Week 8 is upon us, and the Bengals will be looking to get back to .500 before the end of the first half of their 2016 season which, coincidentally enough, corresponds with their bye in the following week. After smoking the Browns, the Bengals will be facing a 4-3 Redskins team which is one game removed from a four-game win streak. Marvin Jones (four catches, 94 yards) and the Lions ended said win streak last week in Detroit. We spoke with Alex Rowsey of Hogs Haven, SB Nation’s Redskins blog, to get an inside look at this year’s Redskins team.
Connor Howe: Everyone around the NFL media landscape seems to have a different opinion on Kirk Cousins. Some think he's a great player, some think he's average and some claim his ceiling is very defined and not as high as most Redskins fans would like to believe. What's your personal opinion on Cousins as a passer, and how has he been doing this season?
Alex Rowsey: I think he's an above average starting QB. He's not great, but I don't think he's reached his ceiling, yet. How high is that ceiling? I'm not sure. Personally, I'm happy with Kirk as the Redskins starting quarterback for the long-term. He's not worth the $20 million+ per year that he's getting on the franchise tag or that he may have wanted in the offseason, but he's a good passer. I don't expect the Redskins to tag him again next year and give him basically $24M guaranteed for another year. I expect they'll work out something long-term for like $16-17 million per year and guarantee him more money than the tag pays. I think that would be best for both sides. Still, Washington needs Kirk more than he needs the Redskins. I just don't think he's the kind of guy to really play hardball if he has a good but not great season and knows it. I think he likes it in Washington and wants to be a member of this team.
Cousins has been pretty good though inconsistent this year. He started off the season slumping pretty hard for the first couple of weeks. His accuracy was off and he was missing (just not seeing) guys that were wide open. That's gotten better as the year has progressed — he's coming off of a very nice game against Detroit in which he completed some 75 percent of his passes for 300+ yards and scored 2 touchdowns without a turnover. Still, he makes a boneheaded mistake or two just about every game. I accept it. He's completing over 66 percent of his passes this year and has a 10:6 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
CH: Washington has a sneaky stingy pass rush, with Ryan Kerrigan and Trent Murphy tallying six sacks each. However, the Redskins still rank around the middle of the pack in scoring, pass, rush and yardage defense. What are the biggest strengths and weaknesses in Washington's defense?
AR: The Redskins are pretty strong against the pass and pretty weak against the run. As you mentioned, they have a decent pass rush and have done a better job applying pressure on opposing quarterbacks as the season has gone on. They also have one of the best CB groups in the league. Josh Norman has been incredible.
Where they've struggled is with stopping the run. That's improved as the season has gone on as well, though. They lack talent along the defensive line — it is one of the worst of its kind in the NFL — and the team’s inside linebackers are wildly average. Earlier in the season, the inside linebackers were playing terribly and the entire defense was missing tackles right and left. That's improved and the linebackers are playing significantly better of late. Additionally, the safety group started off very weak and has somehow benefited/gotten better thanks to injury. DeAngelo Hall and David Bruton were the starters at the beginning of the year and Bruton especially played horribly. Hall was decent, but he was still a step slow. Both guys have been lost for the year and have been replaced by the trio of Will Blackmon, Duke Ihenacho, and Donte Whitner. This group has been playing much better. Blackmon and Ihenacho will still miss a tackle here and there, but Ihenacho and Whitner are far better tacklers than Bruton, while Blackmon seems a step quicker than Hall.
After two weeks, the Redskins defense was miserable and most everyone was calling for the defensive coordinator, Joe Barry, to be fired. Credit to him though, as he's really turned this group around. It started a few weeks back with noticeable halftime adjustments. The Redskins would give up a ton of yards and points in the first half and then play lights out in the second. Over the past couple of weeks, that good defensive play/tackling has started to translate to whole games. The defense was great as a unit against both the pass and run last week until the last minute of the game when Barry chose to play prevent defense and only rush three. Stafford proceeded to march the Lions the length of the field in under a minute for the win. Perhaps Barry was trying to compensate for Norman being out of the game with a concussion. I expect the team will blitz more and apply more pressure on Dalton if the team has learned from its mistakes.
CH: As probably everyone who reads this post knows, Jay Gruden left the Bengals to become the Redskins' head coach. I know a lot of Bengals fans weren't very high on Gruden, simply because he over-emphasized the pass and exposed Andy Dalton to a lot of pressure by oftentimes ignoring the run game. How do you think Gruden has been doing as Washington's head coach?
AR: A lot of Redskins fans aren't very high on Gruden for over-emphasizing the pass and exposing Cousins to a lot of pressure by oftentimes ignoring the run game. However, he seems to be improving/learning a bit. The Redskins’ offensive coordinator, Sean McVay, is the play-caller now and after the first two weeks of the season, the team has been incredibly balanced with a great rushing attack and good OL play. In the first two games, they threw it on nearly 80 percent of the plays and completely abandoned the run game. It was maddening, and the team suffered in the win-loss column as a result. It was disheartening to watch and has always been a major problem with Gruden. Things really have been better since then, though. When the Redskins pass it every play, they always lose. When they're balanced, they usually win. Fans have known this for years. It seems Gruden is starting to catch on.
Gruden had his rough patches his first year, but he does seem to be growing and developing as a head coach. He has a good attitude and demeanor for it. His first year, he'd get too visibly frustrated and would call out players publicly too much. He's very personable and does a great job with the media now. He lets the coaches under him coach and doesn't seem like much of an authoritarian. The players really seem to like him and can be seen joking with him and what not pretty regularly. His offense is a good one. The passing play designs are really brilliant and receivers get open consistently. He needed Bill Callahan's help with the offensive line and running game, and there have been significant signs of improvement. Gruden needed Sean McVay's help as a play-caller to help maintain the balance between run and pass, and the coordinator’s efforts have yielded huge dividends. Gruden doesn’t seem to be very involved with his special teams, but even the special teams are performing. Overall, he's a good manager and really seems like he's coming into his own as a head coach. No coach is perfect (besides Belichick), but as long as the Redskins are winning, Gruden is doing fine.
CH: The aforementioned Norman, as well as Trent Williams, could potentially miss out on the trip to London. What's going on in terms of the Redskins' injury front?
AR: Fortunately for Redskins fans and unfortunately for the Bengals, the injury situation is looking about as good as could be expected right now. Norman and Jordan Reed have both been cleared to travel to London which bodes will for them to be able to play Sunday. Williams has been practicing which was unexpected immediately after the Detroit game, so it looks like he'll be able to go. The primary injury right now is the knee of running back Matt Jones, but due to his fumbling issues popping up in the worst way against Detroit, most fans are actually not that bummed about it and would like to see Rob Kelley and Chris Thompson get his carries for a while, anyway. Something curious we've seen with the Redskins coaching staff is that they pick starters and are reluctant to change even when it's clear that the backup is a better player. The starter gets hurt and then the fans get the change they want — and the fans have been proven right a vast majority of the time this year. Both starting safeties go down and the safety group has gotten better. Most fans were calling for Ihenacho to start over Bruton from the jump. Starting center goes down and Spencer Long comes in and is a definite upgrade. Most everyone saw that from before the season's start. It's very weird. Maybe fans will be right about Rob Kelley running better than Jones. We'll see. Overall though, the current Redskins roster is in excellent health. It should be just about full strength for Sunday.
CH: The Redskins' loss in Detroit ended their previous four-game winning streak, and now they're headed to London to face the Bengals. What's your score prediction for Sunday's game?
AR: I'm calling a Redskins victory, 25-22. It'll be close as Cincinnati has a good team with a very good offense. I think the Redskins offense is too much for the Bengals’ defense, though. The Redskins’ offensive line has been one of the best in the league, especially lately, and I expect the run game to be clicking against a pretty poor rushing defense. Whenever the Redskins can run, they're killer. The reason is because their passing game is always pretty good, but it's great when the run game is working. The offensive weapons for the Redskins are too numerous and too talented. Reed, DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon, Jamison Crowder, Vernon Davis, Thompson — it's a super tough bunch to slow down. Cousins has really been playing well the past couple of weeks and looks like he's finally settled down from early in the season.
Another thing that doesn't get talked about that I think could really be the difference in a matchup of two similarly good teams: special teams. The Redskins are dynamite here. They have arguably the top kicker in the league this year and their punter was robbed from the Pro Bowl last season. They also have the top punt returner in the league in Crowder and a few of the top kick returners. Their coverage units haven't been perfect, but they've been very good.
Thanks again to Alex for his time! Be sure to check out Hogs Haven’s coverage of the upcoming game.