The Redskins were missing three of their starting five offensive linemen entering Sunday's game against the Cowboys, and managed through more injuries in a rain-soaked loss.
Injuries are inherent to the game of football, but the rate and severity of them over the last few weeks have impacted the Redskins in an unprecedented way. The team has seen players take on extreme pain and continue to endure on the field, forced eleventh hour roster changes and placed rookies on the biggest stage at the most crucial moments.
Specifically this week that mostly pertained to the Redskins' offensive line, which by Sunday afternoon was without starting left tackle Trent Williams (knee), starting center Spencer Long (knees), starting right guard Brandon Scherff (knee/back) and backup tackle Ty Nsekhe (core muscle). In the Redskins' 33-19 loss to the Cowboys, every active lineman was needed, providing a patchwork of protectors that managed their best in precarious conditions.
"To even have a chance to tie the game with a minute left in the fourth quarter going on a drive down there, it's shows a lot about this team and how much they fight," Williams said after the game, frustrated he couldn't be available to help, calling the experience of watching the game "torture."
Those who played were rookies Chase Roullier and Tyler Catalina, starting at center and right guard, respectively, while T.J. Clemmings started at left tackle. Things would shuffle more when left guard Shawn Lauvao left in the second half with a stinger injury, necessitating Arie Kouandjio, signed Saturday morning, to replace him. Clemmings later injured his ankle, forcing Catalina to left tackle and newcomer Tony Bergstrom to right guard.
That only represented a few of the team's injuries on an afternoon that saw steady rainfall throughout the majority of the game, making conditions sloppy and the challenge of communicating and working together effectively even harder.
"When you're splitting up the five guys that have played so long together for a couple of years, they know things without even having to communicate it," Catalina said. "When you throw a wrench in there, throw in two, three guys that you've never played with , there's going to be a little bit of a slow start to the communication process and learning how everybody plays."
Still, the offensive line battled. In the first half, they didn't commit a penalty, a usual symptom of a young group adjusting to the NFL for the first time together, and allowed four sacks altogether. Under conditions that needed a run game to help their pass protection, the Redskins ran just 15 times, a product of falling behind in the second half and incurring more injuries along the way.
Tight end Niles Paul left the game after Washington's first touchdown and tight end Jordan Reed followed later with a hamstring injury, leaving only Vernon Davis available at the position. Their absences limited the team's ability to use multiple tight end sets, which the Redskins had used effectively throughout their previous six games.
"We were limited to one group and had to add some more groups in case something happened to Vernon [Davis]," head coach Jay Gruden said. "We had to talk about our four-receiver sets and our three-receiver sets with two backs and had to coach those up in the locker room. We had to do some work, but we still had our normal package, one of them."
Despite the offense' second half struggles, highlighted by turnovers and incompletions, the offensive line did everything it could to provide the team with a chance late in the game. After a Josh Doctson touchdown pass and an ensuing defensive stop, Washington had a minute left to drive down the field for a touchdown until quarterback Kirk Cousins' second pass of the drive was tipped and intercepted for a touchdown.
While the play effectively ended the game, Williams was thoroughly impressed with the string of reserves helping the team be in a position to tie and potentially win the game. That feeling of pride especially pertained to the case of Kouandjio, who had been cut by the team before the regular season, later signed with the Ravens practice squad, and then received a phone call from Ashburn, Va., with less than 48 hours to game time.
"I trust my guys a lot," Kouandjio said. "I just went out there and kind of believed in guys, not really myself. I kind of already knew the plays. The Ravens have done a great job training me and doing all that stuff, and a lot of guys did a lot of great things for me. I'd be remiss if I didn't thank those guys. As far as coming in, it was good."
"It's crazy how this game works and I was just proud of the way the guys came in there and battled," Long said. "We're fighting through a lot of adversity right now."
Despite fighting through adversity, Bergstrom, another called into duty with little preparation, said there were no moral victories. Losing against the Cowboys, no less, falling behind them in the division and facing a five-win Seahawks team next week, adds more sting. All the Redskins can do is trust in who they have, and if Sunday afternoon proved anything, it's that they have a resilient group ready to do the same again.
"All the guys that are hurt right now are just aching to get out there and help our team and our guys, but there's nothing we can do about it," Long said. "Injuries happen in this league, it's a rough sport, so all we can do is try to get healthy as fast as we can and get back out there."