Redskins.com's Stephen Czarda provides five things we've learned about the Washington Redskins through Weeks 10-13 -- against the Vikings, Packers, Cowboys and Cardinals -- of the 2016 regular season.
1. Kirk Cousins is putting up some big numbers, but the team still needs to perform better in the red zone.
Outside of his final throw against the Cardinals last Sunday, Cousins didn't have a single turnover during the third quarter of the season.
In fact, Cousins – who was named NFC Offensive Player of the Month for November – had arguably the best four-game stretch of his career, as the Michigan State product completed 105-of-153 pass attempts (68 percent) for 1,357 yards and nine touchdowns to one interception.
He had a rather remarkable five-day period against the Packers and then the Cowboys, as Cousins threw for nearly 825 yards with six touchdown passes to no interceptions during those outings.
In the game against Dallas, Cousins completed 41-of-53 passes for 449 yards and three touchdowns, all of which came in the fourth quarter when they needed the quarterback at his best.
"I think the dropback 53 times and have no turnovers it shows some growth and some improvement," Cousins said after the Cowboys game. "It takes everybody. It takes great coaching; Bill Callahan and those guys. It take great play calling from Sean [McVay] and those guys to be in a position to be successful. I've got to get the ball out of my hand and not hold on to it. But the offensive line ultimately has to hold up a pass rush that has to be pretty good."
And while Cousins didn't have his strongest statistical output against the Cardinals, the quarterback was more than capable avoiding pressure in the pocket to get out and make throws on the run.
"You know, Kirk did some good things in the game without a doubt and there are some other throws that we didn't attempt that I wish I think in hindsight I wish he would have attempted," Redskins head coach Jay Gruden admitted. "I'm sure we do too. But he's got the ball in his hands, he's got to make those split-second decisions, which are easier said than done sometimes. But overall, I think he played pretty good. It was a good pass rush that they had. He handled the pressure fairly well. We'll just take a look at the film and see if we can push the envelope a little bit more from time to time, but I thought he was efficient and made some good throws."
But as the Redskins seek another potential playoff berth with a solid final quarter of the season, they'll need to see better results in the red zone, an issue that has plagued them all season. Washington is converting just 43 percent of red zone appearances into touchdowns. In the last two games -- both loses by single digits – the Redskins are just 3-of-7.
2. Ty Nsekhe showed why the coaching staff remains so high on him.
The Redskins were dealt quite the blow after their return to London when it was announced that Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Williams would serve a four-game suspension.
Check out the top 100 images from week 10 through 13 of the 2016 regular season.
Williams, of course, is one of the best players in the NFL today and someone who is nearly irreplaceable.
But the Redskins didn't miss much of a beat when Nsekhe was pushed into a starting role, as the 31-year-old proved more than capable of being someone that can be counted to protect Cousins and open holes for the running game.
"Like I said before, he's a starting tackle in the National Football League, without a doubt; we just have two good ones in front of him," Gruden said of Nsekhe last month. "So we don't bat an eye when one of those guys goes down. Ty can fill in at right tackle or left tackle and we don't miss a beat, quite frankly."
During the four games in which Nsekhe started (the Texas State product had just two previous starts before this year), the Redskins' offense had some of their best performances in recent memory.
While Nsekhe will return to a backup role now that Williams is back on the active roster, he's shown enough talent to back claims that he can be an NFL starter.
3. The defense knows they need to be better on third downs and in forcing turnovers.
The matchups of David Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald certainly aren't easy, but Washington struggled to stop both last Sunday, particularly on third downs.
Arizona was able to convert on 10-of-16 third down attempts including plays that required 11 and 12 yards to move the chains. It was a frustrating performance for a unit that is now tied for last in third down defense (48 percent) through 12 weeks of the season.
"Me personally, it just [bugs] me that we can't get off [the field], but you know, when it's early it's more just regrouping that, 'Hey, we're fine. We're smacking them on first and second [downs], we've just got to take care of our business on the money down,'" linebacker Will Compton said after the Cardinals game. "We were getting pressure on third down, but we just for whatever reason again, one of those situations where we got to watch all the third downs as a defense, be critical. Figure out a way to understand what we're getting and execute our game plan."
Gruden thinks it a combination of issues that are creating the problem for the Redskins on third downs right now.
"Sometimes it's a coverage, sometimes it's a rush," Gruden said. "We just have got to keep doing a good job with our rush – being consistent with it and trying to get pressure on the quarterback and make him throw it when he's not ready – and then our coverage has to be tighter from time-to-time, quite frankly. Any time you're giving up third-and-long, it's an ample opportunity to get off the field and get the ball back for your offense. We have to really, really focus on that and make sure we do a good job of that here coming up in the future because we're going to need to."
Additionally, the Redskins have struggled to create turnovers, having just two in the last four games.
For the season, Washington ranks tied for 18th in turnovers with 14 (seven interceptions, seven fumbles recovered).
4. Robert Kelley is the clear-cut No. 1 running back and the Redskins want to get him more carries.
There was a slight mystery as to who the Redskins were going to have as their lead back coming out of the Bye Week.
Kelley was pushed into a starting role for Washington's game against the Cincinnati Bengals and performed well enough (87 rushing yards and a touchdown) that Gruden named the rookie running back the team's lead back entering Washington's game against Minnesota.
The Tulane product has taken his opportunity and ran with it, as he has the fifth most rushing yards (334) over the last four weeks.
In the Redskins' 42-24 victory over the Packers in Week 11, Kelley broke out on a national stage, collecting 137 rushing yards and three touchdowns. He would be named FedEx Ground Player of the Week for his efforts.
"We saw him in the preseason games, but to see what he does with the pads on, well, it'd be tough to get him out of there now," Gruden said after the Green Bay game. "He's a strong back, has great vision and runs extremely hard, so we're thrilled to death. He's just got to keep working like everyone else."
While Cousins has played well over the last month even with a high number of pass attempts, the Redskins want to give Kelley the ball more to create a little more balance.
Washington has ran the ball just 37 times the last two weeks while attempting 90 passes. Giving the ball to Kelley more could also benefit a struggling red zone offense, as all four of his touchdowns this season have come from inside the 10-yard line.
"I think there's no doubt about it, we would like to get more of him involved," Gruden said. "We had a couple times where we actually had runs called [against the Cardinals] and we got out of them because their safety was down and they were unblockable as far as the run was concerned. We ideally would like to get that running game going a little bit more – more touches for Robert because he's been very good as far as running the football. We have got to make sure that we get him more involved, maintain the time of possession and stay more balanced."
5. The Redskins remain right in the thick of the playoff race.
Yes, Sunday's outcome to the Cardinals (5-6-1) dropped the Redskins (6-5-1) just outside of the current playoff picture, but there's four games left. Gruden knows a lot can change between now and the final whistle of Washington's Week 17 game against the New York Giants (8-4), but he's also demanding his players take it one game at a time starting with this Sunday's game against the Philadelphia Eagles (5-7).
"We still have a long way to go but we have to take it one game at a time and take these next days of preparation for the Philadelphia Eagles very, very serious," Gruden said on his conference call Monday.
After the Eagles game, the Redskins will host the 4-8 Carolina Panthers, a team that is struggling this season but still has a lot of pieces remaining from the squad that won the NFC last season, followed by a trip to Chicago on Dec. 24 to take on a 3-9 Chicago Bears team that has defeated the Detroit Lions (8-4) and Vikings (6-6) this season.
Then comes the regular season finale against the Giants.
"Thinking of it as one-week seasons, I don't want to give you a cliché answer, but ultimately if you take care of business every week, you'll end up where you want to be," center John Sullivan said.