- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 6, 2015

ASHBURN — Kirk Cousins tempered his expectations after the first two weeks of the season. It wasn’t that he did not believe in his team’s rushing attack, but the Washington Redskins‘ quarterback knew that through the rigors of a 16-game schedule, maintaining an average of 171.5 rushing yards per game was unrealistic.

He reminded himself that there would be weeks when the ground game would be ineffective and he’d have to throw the ball 30 or 40 times.

As Cousins continues his progression in his first season as a starting quarterback, he has challenged himself to maintain a level of efficiency that holds up in any circumstance, particularly when the run game struggles like it has for most of the season.

“We had said when we ran the ball well earlier in the season that this isn’t going to be an every-week thing. Eventually, we won’t be able to run it as well as we were early,” Cousins said. “We knew that at that point in time, we’d have to be able to make the necessary yards and points through the air. That’s the job of the quarterback and of the passing game and of pass protection. You look at the great players, the great offenses, the great quarterbacks in this league, they’re able to get it done regardless of the people around him.”

Cousins‘ best performance of the season happened in a 47-14 win against the New Orleans Saints, when he exited the game with a perfect 158.3 passer rating. He completed 20 of 25 passes for 324 yards and four touchdowns. The Redskins rushed for 209 yards that game — 37 more than they had gained in the four previous games combined. Cousins made his decisions look easy as he targeted his wide receivers and running backs on short routes and watched as they turned them into long gains.

It wasn’t as easy last week in a 20-14 win against the New York Giants. Yes, the Redskins rushed for 105 yards, but they did it on 37 attempts — an average of 2.8 yards per carry, compared to the 6.9 they averaged against the Saints. Cousins completed 20 of 29 passes against the Giants for 302 yards and a touchdown. He posted a 114.4 passer rating — his third-highest of the season.

Running back Chris Thompson has seen a difference in Cousins‘ confidence, which he said has helped Cousins lead the offense when it goes stagnant. In the second quarter against the Giants, Cousins jumpstarted the offense when he launched a deep ball to wide receiver DeSean Jackson that went for a 63-yard touchdown reeption and a 10-0 lead.

Earlier in the first quarter, one of Cousins‘ passes for Jackson was nearly intercepted by cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who would have had nothing but open field in front of him. Thompson said Cousins‘ confidence has helped him shake off the turnovers and bad decisions, which he was not doing as easily earlier in the season.

“I can tell he’s a lot more comfortable now, just not really stressing as far as trying to make plays,” Thompson said. “If it’s getting those four- or five-yard plays every play, every down, then that’s what he’s going to do. He’s going to trust D-Jax, at least three or four times a game, where he believes he’s going to run past everybody and throw it deep some times. He’s a lot more comfortable with his decision-making. When we’ve had turnovers, lately, he’s been able to come back calm and respond back and get the offense going.”

In Week 7, Cousins led the Redskins to a 31-30 comeback victory against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He completed 82.5 percent of his passes and threw for three touchdowns, including a six-yard strike to Jordan Reed with 28 seconds remaining to seize the lead. The Redskins rushed for 50 yards.

Of course, there have been weeks when Cousins has not been able to guide the Redskins‘ offense when the run game has struggled. Against the Atlanta Falcons and the New York Jets, Washington rushed for a total of 85 yards. Cousins threw a touchdown and two interceptions in each loss.

Hardly anything went right for the Redskins against the Carolina Panthers, as they rushed for 14 yards in a 44-16 loss. Cousins completed 22 of his 30 pass attempts, but the team’s five turnovers — including an interception and a fumble from Cousins — made it difficult to sustain a rhythm.

For coach Jay Gruden, when it comes to evaluating Cousins, what is equally as telling as the performance is the way Cousins adapts each week.

“We’d love to have the balance of the running game because that does take the pressure off of the quarterback,” Gruden said, “but sometimes, a team takes away the run and forces us to throw — or sometimes, it’s score-dependent. We get behind and we have to come back and we’re battling not only against the opposing defense but against the clock and we have to try to get chunks of yards. That makes it a lot more difficult for a young quarterback.

“But, overall, I think he’s handled each situation pretty well. He’s learning from all of them … Playing quarterback in the NFL, it’s a week-to-week deal, man. Every week, you’re going to get something different. It’s about how he adjusts on a week-to-week basis, and how he handles himself is what will determine him from a long-term standpoint.”

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