Can’t run and can’t stop the run.
That was the book on Washington, authored by general manager Scot McCloughan, entering this season. In actuality it was a sequel from last year, penned after McCloughan ignored pleas for a rewrite. His 2012 roster included no one proven to stuff runs or break runs. The Skins were poised to lag toward the bottom of the NFL in those two crucial categories.
Through one-quarter of the season, Washington is searching for a more favorable personality and making progress on Matt Jones’ side of the ball. The 6-foot-2, 232-pound halfback has lived up to his physique in the last two games, pounding Cleveland on Sunday and the Giants a week earlier.
Fifty-three of Jones’ 65 rushing yards against New York came in the second half. He was even more dominant in the late stages against the Browns, gaining 79 yards on 11 carries in the fourth quarter. Jones ripped off runs of 8, 11 and 15 yards on the drive for Washington’s go-ahead touchdown and had a 25-yard jaunt on the next possession. He scored a 1-yard touchdown on the game-clinching drive after breaking free for 16 yards on the previous play.
“I’m still learning,” the second-year back said after the game. “It’s just me learning from last week and being a decisive, decisive runner. I just want to carry that over throughout the season.”
That would help improve half of the team’s bad reputation. But when it comes to stopping guys like Jones, the defense might as well enter the witness protection program.
Cleveland entered the contest with the league’s No. 1 rushing attack and demonstrated why. The Browns’ two-pronged attack of Isaiah Crowell (15 carries for 112 yards) and Duke Johnson (9 carries for 53 yards) burst through gaping holes on numerous occasions, breaking tackles with ease. It was par for Washington, yet to hold a team under 100 rushing yards. Only Oakland and San Francisco have yielded more yardage on the ground.
“We have to definitely look at ways to stop the run and find out where the holes are,” coach Jay Gruden said. “You have to give credit to Cleveland but then we have to figure out where we’re coming up short. Is it missing tackles at the second level; is it getting off blocks; is it getting pushed back too much on the double teams?
Put me down for all of the above.
The Skins’ clear strength as the season began was at catching passes, with Jordan Reed, DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon and Jamison Crowder forming one of the league’s better receiving corps. Whether Cousins could excel as the triggerman was debatable. Now that Jones and the offensive line are making strides in the run game, the imbalance between offense and defense could become more drastic.
So is that what we should expect, a team that’s proficient when it has the ball and problematic when it doesn’t.
“Identity forms over time, throughout the course of the season,” tight end Vernon Davis said. “I’d say halfway through, we should know what our identity is. By Week 10, you really, really know who you are as a team.”
It’s easy to forget that Washington is very much a work in progress. The surprising NFC East title last year arguably was the result of fortuitous scheduling and a division foe’s key injury more than rapid improvement from a 4-12 campaign the previous season. This team’s DNA under McCloughan hasn’t developed to the point where it useful as a means of identification. And from what we’ve seen of the run defense, no one wants to claim that ugly baby.
Safety Will Blackmon said “team identity is a set of guidelines and rules that you follow as a team that’s, like, unwritten. What do we do? That’s the identity. It’s kind of unwritten but understood.”
Ball-hawking falls in that category, the defense’s most attractive feature. Takeaways on three consecutive second-half possessions helped seal Washington’s victory against Cleveland. The Skins, who have created turnovers in the last six games, lead the league in fumbles forced (30) and fumbles recovered (20) since 2015.
“Right now our identity is we get the ball out,” Blackmon said. “You better be high and tight because we get the ball out. I think (Sunday) I was a little too ball-aware and I missed a couple of tackles.”
“We have to make sure we keep cashing out on those turnovers,” defensive end Ricky Jean Francois said. “It we don’t have those games where we’re plus-3 in the turnover ratio, it’s gonna be hard as hell because we’re not stopping the run.”
Can’t run and can’t stop the run.
Through four games, the Skins are batting .500 in forging a new, positive identity on both sides of the ball.