dependable, it's even been possible to overlook just how valuable he is. Mike Jones of the Washington Post notes how the ex-Indianapolis Colts starter "led the NFL in receptions two years ago but faded into the shadows last season and in the past two games."
Garcon's more marginal role followed the arrival last offseason of premier deep threat DeSean Jackson. But against the team D-Jax used to call home, Garcon offered a reminder that when the Redskins really need a clutch catch, the man under center only has to look No. 88's way.
That's something Cousins should do early and often in Week 5. The last time the pair faced the Falcons was Week 15 of the 2013 season. Garcon finished with seven catches for 129 yards and a score.
Atlanta's young secondary may have matured since then, but Garcon has proved he's still a game-winner for the Redskins.
Kirk Cousins Can Win Games by Himself
He didn't have a strong running game to lean on this week, but Cousins proved the Redskins can win games on the strength of his arm.
He put the ball in the air 46 times against the Eagles. Usually, that number has been the precursor to a turnover-riddled stat line for No. 8. It was in Week 3, when Cousins was picked off twice during his 49-pass night to forget against the Giants.
But guess what? Cousins didn't give the ball away once against the Eagles. Instead, he hit on 31 passes for 290 yards, including firing the game-winning score to Garcon.
Against Philly's stingy run defense, Gruden put the game on Cousins' arm, and he won it. That's as strong a statement as possible that 2012's fourth-rounder is the right quarterback for these Redskins.
The obvious sign of progress was not lost on Cousins, according to Keith McMillan of the Washington Post:
I know that, that final drive, I was not capable of doing that when I came into the league as a rookie. It takes time, it takes failure, it takes learning from experiences. A culmination of I guess it would be three-plus seasons worth of work got me to a point where I was able to make the necessary plays on that drive. It’s a process, and we’ll just keep working and keep learning from these experiences, and keep getting better.
Cousins has indeed taken a giant stride in the right direction. The trick now is to maintain his progress. Washington's coaches and fans will get a fairly good indicator of his ability to do that from the next two games.
Cousins will be facing an Atlanta pass rush that's been extremely effective this season. The Falcons only have five sacks through four games, but they create a lot of pressure from a variety of angles, thanks to versatile edge-rushers like O'Brien Schofield and rookie Vic Beasley.
A week later, Cousins is set to meet a marquee New York Jets unit led by outstanding D-lineman Muhammad Wilkerson and directed by head coach Todd Bowles, the finest defensive mind in football.
Cousins will need to adjust to pressure and still protect the ball if Washington is going to stand a chance in either game.
Based on how he bounced back from his tough night against the Giants, Cousins is clearly proving he can improve. How high his ceiling is will determine how far the Redskins can go this season.
All statistics and player information via NFL.com.
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