Biggest Takeaways from Washington Redskins' Week 10 Win
So the Washington Redskins are really a contender in the NFC East after all. The Burgundy and Gold made that clear with a 47-14 demolition of the New Orleans Saints in Week 10. Sure, the Saints are a mess. Their defense barely qualifies for semi-pro ball, while their star quarterback still looks like he's smarting about the decision to trade his favorite weapon this offseason.
Yet, there's no doubt Washington made a statement this week.
Leading the charge was a running game revitalized after six stagnant outings. The Redskins also got a strong defensive effort, one keyed by an unusually strong pass rush.
But if one player stole the show, it was quarterback Kirk Cousins. No. 8 produced some outstanding numbers as he picked apart the Saints thanks to a near-flawless mastery of head coach Jay Gruden's offense. In terms of Cousins' own progress, this was the most emphatic statement.
Read on for a breakdown of Washington's main takeaways from a fourth win of the season.
NFC East Title Now Firmly in Sight
There's no avoiding it. If the Redskins don't win the NFC East title from this point, their whole season may be considered a disappointment. That's a reflection of how good a chance the Burgundy and Gold has after Week 10.
It was a week where all three divisional rivals lost. Now Gruden's men find themselves half a game off the lead. Things look better still thanks to the schedule, although CBS Sports' Will Brinson thinks it's deceptively tough:
Washington's schedule isn't perfect. They travel to Carolina to play the undefeated Panthers next week and get the Cowboys -- who will have Tony Romo back -- twice between now and the end of the season. The Giants and Eagles are also on the docket. But four divisional games means four opportunities to increase those odds even further.
As Brinson states, this run of games really is a two-edged sword. A road trip to take on the unbeaten Carolina Panthers is certainly daunting. So is traveling to meet the suddenly resurgent Chicago Bears in Week 14, a team that is expertly coached by John Fox and a marquee staff and which boasts impressive young talent such as draft steal Jeremy Langford.
But there's no doubt having four games in the division presents an opportunity. It's not out of the realm of possibility for these Redskins to win all four remaining clashes in the East. That would be handy considering it's also possible for an 8-8 finish to take the division crown this season.
Of course, Washington's promising position can evaporate quickly. As quickly as Week 11, in fact. Not many will give even a revitalized Redskins team a hope on the road in Charlotte. Defeat will put this team back at .500 and at a natural crossroads.
If Washington then comes unglued against familiar opponents, all hope will be lost.
Much will depend on the play of the quarterback.
More Confident Kirk Cousins Is Taking Ownership of the Team
The real Cousins appears ready to finally stand up. Since his "you like that?" moment in Week 7, 2012's fourth-round pick has turned a corner.
The progress showed up in a spectacular way against the defensively shy Saints. His four-touchdown performance topped his heroics against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers three weeks earlier. It was also built off the positive signs he'd shown on the road against the New England Patriots in Week 9.
Three at-least-solid outings in a row proves Cousins is finally showing the one quality that's most often eluded him: consistency. Mastering that is the one thing missing for a player who can go from league-worst to a potential franchise passer from week to week, according to Brinson:
Sunday was one of the latter, with Cousins posting a perfect passer rating (158.3) and becoming the first Redskins quarterback to throw for 300-plus yards and have a passer rating of 150 or higher since Sammy Baugh in October of 1948. He's also the first NFL quarterback to record 300-plus yards, 80-plus percent completions, four touchdowns and no picks since Tom Brady in 2007.
So what's been the key behind Cousins' step or two forward? Well, in Week 10 he was certainly helped by the return of the ground game, along with a visit from the inept Saints D.
But there's more to it than just circumstance. Cousins just has the look of a more confident quarterback. He's displaying greater authority in the huddle and under center. His knowledge of the playbook shows up in how he's spreading the ball around and routinely picking the right option. Those qualities owe everything to how well he's taken to Gruden's scheme.
Yet, the acid test for No. 8's smarter decision-making will come against Carolina's formidable defense. It's a group that forces quarterbacks to stay patient and avoid mistakes. That's not exactly Cousins' strong suit in the past.
If he really has changed, now's the time to prove it.
Continued Success on the Ground Is Key to the Rest of the Season
When you start the season rushing for 343 yards through the first two weeks, your ground game isn't supposed to disappear for the next six. But Washington finally pulled its rushing attack out of mothballs in Week 10.
The best part? Everything worked the way it's supposed to.
Everything like a three-headed monster of veteran Alfred Morris, rookie Matt Jones and change-of-pace speedster Chris Thompson. All three topped 50 yards and attacked an overwhelmed New Orleans front seven on a variety of runs.
The variety came from a creative scheme that liberally mixed formations which favored the run. Gruden and his staff had the flexibility to be imaginative thanks to the O-line routinely pushing people off the ball and knocking open huge rushing lanes.
Perhaps the most important factor in Washington's 213-yard rushing effort was the patient play-calling that kept things on the ground. Gruden acknowledged the difference a successful ground attack makes for Cousins and the whole offense, according to Anthony Gulizia of the Washington Times:
We didn’t have a lot of negative runs. We were able to stick with it, we were able to stick with our play actions and the whole playbook basically. Sean did a great job getting this offense ready and organized for Kirk. Kirk did a great job executing, but it was a total team effort. The offensive line, the tight ends made some plays. The backs made big plays in the running game and passing game.
But running over the Saints and moving the ball on the ground against the stingy Panthers are two very different things. Inside runs have been a no-go with Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei plugging the middle. Running east-west is damn-near impossible with cheetah-fast tackling machines Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis at the linebacker level.
It's going to take exceptional execution in the trenches and even more elaborate scheming to even come close to a repeat of Week 10's success. Without it, the Redskins won't have a chance.
The Pass Rush Finally Shows Up
So Washington does have a pass rush after all. One week removed from barely feeling Tom Brady's collar against the Patriots, the Redskins dished out quite a beating to Drew Brees.
They only had two sacks, but they hit Brees multiple times and rarely let him get set in the pocket. The consistent pressure stifled Brees' recent hot streak, as noted by Real Redskins blogger Rich Tandler: "The Redskins held Drew Brees, who came into the game averaging an NFL-best 345 yards per game, to 209 yards. He had not passed for fewer than 255 yards in a game this season prior to this one."
What really stood out was the name of the players on the sack list. It started with disappointing offseason recruit Stephen Paea finally showing some of the pass-rush skills from the interior that convinced the Redskins to sign him from the Chicago Bears.
Paea collapsed the pocket to envelop Brees in the opening quarter. Michael Phillips of the Richmond Times-Dispatch credited improved health for Paea's return to form. If you thought Paea getting a sack was a surprise, you were likely felled by a feather when Trent Murphy got in on the act.
The sack-shy second-year outside linebacker has seemed offended by the idea of getting to the passer. But he certainly got to Brees when he and Chris Baker crunched the quarterback to complete a brutal takedown.
Obviously, only 1.5 sacks is still not enough production from the former Stanford man who once led college football in this category. But at this point, any contribution is welcome from the team's top pick in 2014.
Welcome is just what the pressure was in Week 10. Next week won't be about sacks, though. It will be about keeping elusive strongman Cam Newton in the pocket. That will mean playing with discipline and maintaining rush lanes.
Disciplined technique hasn't been the forte of this defense in 2015. But this performance at least provides a template to build from.
Jamison Crowder Now a Vital Part of This Passing Game
Washington's passing offense has a lot of important pieces. A properly motivated DeSean Jackson stretches the field and opens room underneath for the running game. Tight end Jordan Reed owns the middle and is automatic in the red zone.
But perhaps no pass-catcher is as valuable as Jamison Crowder. The rookie slot receiver added four more catches and 60 receiving yards to his growing body of work. In what's fast becoming trademark fashion, Crowder made plays in space by terrorizing the Saints after the catch.
He worked the slot, took screens for first downs and converted on football's money down. These are things previously missing from Washington's pass attack the last few seasons. But Crowder is now a consistent mismatch underneath.
He might even be an X-factor against the Panthers. Davis and Kuechly can run with most, but any linebacker is going to struggle against a fleet-footed and diminutive catch-machine. Isolating Crowder against Carolina's intermediate defenders will be the best way for Cousins and the Redskins to move the ball through the air.
This team is steadily building some real momentum. So a road game against one of the NFL's three remaining undefeated clubs is certainly unfortunately timed. But a contest so tough is also a good measuring stick of whether or not Washington's progress this season is real.
All statistics and player information via NFL.com.