Redskins still must prove themselves on the road

The Redskins have shown improvement, but it's probably too soon to consider them a contender, even in the NFC East. AP Photo/Alex Brandon

ASHBURN, Va. -- Five questions facing the Washington Redskins as they prepare for the Carolina Panthers:

Can they just use short passes vs. Carolina?

That’s a tough way to live every week. No passing attack can be sustained with just underneath throws and check-downs; New England and New Orleans gave those to Washington and in one game the Redskins flourished. There were a couple missed chances on intermediate throws last week. Opposing quarterbacks have tried to hurt Carolina downfield. But consider this: The average air yards per attempt vs. Carolina is 19th in the NFL; but the average yards per attempt is second. So teams try to throw downfield, but have not been successful. The key for Washington is getting the ball in the hands of playmakers, and they have a few in the pass game. Carolina’s defense, though, is 10 times more disciplined than New Orleans. Be patient; don’t turn it over.

Was Sunday the start of something?

Perhaps, but it’s more about the continual building toward something. The Redskins have had a much better approach this season compared to 2014. That doesn’t mean they will suddenly win out or even finish with a winning record. It does mean that they’re improved over last season. New Orleans is not a good team, especially defensively, so it’s hard to point to that win as a defining moment -- except from the standpoint that it was the best overall game they have played in a long time. And it has provided an extra jolt of confidence to a team that never stopped believing in itself. Of course, for others to believe in them they must win on the road. A win Sunday could catapult them to legitimate NFC East contenders. Yes, I know their record suggests they are now, but they need to win away from home to reach a different level.

Last week was great, but was that just a mirage by the offense?

Maybe. We all know New Orleans has a bad defense, so you factor that into the evaluation. But the Redskins’ offense, which had not been great, did things against them that others had not -- only Philadelphia had gained more yards and only the Giants scored more points. So to dismiss it would be wrong. That’s clearly not to say the Redskins will duplicate that effort against Carolina, which has a terrific defense (10th in yards allowed; sixth in points). The Panthers will pose plenty of problems; they’re excellent on third downs and in the red zone. But four teams have averaged at least 4.5 yards per carry in games against them (not that it’s mattered). If the Redskins can be like those four teams, they have a shot to spring the upset.

Has Kirk Cousins turned a corner?

He has continued to develop, no doubt. But he, too, still has plenty to prove. He needs to show he can be accurate downfield consistently and that he can lead a team on the road. He’s done a much better job lately of not forcing many passes and making smart decisions in the red zone. Cousins is handling the position well, serving as a distributor more so than as a gunslinger. The Redskins want him to be a distributor. Yes, it would be great to see him carve up a good defense (two of his past three games have been against two of the NFL’s worst pass defenses when it comes to opposing passer rating -- the Saints and Tampa Bay). Still, the same could be said for many quarterbacks. Cousins has started to show the consistency Washington wants; the Patriots’ loss was not on him. You can’t go overboard with what he’s doing, but you also can’t say he hasn’t improved. We learn something about him every week, and Sunday will be no different.

Has the defense shed its troubles?

That’s a tough one. They played much better, though they still allowed two huge plays because of a missed tackle and blown assignment. I liked the addition of Will Compton to the starting lineup and the defensive line played well. The challenge this week will be staying disciplined: The Panthers will use zone-read action and counters. Panthers quarterback Cam Newton extends plays and is difficult to tackle. The Panthers are third in points per game, but only 22nd in yards per play. So they are capable of long drives. It helps that the Redskinis' defense might be as healthy as it has been all season. The other question is: Who starts at inside linebacker? Compton earned one job, coach Jay Gruden said Monday. That leaves Keenan Robinson or Perry Riley Jr. Though Riley has struggled, so, too, has Robinson and the coaches like how the former attacks the line against the run. A lot depends on Robinson’s health (shoulder/neck issues), but it’s not a lock that he’ll return to the starting lineup.