Mixed results from the Redskins’ offense as consistency remains an issue

Terrelle Pryor signals a first down on a reception in the second quarter. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Sunday’s preseason game against the Cincinnati Bengals represented the Washington Redskins’ final dress rehearsal for the regular season. But based on the showing at FedEx Field, much work lies ahead for Washington’s players and coaches.

The Redskins won the game, 23-17, but two weeks away from the start of the season, they have more lingering questions and concerns than signs for optimism.

The offense produced mixed results after stumbling out of the gates once again and then finally displaying improvement in the rushing department. But the passing game remained disjointed. The defense also started slowly, yielding a 15-play, 87-yard drive that lasted nearly nine minutes on its first time on the field. But then came improvement.

Immediately following the game, Coach Jay Gruden said he addressed the need to end the slow starts.

“I’m a little concerned,” he said. “ … we’ve just got to figure something to do: eat a different pregame meal or something, change up the first 15 [plays]. We’ll get it right. I think the guys will come out with a little bit more energy, more urgency, hopefully, come Philadelphia. They have to. We can’t start like that in the NFL consistently and expect to win a lot of games.” 

The starters this week will turn their attention to preparing for Philly although one more preseason remains (Thursday in Tampa). But the following issues need resolving.

1. Consistency from the line and passing game

Washington opened the game with a penalty on its first third down — a play that Rob Kelley rushed for a first down, only to have it called back — and then gave up two sacks and an intentional grounding call on the next three third downs.

Things then went from bad to worse, with an interception by Kirk Cousins — which linebacker Vontaze Burfict returned 62 yards for a touchdown — killing the fourth offensive possession.

Some of Washington’s offensive struggles could be pinned on a still disjointed offensive line. After struggling in run-blocking the first two preseason games, pass protection proved problematic this week. But success on the ground midway through the second quarter finally shook Washington from the early haze and led to all-around improvement.

Rob Kelley jump-started the 10-play, 75-yard scoring drive in the second quarter with a 21-yard run on the first play. Kelley had a total of six carries for 40 yards on that scoring drive, including a one-yard touchdown. He finished the night with 10 carries for 57 yards — a drastic improvement on his average of 0.9 yards per carry in the first two preseason games.

Kelley remarked that Sunday felt like the opposite of last season when the passing attack set up the run. But that’s what Gruden wants. He’s said so repeatedly, and part of that has to do with fielding a less-proven receiving corps now that Pierre Garcon is in San Francisco and his fellow thousand-yard receiver DeSean Jackson is in Tampa Bay.

Team officials tried to downplay the challenge of replacing Garcon and Jackson as they opted to pair Jamison Crowder with Terrelle Pryor, a promising, yet still raw, second-year wideout, and an off-injured Josh Doctson. But as has been evident this preseason, replacing Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson may prove more challenging than expected.

Pryor boasts great physical tools and the work ethic necessary to further develop into a quality pro. But he hasn’t displayed the consistency that everyone had hoped for. Pryor catches 400 balls a day on the JUGS machine, but he has been anything but sure-handed, dropping three passes on four targets against Cincinnati. (Quaterback and receiver are still working on their connection, and Cousins took the blame for some of those incompletions Sunday.) Pryor, who has just two preseason catches, hasn’t yet shown what his go-to play is, and his coaches are still trying to figure out how to best use him.

Doctson, meanwhile, can’t help this team if he can’t get on the field. He missed yet another preseason game with what Gruden described as tightness in his hamstring and groin. The 2016 first-round pick hasn’t yet shown he has the toughness required to be an NFL weapon. Meanwhile, Ryan Grant has yet to show he can blossom as coaches predicted now that Garcon and Jackson are gone.

Cousins, who finished with 10 completions on 19 attempts for 109 yards, with one interception returned for a touchdown and a 47.9 passer rating, clearly feels most comfortable with Crowder, Jordan Reed and Vernon Davis right now. But he has to improve his trust in the others and those other targets have to prove themselves trustworthy.

2. The defense is a work in progress

Some of the unit’s same problems from 2016 remain despite an overhaul in talent. Washington yielded nine first downs to the Bengals’ first team and let them succeed on four of six third-down attempts. Two conversions for first downs came on third-and-long (third-and-13 saw a 17-yard pass completion, and third-and-11 resulted in a 14-yard pass).

“We’ve got to get off the field on third downs, period, but especially third-and-long,” inside linebacker Mason Foster, who had five tackles, said. And Foster and his teammates also know they need to do better against the run, just as was the case last year. The Bengals averaged 4.8 yards per rushing attempt.

However, as a whole, this defense does appear deeper and more athletic while displaying a potential for improvement over 2016.

There were some bright spots for the starters against Cincinnati: Pass-rushers Preston Smith and Ryan Kerrigan applied good pressure. Defensive lineman Stacy McGee stood out after a quiet start to the preseason.

Foster does appear to be the best choice at the “Mike” linebacker position because he’s stronger and more physical than Will Compton, and he makes more sideline-to-sideline plays. His new sidekick, Zach Brown, is one of the better free agent pickups of the offseason for Washington.

But questions still remain about the safety position. D.J. Swearinger is an upgrade at free safety, and Deshazor Everett is solid at strong safety while filling in for Su’a Cravens, but we haven’t seen game-changing plays from that position yet.

3. The rookies have potential

Washington’s draft class appears to have good upside. Jonathan Allen had another solid outing on the defensive line. Second-round pick Ryan Anderson missed another game with a stinger in his neck that has reduced strength in his shoulder, but third-round pick Fabian Moreau made splashes at cornerback and on special teams, as did fourth-rounder Montae Nicholson, a safety.

Seventh-rounder Joshua Holsey made some nice pass breakups and had a sack. Samaje Perine had a quieter outing after rebounding in Week 2. He remains behind Kelley, but he can certainly help this offense.

Fifth-round tight end Jeremy Sprinkle and seventh-round linebacker Josh Harvey-Clemons need to show some more after providing some bright spots in training camp. And sixth-round center Roullier did move well on a screen pass and didn’t appear to have any glaring issues. That’s not to say he’s a sound option if Spencer Long is still sidelined beyond Week 1.

More on the Redskins:

For Redskins, more questions remain than have been answered as regular season looms

Three takeaways from Friday’s practice at Redskins Park

Taking a closer look at Chase Roullier’s preseason performance

Bog: Kevin Durant has a Redskins name suggestion no one has ever made before

Steinberg: The Redskins’ running back carousel is a thrill ride