ASHBURN, Virginia -- The pivotal drive against the New York Giants revealed an offense that could lead the Washington Redskins down the stretch. And it was the sort of balance coach Jay Gruden has sought: a running game buttressed by key passes.
It not only started with a commitment to the run, but, just as importantly, consistent success. That's been a big difference in the Redskins' rushing attack the past two weeks and could foreshadow what they try to do in the final five games.
Three of the next five games are against defenses ranked 24th or worse in yards per carry allowed: Dallas, the Los Angeles Chargers and Giants. The other two -- Arizona and Denver -- rank in the top six (with the Broncos at the top). But that's where the Redskins' defense enters: The Cardinals rank 23rd in points scored per game; Denver is 28th. And only one offense (Chargers) of the final five rank higher than 16th in yards or points scored.
The Redskins won't be playing dynamic offenses; three of the last five games are against teams ranked 24th or worse in points per game. And a fourth team, Thursday's opponent Dallas, has averaged 7.33 points the past three games -- played without star running back Ezekiel Elliott.
The Redskins will throw the ball. But they have a chance, finally, to also use the run game as a weapon -- especially if the defense cooperates. The 20-10 win against the Giants was an example: they were more conservative because New York's offense was struggling so much. So they fed running back Samaje Perine, who gained 100 yards on 24 carries.
"Yeah, that'd be ideal," Gruden said when asked if this is how he'd like the offense to be. "On the sideline, you just kind of feel how good your defense is playing and how tough of a time they were having moving the football. I think that has to play into how you're calling a game. You don't want to take too many risks, especially when we're playing a field-position battle and Samaje is getting going a little bit. You'd love that to be the plan; some plans might be different, depending on how our defense is playing."
The go-ahead touchdown drive against the Giants showed what they can do when staying balanced. On the first play, they ran Perine out of shotgun formation around left end for six yards. On their next first down, they set up the eventual touchdown pass by running a designed cutback to the middle -- with a three-tight-end look -- for 11 yards.
That run set up a touchdown pass to Josh Doctson. They used a play-fake, even on second-and-8 -- they had just run the ball on second-and-11 three plays earlier. But it was the same design as the 11-yard run, using three tight ends again. That provided Kirk Cousins 3.3 seconds to throw -- with zero pressure as the Giants' front played run.
It's now important to note: Dallas' defense ranks 28th in opponent passer rating against play-action passes. The Cowboys allow 8.92 yards per attempt off that action, which ranks 21st. Arizona and Denver also rank poorly in these areas -- 28th and 29th in yards per attempt, respectively, and 25th and 31st when it comes to passer rating.
That means more Perine, the rookie fourth-round pick. He struggled early in the season as he learned to run with the quarterback under center and follow pulling linemen. At times he was ahead of the pullers -- a huge no-no. Now, he's running more effectively out of both shotgun and with Cousins under center. The line, even banged up, has blocked well. In the past two weeks, Perine has rushed for more yards than any other back and he ranks 11th in gaining yards before contact. He's improved at yards after contact, though that remains an area where more work is needed.
Still, Redskins tackle Trent Williams said he's been impressed by Perine since the spring practices.
"The cuts he made, the time he spends in the backfield is not very long," Williams said. "When he gets to the line, he gets downhill. You hand that ball off to him 20 times a game, about carry 12 through 20 guys are turning it down. He's a tank. He's fast, he's quick, great feet, low center of gravity. It hurts when you hit him."
Indeed, on 12 carries from late in the third until Doctson's touchdown catch, Perine carried 12 times for 74 yards. Against New Orleans the previous week, Perine gained 40 of his 117 yards in the fourth quarter.
"He just continues to get better and better," Gruden said. "His vision has been good and his decisiveness has been outstanding."
That's what the Redskins need to see down the stretch if they want to stay in playoff contention let alone to finish strong.