1. One day this past week, as reporters headed to the locker room, Kirk Cousins sat outside with a small binder of some sort, flipping through what looked like something game plan related. Perhaps it was a test; perhaps It was just him going over plays. Didn’t bother asking because, well, he’s a backup. But I noticed (as did a few others) that he was likely studying at a time when others were eating lunch or getting treatment. Cousins prepares well and, like Robert Griffin III, is a smart kid. So any errors he made Sunday probably weren’t from a lack of preparation. One reason he blossomed at Michigan State was his smarts. If he has to play he’ll be as prepared as anyone. That’s one reason I didn’t complain when the Redskins drafted him. With Robert Griffin III, a big hit is always a possibility. Best to have a (potentially) good backup. However, I do wonder what Rex Grossman would have done in this situation. The reason Grossman is on the roster should be for times like this, when it’s a tight game and you need someone who has been through every situation. Yes I know, Grossman makes his share of mistakes and then some. I like where Cousins could be in time, but is he there yet?
2. Here’s what I remember from Cousins early in training camp: He made a lot of forced throws and threw several interceptions. Eventually he adjusted and threw less and started looking better. But his first time out Sunday is about what we saw when he was first in camp. A big throw (the 77-yarder to a wide-open Santana Moss) and the two interceptions. Before the picks, I’ll just say I really liked how calm he stayed on the pass to Moss. Yeah he was wide, wide open but Cousins didn’t get overexcited on the throw and made a good throw. Now to the interceptions. On the first, Cousins said he should have thrown to running back Evan Royster instead. Considering Mike Shanahan said the same thing I won’t disagree. But what Cousins also did on this play is provide an easy read for corner Dunta Robinson by eyeing Davis the whole way. It was an easy read. On the second interception, Cousins showed a difference between he and Griffin. The reason Griffin didn’t throw many interceptions in college and Cousins did (30 in 45 games; that’s a lot; one evaluator likened him to Rex Grossman before the draft). On that last interception, receiver Joshua Morgan was wide open underneath, but he opted for a very tight window on the throw to Moss. Cousins admitted he was trying too hard to make a play. Some of that you have to write off to experience and the fact that he’s rarely placed in game-like situations, while running the Redskins’ offense, in practice. It’s the life of a backup. But some of it is just who Cousins is. The coaches told him he got away with some throws in the preseason against backup. He didn’t get away with them Sunday. Like Griffin, Cousins now has mistakes that he can – and must – learn from.
3. Mike Shanahan gambled on Billy Cundiff and, thus far, has lost. Period. I don’t want to hear about timing issues. Maybe it’s a bigger deal than anyone knows — I’m sure kickers know the importance — or maybe it’s just an excuse. I do know that other kickers overcome this and I also know that the timing seemed pretty good when Cundiff made his first four field goals. Since then he’s three for eight, including Sunday’s 31-yard miss. One of them was a 62-yarder so on legit field goals he’s three for seven. Doesn’t exactly look better, does it? Cundiff has had one good season in the NFL and he made the Pro Bowl. But he followed that by making 75.7 percent of his kicks the next season.
4. OK, you want more numbers on Cundiff? Of his last 49 field goal attempts, he’s made only 35. That’s a 71.4 percent success rate. That’s not a small sample size, either and it’s far below average. We’re past the point of talking about his kickoffs, too. Yeah they’re deep. But starting field position was not an issue last year. After Sunday’s loss, Shanahan was asked if he’d bring in kickers on Tuesday and he wouldn’t commit to the answer. Maybe he really doesn’t know, but you’re failing your team if you don’t (and my guess is if he wasn’t going to he would have said so; that’s just a guess). I understood their reluctance with Graham Gano, but Cundiff isn’t getting the job done. Also, Cundiff suggested after the loss that even if he had made that 31-yarder the Redskins would have been four points short. Bad way of thinking. Who knows how the game would have changed. Maybe the Falcons don’t attempt a 53-yard field goal with 4:42 left in the game had they been down six. Maybe the Redskins stop them. Maybe those three points did matter.
5. The defensive game plan was sound. I know, they gave up big plays late. But going into this game, would you have taken a 24-point effort from the defense, thinking the offense would put up 28? That’s not to absolve them because they did allow four plays of 13 yards or more in the fourth quarter after giving up only six such plays in the first three quarters. One was the 18-yard touchdown pass to Julio Jones, about which corner Josh Wilson blamed the safety help. The safety on that side? Reed Doughty. Here’s what Wilson said about the play. I think part of this stems from frustration over a few plays this season in which the safeties haven’t provided much help – DeJon Gomes vs. Atlanta, Madieu Williams against St. Louis and Tampa Bay – at times in the passing game. What Wilson also knows is that the corners have caught some heat and this play wasn’t all on him. He says none of it should be. As for Doughty, I’m not sure why he didn’t get over in time; there were other receivers on that side of the formation (three lined up to the left), but both were covered and there didn’t appear to be any reason why a quicker break couldn’t have been made. Doughty had already left by the time Wilson said anything.
6. They didn’t apply much pressure on Matt Ryan, which was bad and continues a trend. But this was all about playing coverage and stopping the run. Besides, last week Carolina sacked Ryan seven times and he still threw three touchdowns and an interception. Not saying you don’t want pressure – you always do and they didn’t make Ryan feel all that uncomfortable — but they had to cover first and foremost. They forced the Falcons to drive slowly down the field and did so by providing a lot of looks. They switched their safeties around early, using Doughty and Jordan Pugh on some early downs, then Williams and Gomes in passing situations. They didn’t just sit back in a cover-2, which they would never do, but they did rotate their looks. They moved Ryan Kerrigan around, much more than a week ago. They rushed three on a few occasions. They gave false looks – one play in the second half Williams and Gomes appeared to be in a cover-2, but after the snap Williams ran to deep middle and Gomes covered underneath. Another time when they had both safeties back, just outside the red zone, didn’t work out well either as Tony Gonzalez caught a 22-yarder to the 1-yard line, just in front of Williams and behind Hall. By the way, Gonzalez is still a heck of a weapon. He caught 13 passes (on 14 attempts). And he got yards after the catch.
7. The problem with the defense came on third down as they allowed nine of 17 to be converted. That’s how you let a team run 81 plays – 33 more than the Redskins. It didn’t help at all that the Redskins were only one of nine on third down, making them three of 20 in the last two games combined. This has been a season-long issue and if they don’t improve here, it’ll be tough to sustain consistent success. As Robert Griffin III matures, it’ll help the conversion rate. This was not his best game, injury notwithstanding. Back to the third-down chatter: The offense needed to help out the D more. If the idea is to keep an explosive offense off the field, they failed miserably. You can’t give the Falcons 81 plays and expect to hold them down. They have too much talent.
8. The one play I didn’t get was the 13-yard touchdown run by Michael Turner. Don’t know if it was just bad execution, but it was ugly. Williams rushed upfield to the right, but linebacker Chris Wilson stepped inside just before the snap and rushed that way, creating a large hole. End Kedric Golston rushed inside, too. And inside linebacker Perry Riley started toward the middle where Turner started to go before he cut back. There was no one in his way. Ugly.
9. The impact of Brian Orakpo could get worse the longer he’s out as teams learn more about his replacements. They now have two linebackers trying to fill one set of shoes and in the last two games not much has happened. Wilson is a one-dimensional player who made the roster because of his ability to rush the passer. Now he’s being asked to cover and that’s not even close to his strength. But the Redskins are stuck here. When Wilson is in the game you can’t just rush him every time. That would mean you’re dropping your best pass rusher, Kerrigan, too often. So if you want to rush four out of a base look, then Wilson has to cover. It’s not optimal. Rob Jackson hasn’t done much since the Bengals game.
10. Two young guys who always impress: Alfred Morris and Ryan Kerrigan. Morris finished with 115 yards on 18 carries (though only six yards on three runs after Griffin was hurt; his presence and the zone read handoffs creates openings for Morris). Morris received good blocking once more from the wideouts and tight end Logan Paulsen, among others. Just some nice lanes; on one run he probably gained 25 yards after the receivers’ blocks. Initially I thought he might have had another issue in protection but I’m not so sure after watching it. On the corner blitz sack, Morris ran a play fake up the middle, then saw Dunta Robinson coming off the edge. He tried to peel back, but in all honesty he had no chance. Kory Lichtensteiger allowed pressure up the middle on the play. Anyway, what I like about his runs is that he seems to get the most of the yards that are available. Meanwhile, I’ll save the last words for Kerrigan (or, at least, about him). Not much to say but he does a terrific job playing the pass in which he intercepted it for a touchdown. He recognized the read immediately based on how the tackle played him; he knew it was a screen and then he read the back. After that it was about timing and he’s shown from his first game as a rookie that he has good timing. The Redskins now have three defensive touchdowns. Of course, they’ve lost all three games in which they’ve scored, which is odd. And one thing you would have said the defense needed to do against Atlanta to have a chance to win is make some play like this. Kerrigan did it and it still didn’t matter. Part of it is because the Redskins still just aren’t good enough. This is a young team that always seems to find itself on the precipice — you never know if they’re going to go on a run or a slide. I see an improved roster, but I think it’s time to start seeing improved success on the field.