At 4-5, the Redskins have already matched last season’s win total. They’re also in the thick of the NFC East race, sitting just a half game behind the Giants.
Indeed, tangible progress is being made in Jay Gruden’s second season.
But to continue making progress (and potentially challenge for a playoff berth), Kirk Cousins and Co. must take the next step over the final seven weeks. And that next step is winning on the road—something they’ve done exactly once under Gruden.
Their next opportunity to reverse the troublesome trend comes Sunday at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, where MVP candidate Cam Newton and undefeated Carolina (9-0) will be waiting. Sure, it’s the toughest of the Redskins’ remaining four away games. But veteran leaders like Terrance Knighton are conceding nothing to the Panthers or to Newton.
“We have a good game plan to go out there and stop him,” Knighton told me. “We just have to put it to work.”
For more on the threat posed by Newton, click here for a story I wrote Thursday. For all of your pregame and postgame coverage, tune into CSN Mid-Atlantic on Sunday. Redskins Kickoff begins at noon and Redskins Postgame Live starts at 4.
Here are my five storylines/matchups to monitor:
1-Cousins’ challenge in recent weeks has been to show some consistency. And with two NFC Offensive Player of the Week honors in three games, he’s started to do just that. Now, he’s got a new challenge: beating an opponent with a winning record. The Redskins’ wins (vs. the Rams, Eagles, Buccaneers and Saints) have come against teams that are .500 or below and sport a combined record of 16-21. Meanwhile, four of Cousins’ statistical showings have come against teams that are .500 or better (the Giants, Falcons, Jets and Patriots). Eventually, that will have to change.
2-One of the big story lines at Redskins Park this week has been the increasing intensity at practice. Last week, Gruden pitted starters against starters and, according to several players, it carried over to the win against the Saints. By most accounts, there’s been no drop off in the intensity and focus this week. In fact, Gruden acknowledged that there were a couple of “little skirmishes” during Wednesday’s session. “The intensity level is rising,” he added. “You can see it—the confidence, the intensity, all that— which is good. We’ve got to keep that up. There is no time for us to become stagnant in our approach or become lackadaisical when we go out to practice.” Good teams prepare hard. The Redskins are finally starting to understand that.
3-There’s been a lot of focus this week on Newton. But there are two other Panthers that will have the Redskins’ full attention on Sunday: cornerback Josh Norman and tight end Greg Olsen. Norman is ProFootballFocus.com’s top-rated cornerback this season for a couple of reasons. He's been outstanding in coverage and he’s also intercepted four passes, returning two of them for touchdowns. “You definitely need to be aware of great players like that,” said Cousins, who worked out with Norman prior to the 2012 draft. “Understand where they are. …He’s very physical, has good size and has the mentality of a corner, which is confidence and swagger and the ability to be out there on an island and never question or doubt himself.” Carolina’s defense is tied for first in the NFL in both passing yards allowed per attempt (6.0) and interceptions (14).
4-As for Olsen, the 6 foot 5, 253-pound ninth-year veteran ranks third among tight ends in receiving yards (664), fifth in touchdowns (five, one behind Jordan Reed) and eighth in yards per reception (14.8). “We dealt with it with Rob Gronkowski, and did a fairly decent job,” Gruden said. “But [Olsen], he can line up all over the field and he runs good routes and is a big target. It looks like he’s covered a lot of times, but you put it in a window where he snatches it and uses his big frame and body. And Cam has a lot of trust in him.” Olsen is Newton’s favorite target, no doubt. And if the Redskins are going to have any chance Sunday, they’ll need to stop one of them. “He has to be hit. He has to be knocked,” defensive coordinator Joe Barry said of Olsen. “When he’s able to run free-release vertical routes, which is what he does, he’s tore up everyone that they’ve played against.”
5-The Redskins don’t have many significant injury concerns. The two players to keep on eye on are linebacker Keenan Robinson, who’s been battling a shoulder injury and sat out against the Saints, and backup safety/special teams ace Trenton Robinson (hamstring). Later Friday, Gruden will rule each injured player as probable, questionable, doubtful or out. So check back with CSNMidatlantic.com later for the latest.