After strong start, injuries could derail Redskins playoff hopes

Adrian Peterson has shown he's still got plenty of yards left in his legs. Brad Mills/USA TODAY Sports

The Washington Redskins finished the first half of the season with a 5-3 record. Here’s a look at how they have fared and what’s ahead:

First-half rewind: The Redskins lead the NFC East because they figured out that with a strong defense, running game and fewer turnovers, teams can control games and win. That’s been their formula. They have a top-five rusher in Adrian Peterson and a top-five defense, led by a line with three excellent young players in Matt Ioannidis, Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne. They've allowed linebackers and defensive backs to succeed behind them. Peterson has provided a jolt with his presence after signing in mid-August. The line, and design of the run game, have helped. The Redskins consistently win field-position battles because they don’t turn it over and because punter Tress Way has had a good season. Grade: Average

What has to happen for the Redskins to make the playoffs? Improved health. The outlook for Washington changed after Week 9 thanks to placing three starters on injured reserve. Their offensive line lost two starters in guards Brandon Scherff -- who was playing at a Pro Bowl level -- and Shawn Lauvao. Left tackle Trent Williams will miss another game -- or three. They need players such as receiver Jamison Crowder and running back Chris Thompson, who missed a combined seven games in the first half, to produce. The schedule includes only one team that currently has a winning record (Houston), so there's a chance to make noise. But with eight games left, there will be more injuries to other players and health will separate evenly-matched teams. They did well to finish the first half 5-3 and in first place; before Atlanta, they were solidky in the above-average category.

MVP: Washington's offense would have been lost if not for the arrival of Peterson. He rushed for 604 yards in the first seven games, topping 90 yards in each of the Redskins' victories. In their three losses, he gained a combined 43 yards. Everyone wonders if Peterson can maintain this pace and stay healthy at age 33, but he’s showed no signs of slowing down. He has played hurt, like most running backs in the NFL. But the big question moving forward: Can he be as effective behind a patchwork line? The Redskins will have to continue being creative with formations to put him in better spots. It will be tough. They play five more games against teams ranked in the top 12 in rushing yards allowed.

Biggest surprise: The play of the defense. There are still questions about them after failures vs. New Orleans and Atlanta. Still, it's a better group than in 2017. There was going to be natural improvement because they're healthier here, something they weren’t for most of last season. But they’ve exceeded expectations and have played well against the run. They held running backs Christian McCaffrey, Ezekiel Elliott and Saquon Barkley to a combined 91 yards in a three-week span. They rank fifth against the run, 10th in total yards and ninth in points. The line play has been excellent most of the season, and players on the back end, such as safety D.J. Swearinger, have come through as well. The defense isn't perfect; Atlanta and New Orleans had their way. But the foundation is sound.

Hurdle to overcome: The passing game, without a doubt. The makeshift line can be thrown in here, too. Quarterback Alex Smith has been ordinary at best. The Redskins have the No. 24 passing attack and the No. 22 offense in the red zone. Smith has stuck too long with some targets and been too impatient with others, costing them opportunities. Some of that is a natural byproduct of playing in a new offense and with a receivers group that has turned over because of injuries. The receivers haven’t always helped, with sloppy routes or inattention to detail. It adds up to a passing attack that, for the first time under coach Jay Gruden, produced three consecutive sub-200-yard games. Smith takes care of the ball and that’s been a major plus; he rarely puts the defense in a bad spot. He’s on pace to throw 18 touchdowns, six interceptions and for 3,734 yards. That’s a fairly typical season for him, and if the Redskins had stayed healthy, that might be enough to earn a playoff spot. But now, the Redskins will need more.