The play symbolized what’s worked well for the Washington Redskins’ offense — and why they remain dangerous. Quarterback Kirk Cousins dropped back, looked to his right only to dislike what he saw. So he scanned back to the other side, calmly delivering a strike to receiver Josh Doctson for a touchdown.
Cousins delivered the ball in a crisp 2.6 seconds because he knew how quickly to get off a read. He did so calmly because he knew the pass protection would give him time.
Despite losing Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson in the offseason, the Redskins’ offense still moves the ball among the best in the NFL. Washington ranks sixth in yards per game compared to third last season. The Redskins are 14th in points per game; they were 12th last season.
They have a quarterback who knows the offense well, playing behind a group that gives him time to scan the field. That’s enabled him to hit different receivers in key spots: on third down, for example, Cousins has connected at least twice with eight different targets. In 2016, through five games, he had connected at least twice with five different players.
There’s good and bad: The Redskins clearly would like a receiver to emerge; but it also means if the defense keys on one player then Cousins will find another. It also means they can flourish if one doesn’t, for a variety of reasons.
Credit coach Jay Gruden’s offensive design, too. Sunday’s use of the jet sweep action, and fake reverses, for example, cleared the way for multiple positive gains, including a 20-yard screen to Chris Thompson — the defense was outnumbered because of all the fakes. The Redskins have run the ball 40 more times in 2017 than at the same point a year ago.
All of this has put Cousins on quite a pace for 16 games: 28 touchdowns, six interceptions and 4,269 yards. He’s fifth in total QBR and third in passer rating.
The protection has mattered quite a bit. He’s thrown under duress an average of 6.8 times per game compared to 8.3 a year ago, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Sunday’s opponent, the Philadelphia Eagles — by far — have applied the most heat. Of the 34 dropbacks when Cousins has been considered under duress, 14 occurred against the Eagles.
Against San Francisco that protection was evident a number of times allowing Cousins, as one player said, to play as if it were seven-on-seven. The protection allowed him to make a good read on the touchdown pass to Doctson as Reed was snug between two defenders with a safety over the top. Cousins didn’t have to force the ball, so he worked back to the left and hit Doctson.
On his second touchdown pass, Cousins faked a handoff to Samaje Perine, looked to his right, worked back to the left and settled for a swing pass to Perine, who then scored. Cousins had 3.2 seconds to execute the play, an eternity in the NFL. But experience plus protection equaled a positive result.
Six players have caught between 10 and 18 passes; that’s not much different from the same point last season. The big change: Three are averaging more than 13 yards per catch — Thompson (18.89 yards), receiver Terrelle Pryor (13.06) and tight end Vernon Davis (20.45). After five games last season, only Jackson (15.44) was above that figure. The Redskins have found different ways to make big plays.
Some of that has occurred because play design and Cousins’ accuracy allows players to run after the catch. The Redskins average 7.34 yards after the catch this season compared to 4.76 and 4.94 the past two seasons, respectively. Thompson’s ability to turn short catches into long gains is a huge factor here. Other times it might be Cousins throwing to the correct shoulder. On a first-and-10 in the red zone Sunday, Cousins hit tight end Jordan Reed to his outside shoulder, giving him a chance to turn upfield away from pressure for six more yards.
But using all his targets stems from proper execution by many.
“It’s an indication of people doing their jobs, number one,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said. “Any time we have a route combination, he trusts everybody involved in the pattern and he’s seeing things pretty clearly, getting to his right reads and right progressions. … It’s all about reading the defenses, going through your progressions and the line giving him time and then trusting the guys to make the plays for you.”