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Kirk Cousins' growth one reason Redskins' offense flourishes minus key starters

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ASHBURN, Va. -- Washington Redskins guard Spencer Long attempted to deliver an answer as to why they remain productive for short periods despite losing big-time talent -- Jordan Reed for a couple games; Trent Williams; DeSean Jackson. And Long fell back on clichés about players working hard and for each other.

But other teams do that, too. And they suffer a fall-off. Long then abbreviated his answer.

"The obvious answer is our depth," he said, "and going to guys who [haven’t been] starters but are very good players."

Yes, in attempting to explain why the Redskins' offense has been productive despite losing key players for short stretches, depth is one of the reasons. They might be tested again Sunday against Arizona depending on what happens with Reed, who is day-to-day with a grade 3 separation of the AC joint in his left shoulder.

They are 2-1 without Williams, their four-time Pro Bowl left tackle, who is suspended one more game because of the NFL’s drug policy. They went 1-1 without Reed this season when he had a concussion, still gaining a combined 906 yards. They went 1-0 minus Jackson, scoring 26 points against Minnesota -- the highest point total the Vikings have allowed this season.

"Regardless of who’s out there, we feel comfortable and confident," Jackson said.

Depth

Yes, it starts with what Long mentioned. The Redskins signed Vernon Davis last offseason because of his blocking, but also because they were stung the previous season with so many tight end injuries. That left them unable to hurt teams using multiple tight end sets. But Davis has shown he can still play, not only blocking well, but also catching the ball -- he has 31 receptions. During Reed’s two-game absence this season, Davis caught a combined eight passes for 129 yards and a touchdown.

When the Redskins lost Williams, veteran Ty Nsekhe stepped in and has been effective. Though he’s not at the same talent level, Nsekhe offers size and strength, and that’s been good enough to win most of his battles. The Redskins haven’t had to alter a lot of what they typically do offensively because of Nsekhe. Credit the front office for finding players and the coaches for developing them.

"Yeah it’s Trent Williams and Jordan Reed, but we also have guys who can bring their own type of games and fit well inside our scheme," said running back Rob Kelley, another former backup turned productive starter. "We have backups here that can go someplace and be a starter."

And when starting center Kory Lichtensteiger was hurt after three games, the Redskins opted for former guard Long, a third-round pick in 2014.

"He’s handled it like he’s a 10-year guy," Redskins coach Jay Gruden said this month. "He’s going to be one of the top centers in the league for a long time."

Experience

The Redskins are in their third season of Gruden's offense. Of their 11 full-time starters -- when everyone is healthy or not suspended -- eight also are in their third season. Of their key offensive players, only two are newcomers: Davis and Kelley.

That experience especially pays off at quarterback with Kirk Cousins. His knowledge of the offense enables him to go through progressions quicker, avoiding negative situations. It helps with protections and audibles, allowing him to check out of plays he knows are bad.

The third-and-10 pass to Jamison Crowder against Cincinnati on a game-tying field goal drive late in the game last month occurred because Cousins changed the protection, delivered a hand signal to Crowder and made a perfect pass under pressure. One reason he's on pace to throw for 5,149 yards and 29 touchdowns is the comfort level in this offense.

"Much like any other job," Cousins said, "as you perform it longer in the same role, you’re going to get more comfortable and say, 'OK, I’ve been here, I’ve done this, I can do this.'"

That experience extends to the coaching staff as offensive coordinator Sean McVay is in his third season. Quarterbacks coach Matt Cavanaugh and line coach Bill Callahan are in their second seasons. Callahan consistently works his group for 15-20 minutes after practice; it shouldn’t be a surprise that when one goes down another is ready.

Talent

Obviously this matters quite a bit. The Redskins have one of the stronger receiving groups in the NFL with Jackson, Pierre Garcon and Crowder. But with Reed the Redskins also have one of the more dangerous tight end targets in the NFL. So when one player is lost, the Redskins have enough talent to compensate.

Maybe they can’t attack down field the same way without Jackson, but they do have other talent who can provide big plays. With Jackson out against Minnesota, Davis caught a 38-yard touchdown pass. Garcon caught six passes for 81 yards.

Davis is a different threat than Reed because of his speed and can get open on deep routes depending on the matchup -- it's why he averages 14.5 yards per catch. But it adds to the versatility, enabling Washington to still attack in certain ways if one of its top players is missing.

The Redskins don't want to find out what might happen if they lose a top player for an extended time. But in the short term? They've learned one thing: They can continue to flourish.