Even with Kirk Cousins putting up franchise-record numbers through the air, the Washington Redskins won't be able to just pass their way to the playoffs.
The offense has carried Washington much of the season but is in danger of getting bottled up if it's as one-dimensional Saturday at the Chicago Bears as it was in a deflating loss to the Carolina Panthers. With postseason hopes hanging in the balance after losing three of four, coach Jay Gruden knows it's crucial to get the running game going and not resorting to a pass-early, pass-often offense.
''Sometimes we need to force the issue,'' Gruden said. ''We have got to target the runs better. We have got to do a better job of getting (starter Robert Kelley) going because it takes pressure off the quarterback. The line enjoys it - blocking run game, I believe - and it opens up a lot of our passes.''
Cousins had his worst game since the season opener Monday night against Carolina, turning the ball over twice and putting up a QB rating of 77.9. It's no coincidence that, like the opener, the run-pass ratio was drastic: 50 drop-backs to 11 carries for Kelley and third-down back Chris Thompson.
The Redskins averaged a season-worst 2.2 yards a carry in the loss to the Panthers and players expressed frustration over the lack of balance.
''When you only get 11 attempts it's kind of tough to get a rhythm,'' left tackle Trent Williams said. ''Down basically the whole game (we were) not in a position to run the ball. They did a good job when we did run the ball.''
Going into the Panthers game, the Redskins had the fewest three-and-outs in the league with 15. They went three-and-out before punting four times and had an interception and a fumble to compound the offensive ineptitude.
Receivers DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon and Jamison Crowder and even banged-up tight end Jordan Reed are excellent targets in the passing game, but it's harder for Cousins to find them if defenses don't have to respect Kelley and the run.
''When we're hitting on all cylinders, it's because of our running game and our play-action,'' Gruden said. ''It's not because we're dropping back, straight drop-back, and throwing seven-step drops and five-step drops down the field all the time. It's because we have a good running game, our bootlegs are off of them, and our core play-actions are very, very good.
''So when we become one-dimensional, it's true drop-back, and that's not the way we're built. That's not the way many teams are built.''
Bears quarterback Matt Barkley knows that feeling all too well. He said he has been in situations before where it seemed like every down was a passing down - and the defense knew it.
''Having an equal influence of the run and pass, it puts the defense at odds at how to approach you,'' Barkley said. ''So, when the game becomes one directional it often is hard especially as a quarterback knowing that they are expecting pass and you have to be careful with the ball, protect it at times.''
Cousins had been better at protecting the ball until the past three games, when he threw three interceptions and lost a fumble at his own 1-yard line. He and the Reskins have had most of their success with a balanced attack: Washington has averaged 18 rushing attempts in losses and 27 in victories this season.
One positive development is Kelley's increased role in the passing game with four catches for 47 yards against Carolina. At the very least it keeps Cousins from empty-backfield sets where the defense can blitz him knowing he's looking for Jackson, Garcon, Crowder, Reed or Vernon Davis.
''I think you want to be honest,'' Cousins said. ''You want to have balance and you've got to mix it up.''
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