- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 2, 2016

After eight games, the Redskins seem to have an answer to the biggest question facing the team going into the 2016 season: Is Kirk Cousins the long-term solution at quarterback? After piling up yards (if not wins), setting more team passing records and sitting at or near the top of the league’s quarterback stats, it looks like Cousins is set to score that long-term contract in the off-season. 

For now though, with half a season still to play, there are other pressing questions for which the Redskins need answers:

1. Can Cousins become more accurate on the long balls?

Over the course of the season, Cousins has missed several opportunities by simply overthrowing his receiver on deep passes. Cousins has completed just 10 of his 28 passes that travel more than 21 yards. That gives Cousins a 35.7 completion percentage on long throws.

To compare that to some other quarterbacks, the New England Patriots’ Tom Brady has completed five of his eight passes from that same distance, Andrew Luck of the Indianapolis Colts has completed 13 of his 30 passes and Derek Carr of the Oakland Raiders has completed 11 of his 19.

This is a familiar struggle for Cousins. Last season, from the exact same distance parameters, Cousins completed just 15 of 51 passes. So while Cousins is technically improving on his long ball accuracy so far this year, he’s still a ways away from being great. 

That, in turn, is having a direct impact on wide receiver DeSean Jackson’s game. Jackson has just one touchdown and is averaging a career-low 13.9 yards per reception. His longest catch of the season? Just 44 yards. Jackson has recorded at least one catch of at least 61 yards since his rookie season and has at least one reception of at least 77 yards since becoming a Redskin in his previous two seasons.

2. Matt Jones or Robert Kelley?

Running back Chris Thompson has firmly established his role as a pass-catching back, but with Matt Jones sitting out last game against the Cincinnati Bengals with a knee injury, it was Robert Kelley who became the more prototypical feature-back within the Redskins’ offense.

Now, with Jones seemingly set to return following the bye, who will the Redskins feature?

In Kelley’s first career game as a starter, the 24-year-old ran for 87 yards on 21 carries, scoring a touchdown without fumbling the ball. Kelley even got better as the game rolled along, averaging 5.3 yards per carry on his last 11 runs.

“I think [Kelley] ran the ball hard,” Redskins head coach Jay Gruden said. “I think he was a little bit impatient on some cuts, but for the most part he runs hard. I liked the way he ran. He protected the ball, had some big runs there. That big one in overtime was a huge run to get us down into field goal range. I think he had a couple opportunities to pick up some blitzes, did a good job, so I thought he played well.”

But the key there is that Kelley protected the ball, something Jones has struggled with mightily. In his 20 career games, Jones is credited with eight fumbles. So far this season, Jones is responsible for three fumbles, tied with Kansas City Chiefs’ running back Spencer Ware for the most among all NFL running backs, despite Ware getting 11 more touches than Jones this season.

The issue has been a pet peeve of Gruden’s. Will Kelley’s impressive totals (190 yards on 38 carries, 5.0 yards per carry) be enough for him to force Jones into a more reserved role?

3. Can the offensive line hold without Trent Williams?

The Redskins took a huge loss during their bye week when it was announced that left tackle Trent Williams will be suspended for four games for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy.

The Redskins play the Minnesota Vikings, the Green Bay Packers, the Dallas Cowboys and the Arizona Cardinals during Williams’ absence. Those teams rank 8th, 11th, 21st and 7th, respectively, in team sacks.

Prior to the start of the season, Williams received a Pro Football Focus grade of 88, putting him in the “high quality” level of offensive lineman. The next-highest grade on the Redskins’ offensive line was right tackle Morgan Moses, who received a grade of just 78.8, an “average” rating.

Williams is essentially the key to the offensive line.

Now, he’s replaced by Ty Nsekhe, who, at 6-foot-8 and 335 pounds, is a behemoth of an offensive tackle. But Nsekhe has essentially been a career backup.

However, Redskins general manager Scot McCloughan has a lot of faith in Nsekhe, telling SiriusXM NFL Network earlier this year that Nsekhe is a hidden talent.

“Ty, in my personal opinion, he would start on over half the teams in the league at left or right tackle,” McCloughan said. “And he’s our third right now. And he started two games last year, and one was Dallas, and he locked [Greg] Hardy down bigger than life. Threw him out there, it was like ‘Okay, wow, what’s going to happen?’ But no, he’s a football player.”

That’s encouraging, but this will be a big test for Nsekhe. One of Cousins’ strengths this year has been throwing against the blitz, completing 60.4 percent of his passes in the situation.

A big part of that reason is knowing Williams has his blindside. Can Nsekhe give Cousins that same confidence?

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