Kirk Cousins Runs One of the NFL’s Best Play-Action Offenses
- The MMQB’s Andy Benoit ranks every NFL team based on roster talent and gives 10 thoughts on each club throughout training camp. No. 21 Washington has one of the league’s best play-action offenses, but that doesn’t mean they’re great at running the ball. It all starts with the O-line, which is packed with quality tackles
1. It’s unfair to say Washington has bungled the Kirk Cousins situation, because they didn’t get here by accident. Owner Dan Snyder and the front office knew from the start that franchise-tagging Cousins twice could potentially leave him with all the power entering 2018. We say potentially because Cousins still must go out and play well this season. And there’s no guarantee he will. His performance was up-and-down both early and late in 2016. (Cousins was erratic for much of the first half of 2015, too.) Cousins doesn’t always play with great vision and discipline. In his case, that’s troubling because he doesn’t have the raw arm strength or athleticism to compensate. He can’t consistently conjure big plays on his own. What Cousins does have is an understanding of Jay Gruden’s system (which might be the best-crafted in all of football), as well as a willingness to make tough throws, including when defenders are bearing down. That’s enough to make Washington’s offense go. The tricky part is determining whether only Cousins can do these things or whether someone cheaper also could.
2. Any defense facing Washington must have a plan for multiple tight end sets. Jordan Reed, Vernon Davis and Niles Paul are athletic, movement-based players—not old-school pile drivers who can essentially run-block like undersized offensive tackles. Despite this, Washington still has an extremely effective three tight end running game (usually all three align on the same side). Gruden will rely on this late in close games. With Reed being the best route running tight end in football, and Davis having the ability to split out and beat defenders, those three tight end packages can also create aerial opportunities against less-athletic base defenses.
3. DeSean Jackson was sometimes a headache and Pierre Garçon turned out to be expensive (the 31-year-old got $17 million fully guaranteed from San Francisco in free agency), but both departed receivers could be missed. Last year’s first-round pick Josh Doctson and ascending ex-Brown Terrelle Pryor might be bigger and more talented than Jackson and Garçon, but how do their skill sets fit? Jackson’s speed and Garcon’s fortitude on in-breaking routes complemented each other well, which factored heavily into how Washington constructed its route combinations. Doctson and Pryor are different styled players.
4. Most teams are lucky if they have one quality offensive tackle. Washington has three: Trent Williams, who might be the best in the game; Morgan Moses, a high-cut-bodied pass protector who has gotten better as a run-blocker; and Ty Nsekhe, who flourished when filling in for a suspended Williams last season.
5. Right guard Brandon Scherff has become a more patient blocker. That’s made him better at working up to linebackers in the running game.
6. It’s a myth that you must run the ball well in order to execute play-action. Running the ball well helps, but it’s not mandatory. Last season, this offense ranked No. 21 in rushing and yet its play-action game was once again among the league’s very best. (According to Football Outsiders, Washington led the league with 10.4 yards per play-action pass play.) Successful play-action starts with cohesive offensive line movement. If you display that, the defense will react accordingly. Offensive line coach Bill Callahan is one of the best at creating cohesion up front.
7. Though last year’s defensive coordinator Joe Barry mixed his coverages from snap to snap, you get the sense that Washington ultimately wants to run a zone-based scheme. That’s what Greg Manusky, who replaced Barry this offseason, ran as the defensive coordinator in Indianapolis. To be a zone D, you need a much stronger pass rush than Washington had last season. Long-armed seventh-year pro Ryan Kerrigan was a threat, and utility backup Trent Murphy had more flash plays than usual, but it was never a threatening pass rush overall. That’s why a first-round pick was spent on Jonathan Allen and a second-rounder on Ryan Anderson.
8.Josh Norman is a superb corner. He’s as physical as they come, both in press coverage and run support. He has fantastic awareness against receivers at the top of their routes. The concern is his speed. Norman’s is not lacking, but there may not be quite enough for him to consistently survive on an island against No. 1 receivers. That’s partly why he’s better in zone than in man.
9. It might be October before defensive line coach Jim Tomsula figures out his rotation. He has a lot to choose from. The deciding factors could be free-agent pickups Stacy McGee and Terrell McClain. Both are power-based players who have teased some pass rush ability. Where and how Tomsula decides to use them will determine a lot.
10. Versatile safeties are all the rage these days, and Washington is swimming in them. Second-year pro Su’a Cravens can play in the box and cover backs and tight ends. Fourth-round rookie Montae Nicholson is a plus-athlete with intriguing measurables. Backup Deshazor Everett played well as a utility matchup piece late last season. DeAngelo Hall and Will Blackmon are former corners who, in theory, can match-up. And D.J. Swearinger, signed as a free safety after playing well enough in that role for Arizona last year, was a box safety early in his career.
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