Kirk Cousins, jelling defense can help Redskins contend in NFC East

The Redskins can contend in the NFC East but will need some consistency from Josh Docston and the rest of their receivers. Rob Carr/Getty Images

The Washington Redskins won without playing a game, thanks to losses by NFC East rivals Dallas and the New York Giants. But, even though the Redskins are in second place, they’re only 2-2 and the season has a long way to go.

But it’s become evident that Philadelphia has a budding star at quarterback; the Giants are in for a long season, and the Cowboys are inconsistent. Somewhere in there sits the Redskins. They look improved, but if they want to stay in the race until the end, here are some things that must happen:

Continued solid play at quarterback: After a bad first game, and a second one in which he was quiet until the final drive, quarterback Kirk Cousins has played well. With Dak Prescott and Carson Wentz in the NFC East, the Redskins’ quarterback needs to keep pace. The Redskins don’t yet have a complete team around him to consistently offset subpar play. Cousins has been playing with a lot of confidence and poise -- helped by excellent protection. He’s making more plays with his legs and delivering the ball on target in crucial situations. They won’t have to rely on him to win every game (the defense also starred vs. Oakland; the run game powered the win over the Rams), but they can’t afford an inconsistent final 12 games. Two young quarterbacks are leading their primary competitors for the division title; Cousins needs to do the same.

One note: Of their final 12 games, seven will be against teams currently ranked between 21-32 in points allowed per game (the other five are in the top 13).

Run game success: The Redskins have seven games vs. teams currently ranked 22nd or worse in yards per carry allowed (only three vs. teams currently in the top 14; one of those, however, in Sunday’s opponent, San Francisco). Washington remains inconsistent on the ground, whether from supbar blocking at times (not just the line, but also the tight ends), injuries (Robert Kelley) or from inexperience (rookie back Samaje Perine). One thing to watch moving forward: more balance on first down. It’s great that Washington is intent on running the ball on first down, but through Week 4 the Redskins had run the ball 72 times on first down compared to 31 pass attempts. As the season unfolds, they’d be wise to show more run looks and hit play action (as on the Terrelle Pryor touchdown vs. Kansas City). That, in turn, will help the run game. They need to avoid the third-and-longs; against the Eagles they failed to convert, but against the Raiders they succeeded. Tough way to live.

Consistent downfield play from receivers: They don’t need to be Pro Bowlers, but they must be threats. The Redskins scored on touchdown passes of 52 and 44 yards in consecutive games with Josh Doctson and Pryor, respectively. DeSean Jackson was a big-time threat every time he was on the field because of his downfield speed; he impacted games with one play. Neither Pryor nor Doctson represents that same threat, but if you keep making plays down the field -- or at least get open there; remember, it’s not as if Jackson did this every game -- defenses must honor you. Or risk being beaten. But then it’s up to the wideouts to make plays that are available.

The Redskins also are in a luxurious spot because they have a tight end in Vernon Davis who can win downfield. They also have plenty who can hurt teams underneath. But to be the sort of offense they want to be, they need Pryor and/or Doctson to be consistent.

Defensive communication: It’s hurt the Redskins more than it should, but it’s also not surprising. They have a safety (D.J. Swearinger) who talks up a storm and a seasoned corner (Josh Norman) who knows the game well. That helps. But too often, especially on third downs or on off-schedule plays, the Redskins’ defense breaks down. Inevitably, at the end of a play, Swearinger can be seen talking to someone who failed to execute properly. This is one reason they can’t afford for Norman to miss a lot of time; he’s rarely in the wrong spot (he’s also very good).

Some of that stems from having, at times, as many as seven or eight players in their first year with Washington on the field at the same time. As the season unfolds, this should naturally happen less -- and they must get it corrected for when they face mobile quarterbacks. They face such a quarterback three straight from Weeks 7-9: Philadelphia’s Wentz, Dallas’ Prescott and Seattle’s Russell Wilson. The mobility of Wentz and Kansas City’s Alex Smith contributed to two losses -- in both games there were breakdowns in coverage when they scrambled. Some of that stemmed from communication issues, leading to an open target.

The defensive front has improved and the pass rush is more diverse. The back end must hold up in crucial spots, which is why Washington ranks 21st in third-down conversions thus far. With more time together, that must improve.