Redskins must solve run-game woes, face tough decision at tight end

ASHBURN, Va. -- The Washington Redskins’ offense retain a simple goal vs. Cincinnati on Sunday: Play better. After how they’ve looked through two preseason games, that shouldn’t be too difficult.

During the first two preseason games, the Redskins have gone three-and-out the four times they’ve been matched vs. the opposition’s No. 1 defense.

That’s why running back Chris Thompson said he wanted the offense to sustain a drive and “just not being three-and-out on our first possession.”

Offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh had a longer, but equally basic list for an offense that has managed three points vs. starters -- set up by a special-teams fumble recovery. Starting running back Rob Kelley has managed just 11 yards on 12 carries (six yards on six carries vs. starters).

“We want to be more efficient running the ball. We want to be more solid in protections. We want to be accurate throwing balls and guys getting open,” Cavanaugh said. “That’s a focus of ours every day we go out. You can always say, ‘Well, good thing it’s the preseason,’ because we haven’t been sharp for a couple of quarters until the second quarter of the last game, we kind of picked it up a little bit. But we need to go out and start fast.”

The third preseason game always serves as the main dress rehearsal for the season. The Redskins go through the week with a regular-season schedule in term of meetings and what they work on in practice. It’s identical to a regular week of preparation. The starters will play at least the first half and possibly one series in the second half. They will not play in the preseason finale four days later in Tampa.

They won’t know until before the game Sunday if tight end Jordan Reed or linebacker Junior Galette will play. Either way, they won’t play in the preseason finale, either -- even if it means entering the season with no game snaps.

Here’s what else to watch Sunday:

Running backs

Samaje Perine ran well vs. Green Bay’s backups in the second preseason game (nine carries, 45 yards). But the focus should be on how he looked more so than which group he faced. The previous week he struggled against Baltimore’s backups, so any improvement stemmed from his own comfort level as much as anything.

Perine ran with excellent vision, a couple times avoiding a defender while keeping his eyes focused on the open area. That allowed him to make another cut or to find the proper gap. He did not run with that sort of vision or maturity in the first preseason game.

“To see him bounce back was most impressive,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said.

Kelley’s issues stem as much from poor overall blocking as anything. And that should be troubling. During the preseason, the Redskins have lost too many blocks, leading to poor runs. Perine received much better blocking vs. the Packers than Kelley. However, it would be interesting to see how Perine handled similar blocking. To bump Kelley from the starting job, Perine will have to prove it against starters -- and show that he can handle protection duties, too.

Tight end battle

This might be the most intriguing position heading into the final week. The Redskins will have a tough time at this spot with five players fighting for four spots. Coach Jay Gruden raved about rookie Jeremy Sprinkle last week -- coaches usually don’t do that only to cut them a week or so later. Assuming Sprinkle makes the roster, it means the fourth and final spot would come down to Niles Paul and Derek Carrier. Both can play, and it wouldn’t be shocking to see Washington try to trade one of them, whether for, say, offensive line depth or a low draft pick. Both players would hold value to other teams. Paul provides a little more versatility because he can play fullback and also helps on special teams. Carrier is probably more of a receiving threat.

Chase Roullier

He’ll start at center with Spencer Long sidelined at least two weeks after knee surgery. If Long isn’t ready, then Roullier would have to start the Sept. 10 opener vs. the Philadelphia Eagles. Is the sixth-round pick ready? Cincinnati will offer enough looks to test Roullier with protection calls. It also helps that quarterback Kirk Cousins has developed in this area as well. But Roullier must show that he can handle the job if he has to start vs. one of the better lines in the NFL in the opener. Roullier has been consistent since arriving in the spring and did not look overwhelmed at all during camp. But he’s still making a big jump from Wyoming to the NFL. How he performs will let the Redskins know, perhaps, if they need to target a veteran backup guard/center just in case.

Still, they’re confident.

“You don’t ever like to thrust a guy into the fire, but we think he’s a mature guy and if he has to play, he’ll play,” Gruden said.

Inside linebacker

The starting tandem appears set: Mason Foster and Zach Brown. The big question with those players centered on the coaches' comfort level with Foster calling plays and with how quickly Brown picked up the defense. The coaches still like what Will Compton adds, especially as a backup/special-teamer. But that leaves Martrell Spaight, Zach Vigil and rookies Josh Harvey-Clemons and Nico Marley battling for possibly one spot. The coaches believed Spaight could challenge for a starting job before camp, but injuries keep sidetracking him.