- The Washington Times - Monday, November 9, 2015

ASHBURN — As long as the Washington Redskins are within arm’s reach of the leader in the NFC East, everything is just fine, right?

Not quite.

The Redskins (3-5) are not too far behind the second-place Philadelphia Eagles (4-4) or first-place New York Giants (5-4), but until Washington actually improves its performance on the field, contending for the top spot in the division is just false hope, no matter how mediocre the landscape is.

That is why the Redskins will not waste any time licking their wounds after Sunday’s 27-10 loss to the New England Patriots. Washington could have pushed the defending Super Bowl champions, but that opportunity was lost when the Redskins failed to get past their own failures. Now, there is no time to dwell on it before Sunday’s game against the New Orleans Saints at FedEx Field.

“Things are in our grasp, but we have to play better,” coach Jay Gruden said on Sunday. “If we don’t play better, then nothing is in our grasp. We’ve got to make sure that we turn up the heat a little bit, challenge these guys, try to get more out of them as coaches. Hopefully we play better because we are right in the thick of things as far as the division is concerned.”

The last time the Redskins were at FedEx Field, their game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was viewed largely as a must-win that would stop their season from spiraling out of control before the halfway point of the season.

Ultimately, the Redskins pulled out a 31-30 victory, but only after chasing a 24-0 deficit. The same slow start crippled the Redskins against the Patriots after they fell behind, 17-0.

Perhaps those types of deficits are manageable against a team such as the Buccaneers, but Gruden said the team must avoid a third consecutive slow start against the Saints.

“[Games are] all urgent right now, there’s no question about it,” Gruden said. “This is a big game for us. It’s a home game. We always stress our home games, but we have to come out faster. We’re playing another future Hall of Fame quarterback in Drew Brees, an excellent coach [in] Sean Payton. It’s going to be a great challenge for these guys and we have to come out faster.

“We can’t keep digging ourselves into 17-0 holes and expect to have a successful season or games, so we’ve got to make sure we do a better job of coming out of the tunnel and strapping up, being ready to play quicker, play faster and start faster so we can implement our game plan and we can play with a lead and play to our strengths.”

The most crushing part about falling behind so early is that it has disrupted the Redskins from developing any type of identity on offense, resulting in the one-dimensional look that has become all too common the last two games.

The offense’s inability to get anything going on the ground has been an issue since Week 3, but the way the Redskins have started the last two games has made it difficult to commit to the running game long enough to see any improvements.

Quarterback Kirk Cousins has attempted 40 passes the last two games. It worked against the Buccaneers, but that is not a formula Gruden wants to sustain the rest of the season.

Against the Patriots, the Redskins rushed the ball just 15 times for 37 yards, but only had four attempts in the entire second quarter. The Redskins attempted just five running plays in the second half against the Buccaneers.

New Orleans’ defense ranks 31st, giving the Redskins a prime opportunity to jump-start their offense before visiting the undefeated Carolina Panthers.

That’s why it’s imperative to avoid another disastrous start like the one on Sunday, when the Redskins turned the ball over on their first offensive play of the game.

“You never want to abort the run quickly, because we feel like when we are good, our run game is good, but it also opens up our play-action passing game, which we haven’t been able to tap into being down 17-0 this week and 24-0 two weeks before against Tampa,” Gruden said. “The bulk of our offense and our big plays is not allowed because we’re trailing too early, so we need to do a better job coming out of the gate both offensively and defensively to keep the game close. [That] helps us with the running game [and] helps us with our play-actions, where our chunk plays can come in.”

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