ARLINGTON, Texas -- The Washington Redskins used a formula that helped them take the division lead. Their formula isn’t working anymore. And it’s why their lead has disappeared.
They have a defense that once appeared capable of helping them win a division title. That’s no longer the case, not unless things change dramatically over the final five games.
They have an offense that lacks enough playmakers to overcome negative plays. And a running game that once combined with the defense to provide hope that no longer produces. Injuries have impacted the offense; the defense does not have that excuse.
It’s why the Redskins (6-5) have lost three of their past four games. It’s why they’re now in second place in the NFC East, owning the same record as the Dallas Cowboys but losing on the division-record tiebreaker. There’s enough time to turn a season around, of course. But the Redskins need to do a 180.
On Thanksgiving, Dallas exposed their issues, both in the secondary and on the ground. The Cowboys' Ezekiel Elliott became the first running back to top 100 rushing yards against the Redskins this season, finishing with 121. But Dallas continued a recent negative trend in running all over Washington. The Redskins allowed 3.84 yards per carry in their first seven games; they’ve allowed 4.8 per carry in the past four.
Washington's mistakes, though, also were plentiful in the secondary.
Take your pick of disasters defending receiver Amari Cooper. On a 40-yard touchdown run, corner Quinton Dunbar stumbled as Cooper cut inside. The damage could have been mitigated had a safety been in the middle. Nobody was home, however. Safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix was on the far right side, near the sidelines. Cooper sprinted untouched to the end zone.
“Anytime you catch a seam ball we should have people there to make a tackle and he outran our defense,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said. “I don’t know if we lost vision on him or what happened. Once we took the lead, got a little bit of the momentum, we lost it right away because they took it down and scored.”
That was just the setup for another Redskins gaffe and maybe the worst of the game. After all, it went for 90 yards. Once more, it involved Cooper, sloppy secondary play and a long score. On a pass over the middle from quarterback Dak Prescott, Cooper slipped away from corner Fabian Moreau at the 32-yard line. Clinton-Dix couldn’t clean up, and Cooper took off -- and, once more, scored with ease.
On offense, Colt McCoy failed to provide the lift Washington needed -- and hoped he could give. He tossed three interceptions -- or two fewer than injured Alex Smith threw in the 10 previous games. Sometimes it was a case of forcing a pass. Once, he was trying to be too perfect. McCoy called that interception, a ball he floated to receiver Trey Quinn in man coverage, his worst throw of the day. Another time, a lineman failed to cut block a defender to clear a lane on a slant. Regardless, they stung. McCoy did throw two touchdown passes; he did use his legs. Perhaps too there was some rust after not having started a game since Week 15 of 2014.
“I put our defense in some bad spots with turnovers,” McCoy said. “You just can’t turn the ball over in the division on the road and expect to come out on top.”
McCoy's play must improve for Washington to have a chance down the stretch.
But the Redskins also can’t hope to win with just his arm. Washington ran only twice on its first 11 plays on Thursday. Then again, Adrian Peterson and the Redskins’ run game have looked tired.
The line has been hit with injuries, which slowed the run game’s momentum. Still, Peterson has averaged just 3.05 yards per carry and gained a combined 171 yards in the past four games. Peterson averaged 4.62 yards per carry in the first seven weeks, with five games of at least 96 yards rushing.
The Redskins hurt themselves all day, including a false start on a third-and-1 at the Dallas 33-yard line in the third quarter. They ended up punting.
“We can't have self-inflicting wounds like that,” Peterson said. “We just gotta learn from those mistakes and move forward."
It has become clear that whatever was working for Washington early in the season now needs to be fixed. Otherwise, it'll be a struggle to the finish line.