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DeSean Jackson, Kirk Cousins could have big game downfield for Redskins

Kirk Cousins and DeSean Jackson should have opportunities to stretch the vulnerable Saints pass defense. Eric Hartline/USA TODAY Sports

ASHBURN, Va. -- The Washington Redskins want to take shots down the field. They just haven’t been successful doing so for the first half of the season. That might change for two reasons Sunday: DeSean Jackson has looked better in practice; and the New Orleans Saints' defense has struggled against the deep ball. Or any pass for that matter.

Certainly, the Redskins welcome both developments. Regardless of who they’re playing, the Redskins want to attack more.

“We all have to be more aggressive, there’s no question about it,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said.

Last week against New England, Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins struggled to connect with Jackson. Cousins threw to him six times, completing three, for 15 yards. He attempted two downfield shots, one a deep ball down the left side and another an intermediate crossing pattern. Neither were completed.

The Patriots did a terrific job taking away the deep ball for most of the game with the depth of their drops by both the defensive backs and linebackers. But there were some deep throws available that Cousins did not take.

The Saints, though, have struggled against the pass. They rank last in the NFL, allowing 8.14 yards per pass attempt and receivers have accounted for 14 of the 24 touchdown passes against them. They’re also 30th in yards per catch by receivers at 14.89, according to ESPN Stats & Information, and they’ve allowed an NFL-worst 11 catches for 40 or more yards.

The point: New Orleans struggles against the pass.

But for the Redskins it starts with Cousins and Jackson connecting more. Jackson has missed quite a bit of time, from half the voluntary spring workouts (outside interests) to most of training camp (shoulder injury) and the regular season (hamstring). That, of course, has limited their work together. But they’ve now had a game back together and a couple weeks of practice.

“Both of them are building it back up,” Gruden said. “[Wednesday], You could see DeSean running faster and he’s building up his strength more. DeSean was frustrated after the game. But when you watch the tape you see DeSean is building his legs back up. And Kirk hadn’t really thrown him deep balls and let them fly.”

Last season, Cousins talked about how he needed to get used to throwing to Jackson. Coaches told him that even if Jackson looked covered, at times he must throw him the ball because of his ability to separate at the end of routes and track the ball.

“DeSean is a different guy to throw to,” Gruden said. “He’s got a different tempo and a different speed when the ball is in the air. That doesn’t come from practicing on Wednesday and Thursday and then playing on Sunday. So we’ve got to really continue to work those two to take some shots with them and Pierre [Garçon] and everybody else also down the field. But it’ll come.”

Cousins has struggled throwing downfield without Jackson. This season, Cousins has completed just 2 of 11 throws that traveled at least 30 yards in the air. Last year, he completed 6 of 15 such passes.

And he completed 4-of-5 such throws to Jackson in 2014, including two for touchdowns. (Last year, the Redskins’ other quarterbacks with Jackson on these throws: Colt McCoy was 3-of-4 with a touchdown; Robert Griffin III was 4-of-10 with an interception).

“We’re getting there,” Cousins said of his timing with Jackson. “Last year when I was first playing, I had very little experience with him. So, it's great to have all those reps banked from this past year. I'm excited to have him out there. It's just a matter of making the read, making the throw and enabling him to go make the plays."

With the run game struggling, the Redskins have not been able to use a lot of deep play-action on early downs as they wanted to do quite a bit this season. The result: Washington’s receivers have just one pass play for 40-plus yards, lowest in the NFL. Last season, the Redskins’ wideouts had an NFL-best 17 such plays -- five more than any other team. Jackson accounted for 13 of those plays.

There’s a reason why the Redskins averaged 6.24 yards per play with Jackson on the field last season -- and 4.39 without him. Cousins said it comes down to he and Jackson, who declined to comment, making sure they communicate during the week to speed their development.

“We’re getting it down. It doesn’t take forever,” Cousins said. “We’ll be ready to go. You practice, you go out there, you discuss routes after you have them and talk about what he saw in the coverage and what I saw and when I should be letting it go and where he wants the football thrown, all that. He looks really sharp, so I’m excited about it."