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The lack of an overpowering passing game hasn't hurt the Redskins - but what if they had one?

The lack of an overpowering passing game hasn't hurt the Redskins - but what if they had one?

There is no deep dive required to figure out a significant statistical difference offensively between the Redskins and Falcons.

Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan leads the NFL with an average of 334 passing yards game. His Washington counterpart, Alex Smith, hasn’t thrown for 300 yards in a single game this season. He didn’t reach 200 during any part of the current three-game winning streak.

Another clear difference shows in the standings. The 3-4 Falcons need a win Sunday at FedEx Field to achieve a .500 record for the first time this season. At 5-2, NFC East-leading Washington sits 1 ½ games ahead of second place Philadelphia.

The lack of an overpowering passing attack hasn't harmed the Redskins yet. Imagine if they get one.

“The passing game has been up and down. It's been slow,” said running back Chris Thompson, one of the many offensive playmakers battling injuries. “We've been without our full group of receivers for a little bit of time. The running backs have been back and forth. ...It's going to get better.”

The reality is Washington won’t sniff Atlanta’s level in the air this season. Elite talents like Julio Jones don’t grow on trees. The physically gifted target is second in the NFL with 812 receiving yards on 53 receptions. Inexplicably, the 6-foot-3 Jones has yet to score a touchdown this season, though fantasy football owners are keenly aware his scoring numbers have declined yearly since 2015.

Jones’s lack of touchdowns represents the defensive challenge. With the Pro Bowler requiring a double-team, Atlanta’s other options are taking advantage of open space.

 First-round pick Calvin Ridley, a former teammate of numerous players on the Redskins roster from their collective time at the University of Alabama, leads the Falcons with six touchdowns. Mohamed Sanu, Atlanta’s free agent version of Paul Richardson, has touchdowns in three of the previous five games. Tight end Austin Hooper is second behind Jones with 33 receptions.

 Ryan, whose 2018 stat line includes 15 touchdowns pass with only two interceptions, possesses all the needed tools for a star quarterback. That includes weapons.

 “[Ryan] throws the ball and makes good throws, but his receivers are real good,” linebacker Zach Brown said of the secret to Ryan’s success. “Julio, Sanu, the Ridley kid. It's just hard to have corners to deal with that. They get open. They separate. They go up and get the ball. They understand the game.”

 Even without as much elite talent, the Redskins have the pieces for a ranking higher than 26th in passing (212.7 per game). Push past the injuries, and the talk centers on the lack of continuity halfway through Smith’s first season in Washington. The Falcons drafted Ryan in 2008 and added Jones three years later.

 “Alex has been in the league forever, but there is still a new system for him,” Thompson said. “I think with time he'll get more comfortable. He's in sync with everybody. Just have to find a way make plays. We look at the film and we see guys open, or we see routes we took too long on and Alex is sitting there waiting for us. We just have to find a way to do a better job. I believe if we just focus on our individual responsibilities it will get better and it will pick up.”

 Head coach Jay Gruden was quick to point out another reason Washington’s passing stats lag behind Atlanta’s.

 “We're focusing a little bit more on the running game. We probably have a lot more rushing attempts and more rushing yards than they do, so I like to compare that stat,” the coach said.

Deal, Coach: The Redskins rank eighth with 128 rushing yards per game while the Falcons are 30th at 83.3. That production on the ground is what’s kept the ball moving and the wins flowing, while removing any sense of panic.

"It helps for sure,” said Thompson, who sat out Wednesday’s practice with a lingering rib injury. “If we weren't [rushing] for 120 yards a game, [but] throwing for 180, then we would probably, I don't know, we could be 2-5. It's really been huge for us to have a good running game. With that, we've also been able to control the clock. Alex doesn't turn the ball over a lot. Because we've been able to do good in the run game, it's helped us.”

Now imagine how good these Redskins might be if they start establishing the passing game.

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The one word Scott Turner wants to use to describe his offense in 2020

The one word Scott Turner wants to use to describe his offense in 2020

Ron Rivera's first free agency class with the Redskins consisted of just over a dozen players, many of which share this one specific trait: versatility.

On the offensive side of the ball, Washington added running back J.D. McKissic, who can both run in between the tackles and catch passes out of the backfield. Additionally, the team added a pair of offensive lineman, Cornelius Lucas and Wes Schweitzer, who both have experience playing multiple positions along the line. 

The trend of adding versatile players continued in the draft. The Redskins invested a third-round pick in RB/WR hybrid Antonio Gibson and followed that selection with fourth-round pick Saahdiq Charles, who played both tackle spots at LSU. The Redskins used another Day 3 pick on Keith Ismael, who played all three interior offensive line spots at San Diego State.

Offensive coordinator Scott Turner was asked this week why the team emphasized versatility so much this offseason, and the 37-year-old's reply was simple.

"I think you want to be as unpredictable as possible," Turner told local media via Zoom this week. "You don’t want the defense to know what you’re going to do. I think you do that with balance and everything like that."

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While that sounds ideal, being unpredictable is hard to do. The offensive coordinator explained that keeping opposing defenses on their toes requires a lot more than just mixing up pass plays with rushing ones. 

"Balance is not just run and pass," he explained. "It’s getting all five – you have five eligible receivers on every play – getting all five of those guys. That to me is what true balance is, using all five of those guys in the run game or pass game. So, guys that are able to do different things, it gives you more options of how you can use them and more things that the defense has to defend."

Outside of wide receiver Terry McLaurin, plenty of Washington's offensive weapons remain unproven at the NFL level. However, there's still plenty of optimism in Redskins Park about the team's skill position depth.

The Redskins had a pair of rookie pass-catchers emerge towards the end of last season, Steven Sims and Kelvin Harmon, and having another season alongside Dwayne Haskins should only help them. At running back, Adrian Peterson keeps chugging along, and if Derrius Guice can stay healthy, he has the chance to make a huge impact, too. 

Washington's offseason additions of McKissic, Gibson, and fourth-round pick Antonio Gandy-Golden, who the offensive coordinator specifically praised, all give Turner plenty of flexibility to be creative with the unit.

"We have guys that we feel like can fit those molds as far as just creatively getting the ball, not just like running back and receiver and we’re going to give a lot of people a chance and see how it shakes out," Turner said.

Too often last season, Washington's offense was extremely predictable, especially once interim head coach Bill Callahan took over. Callahan insisted on running the ball early and often; the Redskins ran the ball 58% of the time on first down, the sixth-highest rate in the league, according to Sharp Football Stats.

Many of these runs were unsuccessful, leaving Washington in plenty of third-and-long situations. Those down-and-distance situations are immensely hard to convert, but even more difficult with a rookie quarterback, which the Redskins had with Haskins last season.

There's only room for improvement for the Redskins offense as Turner enters his first season as the team's offensive coordinator. The unit averaged just 16.6 points per game a season ago, which ranked dead last in the NFL. Washington averaged just 274 yards of total offense per contest in 2019, good for 31st in the league, with only the Jets trailing them.

This season marks the first true offensive coordinator gig that Turner has had; he was promoted to the role in Carolina last December, ironically after Rivera was fired. With the Panthers, Turner had the luxury of running back Christian McCaffrey -- arguably the most versatile offensive player in the NFL -- to his disposal, as well as guys who can play multiple roles like Curtis Samuel and D.J. Moore.

While the Redskins may not have a player like McCaffrey, the offensive coordinator has a plan for how he envisions Washington's offense to succeed in 2020, and it all starts with having players who can do multiple things.

"Versatility is so important because it’s uncertainty for the other side of the ball," Turner said.

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Two examples of why ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky believes Dwayne Haskins will excite Redskins fans

Two examples of why ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky believes Dwayne Haskins will excite Redskins fans

Scott Turner was asked about quarterback Dwayne Haskins' growth this offseason during a Zoom call with local media earlier this week, and the new Redskins offensive coordinator explained he was pleased with both Haskins' physical and mental progress.

Besides raving about the second-year quarterbacks imposing size and natural arm strength, Turner also dove into specific detail about one other thing that really stood out to him about Haskins: his ability to stand tall in the pocket and deliver a throw without much space.

Former NFL quarterback and ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky took to Twitter on Friday, tweeting out two video examples from Haskins' rookie season where the quarterback demonstrated the qualities Turner raved about.

The first example was a clip from the Redskins Week 11 contest against the Jets. The play went down in the scorebook as a 24-yard completion to Kelvin Harmon, but what the quarterback had to do in order to make this play successful was quite impressive.

For this play, Orlovsky explained how Haskins identified where the pressure was coming from pre-snap, causing him to shift the entire protection to the left. After the running back missed his block, Haskins didn't panic. The then-rookie QB stepped up in the pocket and fired a dart to Harmon on the in-route as the receiver broke open in the middle of the field.

"This is one of my favorite plays by him last year," Orlovsky explained. "It really is an example of the intellectual aspect of quarterback play with the feel aspect of quarterback play."

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The second clip was from Washington's clash in Green Bay last season. On this particular snap, Haskins showed his mastery of the Packers' defense.

Haskins' initial read was to the right side, where Harmon was running an inside post route. But once the quarterback saw his first read was covered, he continued to look right, forcing Packers' safety Darnell Savage to slide in that direction. The passer then immediately turned to his backside, which created an open throwing lane to find Terry McLaurin in the middle of the field.

"It really shows a complete understanding of what the defense is, what the coverage is, and then a complete understanding of who on the defense he needs to move with his eyes to open up a window," Orlovsky said.

It's fair to mention that the Redskins would not win either of these games and that the rookie passer had his struggles in each of these contests. It's no secret that Haskins had his growing pains as a rookie, and there were examples of such in each of these matchups, too.

But Haskins did finish the season playing the best football of his young career, giving some hope for the future. Count Orlovsky in on those who are optimistic about the quarterback as he enters his second season with the team and his first as the team's true starter.

"There are so many examples on his tape that show how smart he actually is," Orlovsky said. 

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