Coach Jay Gruden 'tickled to death' over Kirk Cousins' progress

"We're still coaching the heck out of him, but I like where he's going," Redskins coach Jay Gruden said about quarterback Kirk Cousins. AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast

ASHBURN, Va. -- The evolution of his game helped the Washington Redskins remain alive in the NFC East. Quarterback Kirk Cousins' efficient play has resulted in two game-winning drives, two other game-tying ones late in regulation, and numbers that some would not have predicted. He’s also had games that have fueled cynicism about his talents as a starter.

None of it matters anymore.

“Regardless of what I’ve done the first 13 games, they’re going to remember the last three,” Cousins said. “So there’s a lot of work to be done.”

Yes, there is, starting Sunday against the Buffalo Bills. The 6-7 Redskins remain tied for first place in the NFC East and could take another step toward a division title with a win. And a lot of their fate rests on Cousins and how he plays in the final three games.

To this point, the Redskins have been pleased and consider his overall play “solid.”

“We’re still in the evaluation process, but I’m tickled to death to see how much he’s progressed,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said. “You can see his confidence just slowly become more of a factor for him in a good way. He’s still learning, man. He’s still fighting through some things. We’re still coaching the heck out of him, but I like where he’s going. I like what he’s about, what he represents as a player and as a person. Well go from there.”

They’ve been pleased with how he’s cut down on interceptions, ranking 18th in the NFL in interception percentage per attempt at 2.4. Before this season, he threw a pick on 4.7 percent of his attempts. Over the last seven games he’s thrown 12 touchdowns to only three interceptions. In the first six games, he threw six touchdowns and eight interceptions.

But along with the decreased interceptions have come increased sack totals. He’s been sacked 14 times in the last five games and 16 in the last seven.

The sacks still haven’t been a problem overall this season: The Redskins rank seventh in the NFL in sacks per drop-back at 4.8 percent (they’re 29th at 8.6 percent since week 10). Last season they were 31st at 9.2 percent.

Like last year, Gruden said the sacks result from a multitude of errors, from line play to coverages to the quarterback. Sunday, the Bears sacked Cousins three times -- Gruden said his quarterback could have done a better job trying to escape on “one or two of them.”

“We try to really harp on the fact that we don’t want negative plays, but sometimes the only play is protecting the ball and taking a sack for a four- or five-yard loss as opposed to trying to force the ball or get rid of the ball and get stripped and fumbled. We’d like the sacks to be down.”

But the Redskins have recovered better after sacks this season, still scoring on 30 percent of those drives, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Last year, they scored on 11.8 percent of drives in which they had allowed a sack. They average 1.55 points on drives in which they've been sacked this season compared with .59 last year.

Still, Cousins said he looks back on sacks and asks himself what he could have done to avoid them.

“Even with the higher sack numbers there are still things I can be doing better to avoid turnovers, but also avoid those sacks as well,” Cousins said.

But the focus now is on winning the next three games and reaching the postseason. Cousins is right: He will be judged not only on the overall season, but on whether he can guide the Redskins to the playoffs. Even if it’s not all on him, it can certainly boost his value when he becomes a free agent after the season.

That’s not his concern. Nor is anything on his mind beyond Sunday.

“I have enough to focus on just with the Bills alone,” he said. “That helps me, but it’s exciting what’s in store. We just have to make the most of our opportunities.”