LANDOVER – Forrest Gump said life is like box of chocolates because you never know what you’re going to get. But at least chocolates look different on the outside.
Coach Jay Gruden’s team has been more like a bag of powdered donuts each game. The filling is a mystery.
Cream? Vanilla or chocolate? Jelly? Grape or strawberry?
Whatever your preference, though, they’ve been hmm-hmm good lately. Washington doesn’t have the recipe down pat quite yet, but we’re seeing glimpses of what’s possible if it stays in the kitchen. Sunday’s offering was as close as the Skins have come to a finished product, a 27-20 victory against Philadelphia that should’ve been a three-touchdown margin.
Consider this game from any view besides the scoreboard – yards, first downs, time of possession – and it was a rout. The defense recorded five sacks and didn’t allow a touchdown. The offense amassed nearly 500 yards and converted 53% of its third-down opportunities. If not for special teams yielding a 96-yard touchdown on a kickoff return – and quarterback Kirk Cousins throwing a 64-yard pick-six roughly four minutes later – Washington played its most dominant game this season.
“If you compare them to the other games, then I would say so,” Gruden said. “You still give up an interception for a touchdown and a kickoff return for a touchdown, that’s not good. Still, I’ve made the point many times before: Our games are going to be a grind. They’re going to be coming down to the wire in the majority of them.”
That doesn’t have to be the case when both sides of the ball click like they did against Philadelphia. Even without favorite-target Jordan Reed, Cousins registered his third-highest total in passing yardage this season (263 yards) and threw two touchdowns. On each occasion, first to Jamison Crowder and then to Vernon Davis, the recipients were wide open, a recurrent theme.
But we’ve seen this offense execute at high levels through the air before. The biggest and most pleasant surprise was the way Matt Jones, Robert Kelly and Chris Thompson gouged the Eagles on running plays. Jones had 80 yards before ripping off a 57-yarder to seal the victory in the closing seconds. Kelley broke one for 45 yards and Thompson averaged 4.1 yards per carry as the Skins totaled 230 on the ground.
Or, you can argue that the defensive effort was the game’s most surprising and pleasing aspect, a carryover from its fine work in Baltimore. The Skins didn’t give up a touchdown after the opening drive against the Ravens, which means they’ve allowed just one touchdown in the last 10 quarter, dating to Cleveland in Week 4.
“Every week we magnify our mistakes to correct them,” safety Will Blackmon said. “Speaking for the defense, we’re really hard on ourselves in terms of making the right corrections and holding everyone accountable. That’s what’s letting us do well in keeping teams out of the end zone and keeping yards down. We’re playing true, disciplined football.”
The secondary is benefiting from an improved pass rush up front. The front seven is benefiting from tight coverage by the defensive backs. Together, they made Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz look like an actual rookie. A 54-yard completion to Jordan Matthews early in the fourth quarter gave Wentz 108 passing yards for the game. He suffered back-to-back sacks on the Eagles’ final plays from scrimmage.
“We just rushed well up front and covered well in the secondary,” said linebacker Ryan Kerrigan, who recorded two sacks. “I wish it was more complicated than that, but guys are just winning one-on-ones up front and winning one-on-ones in the back end.”
Winning on D, winning on O. Imagine that.
Specials gave up the touchdown but they also scored one against Baltimore, so consider that a wash. Cousins’ interception for a touchdown was dreadful, but not fateful. (Of greater concern is the fact that he has thrown a pick in every game except one).
The Skins had an answer for every imperfection Sunday, and there weren’t that many.
Consistency is the question moving forward. Can they replicate the production week- in and week-out like good teams? Can they compensate on one side of the ball when the other side under-performs? Can they put everything together and blow out weak opponents (not that the schedule has many remaining) instead of playing nail-biters?
“We still haven’t put a full game together yet,” defensive end Chris Baker said. “We still have play good in all three phases. Once we do that we’ll be a hard team to beat.”
If so, whatever type of donut shows up down the stretch will be tough for opponents to stomach.