After converting just three touchdowns in the red zone through the first three weeks of the season, the Redskins on Sunday had four touchdowns from inside the 20-yard line.
Quarterback Kirk Cousins led the Redskins to a victory and a .500 record by excelling in the red zone, as Washington's offense featured a truly balanced attack for the first time this season against the Cleveland Browns on Sunday at FedExField in Landover, Md.
Cousins completed 21-of-27 passes for 183 yards and three touchdowns with an interception against the Browns. Despite logging his lowest yardage total this year, Cousins limited his mistakes and executed in the most important area of the field, the red zone, establishing a potent passing attack early in the game and opening up the rushing attack for the rest of the day.
Cousins connected with tight end Jordan Reed for red zone touchdowns on each of the Redskins first two drives of the game, giving Washington an early 14-0 lead. The second touchdown exemplified the Michigan State product's poise, patience and accuracy when the Browns dropped extra defenders into coverage on third and goal from the 9-yard line, forcing Cousins to extend the play until he found Reed in the back of the end zone.
"The plays aren't designed to have to go against eight defenders," Cousins said. "Typically, you're expecting four rushers – maybe even five or six. With only three rushers, what you can do is play off-schedule a little bit. Buy some time and find somebody working open and that's what happened there. Jordan [Reed] did a great job and we were fortunate enough to find a window there off-schedule, but it's certainly not how you draw it up."
The two early scores were a welcomed sight after the Redskins offense converted just 3-of-14 red zone trips into touchdowns in the first three weeks of the season.
Cousins agreed that he needed to execute better in the red zone after losing to Dallas in Week 2, and that meant getting the ball to Reed, who led the team in touchdowns last season.
"[Reed] always seems to be a great target in the red zone and it's great to have him, and we will continue to figure out ways to get him the football, but teams are going to double team him and that's when you'll have great options elsewhere as well," Cousins said.
Those red zone options materialized for Cousins with 10:43 left in the fourth quarter with the Redskins on the Cleveland 5-yard line. Reed drew the attention of two Cleveland defenders and paved an easy touchdown for a wide-open Chris Thompson, who glided into the end zone untouched as Cousins collected his third touchdown pass of the day.
Despite the red zone success, Cousins still flashed some of the mental errors that cost the Redskins dearly in the first two games of the season. He telegraphed a throw into triple coverage for an interception in the second quarter that led to a Cleveland touchdown three plays later. In the third quarter, cornerback Quinton Dunbar recovered a critical fumble in the red zone that stopped a menacing Browns drive, only for Cousins to nearly throw an interception the very next play when he tried to force a throw to Jordan Reed over the middle.
In the fourth quarter, Cousins stalled a promising drive by taking an easily avoidable first down sack that demonstrated the downside to playing "off-schedule" and extending a play, as Cousins did with Reed's second touchdown. The next play, Cousins did not see an open DeSean Jackson, who was emphatically jumping up and down trying to get the quarterback's attention. Jackson only logged one reception for 5 yards, but drew over 70 yards of pass interference penalties in a game where Cousins did not air out the ball often.
"The sack when we had the ball after the big run from Matt Jones, you've got to throw that away or can't take a sack there," head coach Jay Gruden said. "I think the interception, he's just got to see coverage there and do a better job. But, he's far from perfect. He's never going to be perfect, but I think he's made some good enough throws to get a big win against a good team."
Four weeks into the season, Cousins is hoping to maintain consistency on a drive-by-drive and week-by-week basis, and is willing to accept incremental progress. "It's a step in the right direction," Cousins said. "We're very pleased, like you said, getting the win today and getting to 2-2. Now we go forward. The whole cliché of one game at a time, go 1-0 each week and that will never change. We're happy we went 1-0 this week and now we focus on Baltimore on the road next week."