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Kirk's next challenge: Starting a winning streak

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Kirk's next challenge: Starting a winning streak

Coming off their biggest win of the season, the Redskins (2-2) will now face their biggest challenge thus far in 2015: Julio Jones and the Falcons (4-0) at the Georgia Dome.

Washington’s defense ranks among the league’s best in several key metrics, but can the unit thwart a Jones-fueled Atlanta offense that’s producing 34.3 points per game? Can Kirk Cousins build on last week’s game-winning drive against the Eagles? With a quarter of the season completed, the Redskins have indeed shown signs of improvement. On Sunday, we’ll get a better feel for just how much improvement they’ve made.

Before the game, be sure to tune into Redskins Kickoff on CSN Mid-Atlantic at noon. We’ve got you covered after the game, as well; Redskins Postgame Live begins at 4.

Here are Tarik’s five areas to monitor:  

1-Jones is the best offensive player the Redskins have faced thus far—and they know it. The 26-year-old wide receiver leads the NFL in receptions (38), is tied for the lead in yards (478) and ranks second in touchdowns (4). But what should really worry Washington's banged up secondary is Jones’ ability to make plays after he’s already caught the ball. Only the Raiders’ Amari Cooper has more yards after the catch (among wide receivers) than Jones. For more on the Falcons’ 6-foot-3, 220-pound Pro Bowler, click here to read a story I wrote about him yesterday.

2-Cousins’ 15-play, 90-yard game-winning touchdown drive last Sunday was tangible proof of the strides he's made. But what differentiates quality NFL starters from the others is the ability to perform at a high level week in and week out. Through four games, Cousins has had one okay performance (Dolphins), one good performance (Rams), one poor performance (Giants) and one adequate performance capped by a clutch drive (Eagles). It’s time for Cousins, who has never won back-to-back starts, to string together a couple of solid efforts—and he should get the opportunity to do just that against a Falcons’ defense that’s 27th overall in yards allowed and 16th in points yielded (23.3).   

RELATED Redskins are lost away from home

3-Chris Thompson is another Redskin who could find some success against the Falcons’ defense. This season, pass-catching running backs have thrived against Atlanta. In fact, Lance Dunbar racked up 100 yards receiving, while Shane Vereen and Darren Sproles each had 76. And with Jordan Reed and DeSean Jackson ailing, Thompson could find himself with an expanded role in the passing game.

4-Which brings us to the Redskins’ health situation. Although the official injury report won’t be announced until later Friday, it would probably be a good idea to brace yourself for some bad news. Reed, who is still battling concussion symptoms, is not expected to play. Veteran cornerback DeAngelo Hall (toe) is in the early stages of rehab and appears unlikely to suit up, either. The question marks seem to be No. 1 corner Chris Culliver (knee) and Jackson (hamstring). Coach Jay Gruden will designate each injured player as out, doubtful, questionable or probable when he meets with reporters around 1 p.m.     

5-Penalties didn’t end up costing the Redskins in last week’s 23-20 victory. But they almost did. In all, Washington was flagged 10 times for 110 yards and has now taken more penalties than all but four teams. That’s not sustainable for a banged-up .500 team. The biggest problem has been offensive holding. The Redskins have been flagged 11 times (three were declined) for holding, five times for unnecessary roughness and four times for offensive pass interference. All three of those infractions can be corrected by honing the players’ technique in practice. Either way, the Redskins (particularly on offense) must crack down on the flags. This team simply doesn't have a big enough margin for error. For more on Washington’s problem with penalties, click here for more on the subject and what Gruden said about it earlier this week.   

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Need to Know: Tandler's Take—The best- and worst-case scenarios for the 2018 Redskins

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Need to Know: Tandler's Take—The best- and worst-case scenarios for the 2018 Redskins

Here is what you need to know on this Sunday, May 20, two days before the Washington Redskins start OTAs.  

Best- and worst-case scenarios for the 2018 Redskins

Last week I took a stab at figuring out what the best-case and worst-case scenarios were for the key players on offense and defense. While individual stats are fun to track, it’s what the team does that really matters. What range of outcomes is realistic for the 2018 Redskins? While anything is possible, here are my thoughts on the best they are likely to be able to do and the worst. 

In both cases, I am assuming that the Redskins have reasonably good fortune when it comes to injuries and that the good and bad bounces of the ball equal out over the course of the season. 

Worst case: 6-10, last in NFC East

This is based mostly on Alex Smith having a tough time adjusting to Jay Gruden’s offense, his new teammates, and the NFC. Thinking he could struggle is not just negative thinking, there is history to back it up. 

Smith was traded from the 49ers to the Chiefs in 2013. In his first nine games, he completed just 59.7 percent of his passes with nine touchdowns and four interceptions He had an adjusted net yards per attempt of 5.23. Had he finished the season there he would have ranked 28th in the NFL. His passer rating was 81.4, which would have ranked 25th. It’s safe to say he was off to a very slow start. 

But the Chiefs went 8-1 in those nine games. It is doubtful that the Redskins could survive such a slow start. In the past three seasons, with Kirk Cousins at quarterback, they were 4-17 in games where Cousins’ passer rating was under 90. If you drop the ceiling to 81, the record drops to 0-14. 

Kansas City managed to start 9-0 in 2013 because of a running game that produced at least 100 yards rushing every game and a defense that got at least one takeaway every game and got three or more turnovers in a game five times. 

Could the Redskins duplicate that and survive a slow start by Smith? It’s possible, but this is the worst-case scenario. And there is no guarantee that the Redskins will significantly improve a running attack that was 27thin the league last year or a rushing defense that was dead last. 

Offensively, the hope is that Derrius Guice will improve the running game. But rookies are, well rookies. And being a high draft pick is no guarantee of success. In the past three drafts, 20 running backers were drafted in the first three rounds. Of those players, four rushed for 750 yards or more as rookies. Maybe Guice will be one of the productive players but the odds are not in his favor. This isn’t saying he will be a bust; however, he may not have instant impact. 

One other note about the rushing game. It’s important to remember that both tackles are coming off of surgery, the right guard was injured last year, the center has all of six starts under his belt, and left guard remains up in the air. Maybe everything will hum when the season starts but that seems like a tall order. 

Improvement in the stopping the run also relies at least in part on rookies. Daron Payne will have an adjustment period as will Tim Settle. The inside linebacker spot should be stronger but it’s hard to say that it will be a strength. The rushing defense probably won’t be last again, but it may not climb out of the twenties in the rankings. 

The Redskins haven’t been awful at getting takeaways, but they have not done it at a consistently game-changing level. They have three or more takeaways in a game five times in their last 30 games. I don’t see any reason to think that this will change dramatically. 

To put the 6-10 worst-case scenario onto the schedule, the Redskins could go 2-4 in the division with splits against the Cowboys and Giants and getting swept by the Eagles. Against the NFC South, which had three teams with 10 wins or more last year, they might be 1-3. That leaves a split with the AFC South (two of the final eight teams in the playoffs last year) and of their two other NFC games for a 6-10 record. 

Best-case scenario: 10-6, Wild card, win a playoff game

This scenario doesn’t require a whole lot of explanation beyond flipping the elements of the worst case into more positive outcomes. 

Smith could pick up where he left off last year when he completed 67.5 percent of his passes and was third in the league with 7.2 adjusted net yards per attempt. Maybe the yards per attempt will drop some as he tries to find a consistent deep target.

A healthy Jordan Reed would help Smith out tremendously. If Reed can participate in most of training camp, the two could hit the ground running. Smith’s ability to connect with Josh Doctson on some 50-50 balls also will be important. 

As for the running game, Guice could break out early behind a line that gels quickly. It’s not out of the question for him to gain 1,000 yards (that’s just about 65 yards per game), maybe a little more. A healthy Chris Thompson could kick in over 1,000 yards from scrimmage. 

Jonathan Allen and Matt Ioannidis could pick up right where they left off last year before Allen was lost for the season with a foot injury and Ioannidis missed two games with a broken hand and was hampered by the injury for a few weeks after that. That would let Payne and Settle, well, settle into the pro game. 

The Redskins also would need at least to maintain the solid pass defense they had last year. And they would benefit from fewer turnovers on offense (27 last year, 26thin the NFL) and by adding a few takeaways to the 23 they got in 2017.

So how could they pull this off? The would need to go 4-2 in the division, with a sweep of the Giants and splits against Philly and Dallas. They then would need 2-2 records against the NFC South and AFC South. That part of it is probably the toughest task. To get to 10 they would need to beat the Cardinals on the road in the season opener and then have a good day against Aaron Rodgers and get a win over the Packers. It’s not an easy road but if enough pieces fall into place it’s not out of the question. 

A 10-6 record should be good enough for a wild-card spot. If they get through their fairly tough schedule with double-digit wins, they should be good enough to go on the road and take out the three or four seed. 

Stay up to date on the Redskins. Rich Tandler covers the team 365 days a year. Like his Facebook page, Facebook.com/TandlerNBCSand follow him on Twitter  @TandlerNBCSand on Instagram @RichTandler

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Timeline  

Days until:

—Minicamp (6/12) 23
—Training camp starts (7/26) 68
—Preseason opener @ Patriots (8/9) 82

The Redskins last played a game 139 days ago. They will open the 2018 NFL season at the Cardinals in 113 days. 

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Need to Know: The Redskins week that was—Rookie camp report, Guice a fan favorite

Need to Know: The Redskins week that was—Rookie camp report, Guice a fan favorite

Here is what you need to know on this Saturday, May 19, three days before the Washington Redskins start OTAs.  

The Redskins week that was

A look at some of the most popular posts and hottest topics of the week on Real Redskins and NBC Sports Washington

Five key upcoming free agent decisions for the Redskins—Some may say it’s too early to talk about 2019 free agents but the key to Redskins keeping their own players has been to lock them up before they hit free agency. It will be interesting to see what unfolds between now and the start of the season regarding Preston Smith, Jamison Crowder, and a few others. 

Redskins 2017 draft picks who must step up this season—While the focus is on the newly acquired draft picks and free agents if the Redskins are going to improve this year some of the players already on the team will need to contribute more. The bulk of the members of that club are from the 2017 draft class. Who will this year’s versions for Kendall Fuller and Matt Ioannidis? 

A post-draft look at the possible Redskins defense three years from now—I was a little wary of posting a look three years down the road but after I wrote it I’m glad I did. And the posts did fairly well (you can find the post on the offense here) so that was a bonus. The best thing I found out while putting this together was the possible 2021 defensive; you can find it at the bottom of the post).

Redskins rookie camp practice report—The draft picks and other rookies get introduced to the NFL game, the rookies get introduced to the coaches, the media, and each other, and everybody (at least all of the draft picks) looks good. There are a few good takeaways to be had—Troy Apke’s makeup speed, Trey Quin’s ability to put a DB on the ground—the real action starts when they put the pads on down in Richmond. 

Tweet of the week

Perhaps I was late to the party. It looks like Guice already is a fan favorite and the hype train is starting to roll. He’s not anywhere near where RGIII was in 2012 but the dynamic is the same. 

It easy for everything to be great now. Guice is hustling and being a leader among the rookies and all is well. All of those red-hot draft day rumors about his character have vanished. The test will come if he fumbles at a key moment in a regular season game or if he has a three-week stretch where he averages 3.1 yards per carry. Then his upbeat personality might not play as well. Or it might not be as upbeat. And if he doesn’t take criticism well things could deteriorate further. 

This is not a prediction that things will not go well for Guice, just that the road could get bumpy. It often does for NFL rookies. 

Stay up to date on the Redskins. Rich Tandler covers the team 365 days a year. Like his Facebook page, Facebook.com/TandlerNBCSand follow him on Twitter  @TandlerNBCSand on Instagram @RichTandler

Timeline  

Former Redskins linebacker London Fletcher was born on this date in 1975.

Days until:

—Minicamp (6/12) 25
—Training camp starts (7/26) 69
—Preseason opener @ Patriots (8/9) 83

The Redskins last played a game 138 days ago. They will open the 2018 NFL season at the Cardinals in 114 days. 

In case you missed it