David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
The Redskins won their fifth game in a row and now lead the NFC East with two games left to play. Here are our five takeaways from Sunday's victory over the Cleveland Browns.
Here are our five takeaway's from Sunday's win:
1. Using a fourth round pick on Kirk Cousins doesn't look too bad now, does it? It's your first career start in the NFL, on the road against a hot team, with your team's playoff hopes on the line. That was the situation Kirk Cousins found himself in against the Cleveland Browns. And needless to say, he responded.
Cousins had to shake off a rough start, as he started the game 1-for-6 and threw an ill-advised pass directly into coverage for an interception. In the early moments of the game, you wondered if the rookie was perhaps succumbing to the pressure of the moment and, well, playing like a rookie.
But one play early in the first quarter seemed to turn things around for Cousins and the rest of the Redskins offense. The Browns defense was intent on stopping the run, leaving them susceptible to play-action. With the Cleveland biting hard on the run, Cousins ran a play fake, rolled to his right and made a beautiful pass on the run in between three defenders to Leonard Hankerson, who rolled into the end zone for a 54-yard touchdown.
Once the Redskins established play-action, Cousins began finding a rhythm. He seemed to gain more confidence with every throw, his receivers were making plays (more on that later), and before you knew it, the Redskins offense was rolling. He finished the game 26-for-37 for 326 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, and left no doubt in his team's mind that he can get the job done when called upon.
There was plenty of vitriol thrown the Redskins' way when they decided to select Cousins in the fourth round of last April's draft. Many thought he was a luxury selection for Washington, figuring there was no point in trying to groom a rookie quarterback behind another rookie quarterback - especially with the other needs the Redskins had at the time. But if anything, the last two weeks have shown that having depth at each position - even quarterback - is incredibly valuable.
2. Kyle Shanahan pushed all the right buttons on offense. Cousins wasn't the only one who was thrust into a bigtime moment. This too, was a big spot for Kyle Shanahan. With his biggest playmaker on offense on the sidelines, the Redskins offensive coordinator had to formulate a plan that would give another rookie quarterback with a completely different skillset a chance to succeed in his first ever career start.
The Redskins stuck to the run early, but they didn't have the added benefit of the deception created by the read-option that they've employed with Griffin -- and it showed. Cleveland's defense shut down the Redskins run game in the first quarter, intent on taking Alfred Morris out of the game and putting the game in Cousins' hands. Shanahan countered the Browns' aggressiveness by utilizing the playaction game - a tactic that proved deadly the rest of the way.
Browns defenders were so worried about Morris that so many of them didn't fulfill their backside contain responsibilities, leaving receivers wide open on bootlegs. After the first Hankerson touchdown, the entire playbook opened up, and Kyle kept the Browns' defense off balance for the rest of the game.
What was so vital to Sunday's effort offensively was not just play calling, but play design. Shanahan's scheme does a great job of creating space for the receiver to get open. Probably the best example of this came on Hankerson's second touchdown catch. On third-and-goal at the Cleveland two-yard line, Santana Moss ran a pick -- clearing out defenders by running an inside route so that Hankerson can run free on the outside. It worked, as Hank was wide open, and all Cousins had to do was throw it over the blitzing cornerback Dimitri Patterson for the walk-in score.
At the end of the day, the offense managed to put up 38 points and 430 total yards with a backup quarterback making his first career start. While that speaks well of the players executing on the field, it also speaks well of the coaching staff's ability to put those players in positions to succeed. While it's unknown as to whether or not Kyle Shanahan will be receiving any phone calls this coming offseason about potential head coaching vacancies, there's no doubt that other teams in the league could file this game away as an example of his ability to adjust and adapt his scheme to fit his personnel on the fly.
3. Another week, another solid second half for the Redskins defense. Granted, the Browns offense isn't setting the world on fire. They have a rookie quarterback, a talented but slightly hobbled rookie running back in Trent Richardson, as well as some young receivers that have a hard time creating separation in man coverage. Still, the Redskins defense kick started Sunday's effort by doing what they've done throughout this five game run - play well in the second half.
Rob Jackson's third quarter interception gave the Redskins exactly the spark they needed coming out of halftime. Jackson dropped into coverage, and Brandon Weeden didn't see him as he threw the ball over the middle. The play set up the go-ahead score, and the Redskins never relinquished the lead the rest of the way.
Jackson's interception set the tone for the rest of the second half defensively. The Redskins defense made Weeden indecisive with his reads because they disguised their coverages well, and his receivers couldn't get open most of the time against man coverage. That forced Weeden to hold the ball, and the Redskins were able to generate enough pressure to either notch the sack or force a mistake.
It all added up to a second half where the Redskins yielded just seven points, making it the third straight week they've held teams to seven or less after halftime. They still have obvious talent deficiencies, but they're making good second half adjustments and getting stops and key moments of the game. With an offense that's rolling right now, limiting the damage is the best you can hope for if you're the Redskins defense.
4. Receiving corps continues to step up. The more you see the Redskins offensive skill position players excel, it's hard not to think of Mike Shanahan's offseason vision for this group. He consistently emphasized the need to give his quarterback a good supporting cast so that it takes the pressure off of him. It's why the Redskins spent the type of money they did on guys like Pierre Garcon and Joshua Morgan, because they're players who can create more than the scheme dictates. That supporting cast was needed more than ever Sunday as they had make life easier for Cousins. And as they have throughout this winning streak, the receiving corps stepped up and made plays.
It's funny how the perception of this receiving group has changed as the season has gone on. A couple months ago, Leonard Hankerson probably doesn't hang onto that long pass in double coverage. Now, he bobbles it and still reels it in for a touchdown. A couple months ago, it seemed like Santana Moss was the only reliable (and healthy) option in the receiving corps. Now, he's just one of a multitude of capable weapons at the quarterback's disposal.
But the guy who makes it all go is Garcon, who's presence can't be overstated. It's been mentioned plenty over the last couple of days, but it bears repeating: The Redskins are 7-1 when he starts, 1-5 when he doesn't. That's not a coincidence.
What's interesting about Garcon is he's not exactly the player he was with the Colts -- he might be better. He's always had the ability to gain yards after the catch, but one of the knocks about him coming out of Indianapolis was that he'd make the tough catches but would routinely drop the easy ones. That hasn't been as much of a problem in Washington so far, and as a result, he's developed into the clear-cut go-to receiver on the team. He makes tough catches, blocks in the run game, and brings a palpable attitude to the rest of the receiving corps. Now that he's back and playing well, Redskins fans are seeing the type of player the Shanahans so desperately coveted in the offseason.
With Garcon making the big plays he's making, and the rest of the receivers stepping up, it might be fair to ask where this group ranks among the best pass catching groups in the league. From a pure talent perspective, most people would have a number of receiver groups ahead of Washington's. But from a production standpoint? It'd be hard to find a better, deeper group of receivers playing at a higher level at the moment.
5. The Redskins deserve praise for keeping their poise. The Redskins locker room was a desolate place shortly after their crushing loss to the one-win Carolina Panthers. Spirits were down, playoff hopes appeared dashed, Mike Shanahan made his infamous "evaluation" comments, and it seemed the season was careening towards a disastrous finish.
But somehow they managed to regroup after the bye week, and they've been a completely different team ever since. Moreover, for the first time in Shanahan's tenure as Redskins head coach, they've finally found an identity as a team. They've figured out what works on both sides of the ball, stuck to it, and have rode that formula to five straight victories.
The way the team rallied around Cousins Sunday showed that they're more than just Robert Griffin III. They didn't play against a great team, but were in a tough situation on the road in Cleveland nonetheless. It all stems from a belief in one another and, yes, good coaching. The Redskins staff has done a great job of not only putting players in the right position to succeed, but they deserve credit for keeping the team together during the albatross that was the 3-6 start.
Now, they're 8-6 and control their own destiny in the division. Two more victories and the Redskins will host their first playoff game since 1999. Probably not a bad way to end the season, huh?