Kirk Cousins improved in protection, but run game remains a puzzle

ASHBURN, Va. -- Pregame notes and analysis on the Washington Redskins as they face the New Orleans Saints:

    1. The Redskins say they've seen steady growth in quarterback Kirk Cousins, and they point to the sack total as evidence of his development. Cousins was good in the past at avoiding sacks -- he was sacked only eight times in 204 pass attempts last season. His teammates, Robert Griffin III and Colt McCoy, both held onto the ball a little longer and were therefore sacked more. Griffin was sacked 33 times in 214 attempts, while McCoy was sacked 17 times in 128 attempts.

  • In the past, Cousins felt like he had to unload the ball quickly because, unlike Griffin and McCoy, he was not going to hurt another team with his legs. But this season, coaches say he has improved here because of his knowledge of the offense and ability to move in the pocket better than in the past. Also, he has improved in terms of getting the line into the correct protection, which helps, too.

  • An area where Cousins must improve: being a little more aggressive downfield. It's a fine line, because he has forced throws in the past -- and has been criticized for it. But the Redskins need more big plays; they're not getting any the way the offense is going now. The Redskins have an NFL-low 23 plays for 20 or more yards this season -- the New Orleans Saints sit atop the list with 49 such plays. The Redskins' 18 pass plays for 20 or more yards ranks last as well. Having a healthier DeSean Jackson will help, as well as taking more shots.

  • Cousins said deep shots often are called, but the coverage has forced passes elsewhere. That's not always the case, though, as there have been opportunities missed. He said, "A shot called is not always a shot taken. You've got to be able to see it clearly. Every team is going to call their shots, and it's a matter of decision-making-wise on my part and then throwing the ball with accuracy to give the guy a chance to make the play. Sometimes some of our shot calls can end up being 4-yard completions to the tailback because it just wasn't there."

  • And there is that fine line for Cousins. He has thrown 93 passes without an interception, which is good. But in that time, the Redskins had one game where the offense scored 30 points and another in which they scored just 10. And the Redskins don't want Cousins to get in the habit of checking down and perhaps missing a deep shot later. "Quarterbacking is being able to be that good decision-maker and to not allow previous plays to affect your read in a way that would make you start to predetermine," Cousins said. "You have to read things out honestly and see the coverage for what it is, go through your read and through your progression every single time and be disciplined with it. When you do that, usually good things happen. You've just got to be smart. Where coverage tells me to go with the football, and then when I do make the decision to throw the ball, accuracy is just as important."

  • There have been a lot of questions this past week, and in recent weeks, about the lack of play time for fullback Darrel Young. It has been a little surprising that he hasn't played more given the lack of success in the run game. But coach Jay Gruden said earlier in the week that, "The fact of the matter is usually when we put DY in the game and we're playing against some of these teams in regular and some of those personnel groupings and they're stacking the box. We just haven't been doing a very good job with that personnel group -- not saying DY hasn't been, it's just that group in general. That's something we're going to explore these next coming weeks with that personnel group and hopefully we'll get better at the running game in those groups."

  • The numbers with Young in the game aren't good -- that's not blaming him, but following up on what Gruden said. When the Redskins use a two-back set, they average 2.26 yards per carry, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Alfred Morris has averaged 2.12 yards when running behind a fullback; Matt Jones has averaged 3.55 yards per run. And the Redskins average 3.88 yards per carry when using a three-receiver set. But with nothing that's working, Young has been a good blocker, so there could be more chances for him in the future.

  • A big point of emphasis entering the season: first-down success, especially on the ground. It's not happening. The Redskins rank 31st in yards per carry on first down at 3.31 -- that's a 10-spot drop from 2014. One coach bemoaned the lack of first-down success the other day, pointing to that as a key area to fix. But they remain committed to getting the run game going. Too much of their success stems from it, including the play-action pass -- an area in which they feel Cousins can excel.