Redskins.com's Stephen Czarda provides five things we've learned about the Washington Redskins through the first four games -- Steelers, Cowboys, Giants and Browns -- of the 2016 regular season.
1. The Redskins are starting to show some improvement in the red zone, but need to be better down the stretch.
While Washington's offense was 4-of-5 in the red zone during Sunday's victory over the Cleveland Browns, the unit has struggled inside the 20-yard line this season, as they are just 7-of-19 on the year.
In the Redskins' Weeks 1 and 2 losses to the Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys, the offense managed just three touchdowns on 10 tries in the red zone. Then in their Week 3 victory over the New York Giants, the team had to settle for three of Dustin Hopkins' five field goals after drives stalled close to the end zone while Kirk Cousins was sacked on 3rd-and-goal as the clock ran out in the second quarter.
"You know, we're doing very good on first down, second down, we're doing good moving the ball down the field. Third down efficiency in the regular field is very good. When we get down in the red zone, our third down efficiency is terrible and that's something we have to really look at," Redskins head coach Jay Gruden recently said. "You know, first, second down is one thing; but we have to make sure that we keep the drives going or get the ball in the end zone on third down. It's a concern, we have to address it."
So what changed for the Redskins against the Browns? The combination of play calling and Jordan Reed's ability to break free in short yardage situations, as he hauled in two touchdowns.
"He 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.
The Redskins' final touchdown of the day was a one-yard run by Matt Jones. After struggling to connect on fade routes in the loss to the Cowboys, diversifying the play calling – to include more running plays – will allow the offense to open up more.
"We're trying to game plan specifically for the defense we're facing, so we haven't carried carbon-copies of our red zone plan week, to week, to week," Cousins said. "It changes every week, whether you're playing well, or struggling, you're going to make adjustments and do whatever you think works best that week. It's certainly something we want to be better in. We're working hard at it to improve it."
2. Su'a Cravens and Trent Murphy have been strong contributors on the defense so far.
When the Redskins decided to take the versatile Cravens in the second round of the 2016 NFL Draft, they knew they were getting a player capable of making big plays. In his three seasons at USC, the 21-year-old collected 10 sacks along with nine interceptions.
His standout play so far in his rookie year came against the Giants in Week 3 when his interception off Eli Manning secured the Redskins' first game of the season, but his overall play has impressed.
He's an instinctual player that is also a sound tackler.
"He's got unbelievable instincts and awareness and feel and the more comfortable he gets with the professional game, he's going to---you'll see him just making more and more plays," Redskins defensive coordinator Joe Barry said. "So, he's getting more and more comfortable all the time. He's still a rookie, still a young guy, still has a million miles to go. But comes into work every day and loves football, loves working at it. I think he's going be an exciting guy for a lot of years to come."
Murphy, meanwhile, has already tallied a career-high four sacks along with two fumbles forced.
What's made Murphy's production so interesting is that it comes on the heels of a season in which he was asked to move to defensive end and then back to outside linebacker after the loss of Junior Galette. On top of that, the Stanford product bulked up only to size back down.
"Whatever position he's asked to play, he's going to play it," Gruden said. "I think the addition of Greg Manusky has really helped him as far as playing outside linebacker and rushing. I think he's just going to get better and better."
3. Josh Norman has been just about everything Washington could have hoped out of the 2015 All-Pro.
Having a shutdown cornerback makes a difference. The Redskins understood just that when they pulled out all the stops to land Norman, who suddenly – and unexpectedly – became a free agent in April.
After playing just his side in the regular season opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Norman has travelled along with some of the best wide receivers in the NFL today.
The Washington Redskins announced on Friday, April 22, the signing of free agent cornerback Josh Norman. Here's a gallery of photos from his career.
Through four games, Norman has collected 23 tackles along with a forced fumbled and an interception.
"That was the reason we brought him in because he's always around the ball," Gruden said. "He makes plays. He's forced fumbles, he's recovered fumbles, and he's got a big interception so far in four games. He makes his presence felt, presence known. That's why we went out and got him. He was like that at Carolina when we played against him and we scouted him and he's always around the ball and he's proven that to be a good pick-up so far."
During the Redskins' victory over the Browns, Norman tallied his first interception with his new team, jumping Terrelle Pryor Sr.'s route to come down with the football. Just a few plays later, Matt Jones was running it in for a one-yard touchdown.
While Pryor Sr. got his in the first half (five receptions, 47 yards, one touchdown), Norman got the better end of the battle down the stretch, making in-game adjustments to beat the 6-foot-5 wide receiver convert.
Only a few cornerbacks in the NFL today can get results like that after making some on the fly changes.
"Second half I went to a dark place, like shut him down, lock him down," Norman said. "Feet in the ground and just play your game, man. Don't worry about nothing else. Coach called this, called that. Execute flawlessly. I did, I saw the play coming, I knew it kind of going through the film study of what he likes to do, and as soon as I did, just saw my moment and captured it."
4. The Redskins want to continue with a balanced offensive attack.In each of the Redskins' first two games of the year, Cousins recorded at least 43 pass attempts while the ground game registered a total of 29 carries.
That balance simply wasn't good enough, even if the passing game is going to be the team's bread and butter this season.
Over the last few weeks, though, the Redskins have gotten the offense to a near 50-50 split, as Cousins has thrown 62 passes while Jones has led a ground game that has registered 56 carries.
"As a back, you want to get into rhythm and when you are getting the ball multiple times, you actually get a feel of the game and a feel for how they are playing," Jones said on Sunday. "It was great for me to experience that and to get downhill with it. It was just all fun out there and once I got going, I just felt great."
As the Redskins approach a game this Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens and the No. 1 defensive unit in the league, Washington's hope is that the running game can get chunks of yards on early downs, putting less pressure on the passing game to move the chains on long third down situations.
"Obviously when you can get some first downs with the run, the clock is running and your defense is staying a little bit fresher over there on the sideline. But, we're going to be diverse in what we do," Gruden said. "But having a run game, a good, strong running game, Matt Jones ran the ball extremely well [against the Browns] and the line blocked for him good."
5. The Redskins have overcome the injury bug with quality depth at quite a few positions.
So far in this young season, the Redskins have already lost their starting center (Kory Lichtensteiger), starting nose tackle (Kedric Golston) and starting strong safety (DeAngelo Hall).
Starting left guard Shawn Lauvao and starting cornerbacks Bashaud Breeland and Dashaun Phillips also did not play last Sunday and continue to be "day-to-day" with their injuries, as is starting linebacker Ryan Kerrigan who left the Browns game with an elbow strain after just eight plays.
Even though the Redskins have had to make quite a few lineup changes, the players being plugged in have been up to the task of increased playing time.
"They're playing hard, that's for sure," Gruden said. "You know, it's tough, these injuries are tough because they could be OK. We're not sure yet. You hate to bring in a bunch of new people and have to make roster changes when these guys might be OK to play. That's the biggest problem with them right now. I think in-house we're OK right now without having to bring anybody else in unless we get worse news on some of these injuries."
Golston was lost on the first defensive snap of the Redskins' Week 2 game against the Cowboys, suffering a torn hamstring.
In his place, the Redskins have used Ziggy Hood and Cullen Jenkins among others at the nose tackle position.
At safety, meanwhile, Blackmon played all 72 defensive snaps against the Browns and will continue to be used in a prominent role moving forward.
"That's the one thing that when one goes down there's not a huge drop-off," Blackmon said. "It was very unfortunate to have our leader [Hall] go down, someone that has been in the organization for a long time, Pro Bowler, someone I played against since I was 18 years old, a good friend and brother of mine. I have to continue to lead from a veteran standpoint and keep it rolling."
Along the offensive line, the Redskins had to get creative when both Lichtensteiger and Lauvao went down against the Giants, moving Trent Williams to guard for the first time in his career with Ty Nsekhe at tackle.
"It was extremely difficult," Williams said of the move. "It's a totally different game inside – definitely not what I'm used to. Luckily I didn't do too bad."
Against the Browns, Williams shifted back to tackle while second-year Alabama product Arie Kouandjio made his first career start at left guard.
"My feeling going into the first play was pretty calm, kind of just focused on execution and stuff like that," Kouandjio said. "I've done this many times before. This is my first time playing in the NFL with the highest possible caliber people. I've been playing this game for about 10 years and I've been blessed with that and I just try to do my job."