The Opposite Sideline: Wary of Washington

Stu Courtney
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Each week, Press-Gazette Media will get the lowdown on the Green Bay Packers’ next opponent from a beat writer who covers that team.

Washington Redskins head coach Jay Gruden walks the sidelines during the second half of the game against the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium.

They’re the mystery team of the NFL playoffs, an interloper bearing questionable credentials as champions of the downtrodden NFC East.

Washington won its final four games to finish 9-7, but faced only two teams that reached the playoffs this season and were badly beaten both times (27-10 at New England and 44-16 at Carolina). Under second-year coach Jay Gruden, the Redskins failed to beat a team with a winning record, their best victory coming against 8-8 Buffalo.

On the other hand, Washington has displayed the kind of potent offense that once was synonymous with Green Bay. The Redskins have scored 34 or more points in their last three games; the Packers have done so only once (a 38-28 win over Kansas City in Week 3).

After wresting the starting job away from former franchise quarterback Robert Griffin III (who hasn’t played all season), Kirk Cousins has thrown for 4,166 yards and 29 touchdowns this season with 11 interceptions and a passer rating of 101.6. By comparison, the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers has thrown for 3,821 yards and 31 TDs with eight interceptions and a passer rating of 92.7.

Cousins has plenty of playmaking targets in speedy tight end Jordan Reed (87 catches for 952 yards and 11 touchdowns) and wide receivers DeSean Jackson (only 30 catches in six games, but for a 17.6-yard average and four TDs), Pierre Garcon (72, 777, six) and rookie Jamison Crowder (59, 604, two).

On the ground, Alfred Morris ranks 21st in the NFL with 751 yards (right behind No. 20 Eddie Lacy of the Packers with 758) and Matt Jones ranks 46th with 490 yards.

Washington seemingly is healthier than Green Bay, with only 10 players on its injury report Wednesday compared to 17 for the Packers. But Washington’s secondary, ravaged all season by injury, took another hit when Kyshoen Jarrett was placed on IR with a neck injury. In desperation, the Redskins picked up 31-year-old cornerback Cary Williams this week.

Defensively, the Redskins could be just the cure for the Packers’ offense. Only four teams have yielded more yards per game than Washington’s 380.6.

We asked Liz Clarke of the Washington Post to answer a few questions about what the Packers can expect Sunday when they visit Washington:

What clicked for the Redskins in their last four games that turned a 5-7 also-ran into a 9-7 division winner?

LC: “There were several factors, but principally it was Kirk Cousins coming into his own at quarterback, coupled with more aggressive play calling by the offensive coordinator, Sean McVay. The two have grown together and as they’ve learned more about each other and about the abilities of a young offensive line and the many receiving targets at Kirk’s disposal, they’ve become bolder about taking some deep shots. The result has been getting out ahead of opponents early in games, which opens up the playbook and makes things so much easier than when they were fighting back from deficits.”

How good is Kirk Cousins? He used to be prone to interceptions, what turned him around?

LC: “It's difficult to point to one facet of his game that changed, or the light bulb moment when everything became clear. The turnovers he had last season when he was filling in for Robert Griffin typically came in clusters in fourth-quarter situations. He and his coaches would tell you that was partly a result of feeling like he had to get everything back; particularly after he threw one interception, he was so determined to atone and make up for it that things would compound. In many ways, it has been an internal awakening that he has tremendous receiving targets as well as third-down backs and that success in the passing game can be getting somebody the ball on a bubble screen or a high-percentage throw and letting them gain the 30, 40, 50 yards. … It has been a relaxing into the role, without being sloppy or careless in any way. Sure, you can point to a few mechanical adjustments, but really, his numbers and success at Michigan State show a guy with a big arm, an accurate arm who has handled big games before.”

What has DeSean Jackson done to open up the offense?

LC: “He missed six games with a hamstring injury, and then tight end Jordan Reed was out for a few games with an injury as well. So the possibilities for the offense changed dramatically when DeSean Jackson was available. And whether the ball goes to him or not, his mere presence tends to affect the way defenses cover ... just the implied threat of the deep ball. So he’s been a real game-changer.”

Is Reed the best NFL tight end this side of Rob Gronkowski?

LC: “For many defenses, Reed has just been a mismatch with his size (6-foot-2, 237 pounds) and his ability to separate. The one knock against him leading into this season was that he couldn’t stay healthy. We finally are seeing the potential and ability that he has.”

What are the strengths and weaknesses of the Redskins defense?

LC: “Statistically, the defense isn’t impressive. They give up a lot of yards. There have been stretches where they’ve been effective against the run and stretches where they’ve let teams run on them a ton. It’s important that the offense controls the clock. They’ve had a cruel number of injuries in the defensive backfield, starting in training camp. But to their credit, the defensive backs coach, Perry Fewell, and defensive coordinator Joe Barry – combined with GM Scot McCloughan, who is coming up with free agents to restock holes – they’ve done pretty well, whether it’s getting guys off the streets or in one case (Quinton Dunbar) converting a wide receiver into a cornerback. It’s amazing what they’ve done – not smoke and mirrors, because these are players of substance – but really, just hard-working, determined guys. And at linebacker as well – their two insider linebackers (Will Compton and Mason Foster) are not the two they started the season with. But they’ve got hungry, hard-working guys who know what it means to seize the moment.”

Washington has a pair of strong pass rushers in Ryan Kerrigan and Preston Smith. What will be the Redskins’ approach against Aaron Rodgers?

LC: “They’re going to do their best to get to him and rattle him, try to identify the targets he does have and do the best job possible covering them. The defensive line will need to be careful and avoid penalties because Rodgers is very good at drawing teams offside. … They won’t make the mistake of taking Green Bay’s offense lightly because they’ve had two tough games in a row.”

Are the Redskins trying to play the no-respect card after winning a bad division?

LC: “It’s not like the locker room is pasted with posters saying we’re going to prove the world wrong. It’s more of a quiet, inner focus, a belief that they have what they need on their roster to achieve their goal. And whether anyone else believes it or not, so be it. They’re not rattled by it or spending a lot of energy trying to disprove it.”

So what will be the keys for Washington on Sunday?

LC: “On defense, they will need to keep the Packers’ running game in check; on offense, it’ll be not turning the ball over and ideally dominating time of possession to limit the damage that Rodgers and his teammates can do."

— and follow him on Twitter @Stucourt

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