- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 19, 2017

LANDOVER — First downs shouldn’t feel critical in August.

They shouldn’t make a stadium, even one full of the diehards willing to devote a Saturday night to a preseason game, collectively exhale.

Yet, as Kirk Cousins handed off to Rob Kelley on the final play of the first quarter Saturday night, breath at FedEx Field was being held in. The Redskins faced third-and-1 after going three-and-out on their first three drives.

Kelley needed a yard. He got two. First down.

Until that point, the Redskins’ starting offense hadn’t managed a first down all preseason. Cousins and Co. had gone three-and-out on the five drives they’d started, dating back to last week’s preseason opener in Baltimore.

That second of relief was one of few in the 21-17 loss to the Green Bay Packers in Washington’s second preseason game. Redskins coach Jay Gruden kept Cousins, who celebrated his 29th birthday Saturday night, in for the entire first half. Cousins completed 14 of 23 passes for 144 yards. At the end of the half, Cousins ran a successful two-minute drill and finally threw a pretty touchdown to receiver Jamison Crowder.

“It took a little while,” Gruden said. “We stuttered and sputtered and missed a few throws and I had a couple runs rejected but they stuck with it.”

Cousins’ stats were padded by two beautiful deep balls. He hit both third-down back Chris Thompson and tight end Vernon Davis running in stride down the right sideline. Those two passes accounted for exactly half of Cousins’ passing yards. Other than that, Cousins missed high, or stuck with his initial reads and left open receivers crying for the ball. At least no one was hurt.

“We didn’t run the ball probably as well as we would have liked, at times didn’t throw the ball as well as we would have liked,” Cousins said.

Gruden said that he’d been frustrated most by his team’s meager 2.2 yards per carry against Baltimore. At halftime, the Redskins were averaging 0.9. Mostly due to a resurgent performance by rookie Samaje Perine, who averaged 5.6 yards per carry and also caught a 29-yard pass, the Redskins finished averaging 2.9 yards per carry. Perine said that he’d had some “first-game jitters” to get out last week, where he fumbled and dropped a pass.

The starters had no such success and no such explanation. Washington’s first two plays were handoffs to Kelley. The first went for no gain, the second for three yards.

“Obviously Robert [Kelley] didn’t get going, he didn’t have many chances,” Gruden said. “You know, we’re a work in progress, no question about it.”

Gruden still wants to run the ball more this season. Preseason struggles won’t deter him from that “by any stretch of the imagination.”

The problem was more the offensive line, which caved routinely, than it was Kelley, who didn’t have anywhere to run. The tight ends didn’t help much, either.

“Obviously, we’ve still got some work to do,” left tackle Trent Williams said.

Williams said the running game needs game reps to get going. Practice isn’t enough to prepare because there isn’t enough contact.

“I’m not worried because I understand this is a process,” Williams said.

Aaron Rodgers, by contrast, was Aaron Rodgers. It was a surprise that he even started and he played just one drive, a 75-yard march downfield. To make it really sting, Rodgers finished the drive with a perfect touchdown fade to tight end Martellus Bennett, who had linebacker Zach Brown one-on-one. Brown was right on him, but Bennett made a play and Rodgers’ throw was perfect.

When they weren’t playing against one of the best quarterbacks on Earth, the Redskins defense played another solid game. Washington started Terrell McClain, Ziggy Hood and Stacy McGee along the defensive line but Phil Taylor continued his push for the starting nose tackle job nonetheless. Taylor sacked Packers backup Brett Hundley for a nine-yard loss and rubbed his big belly in celebration.

Preston Smith, sprained ankle healed, started opposite Ryan Kerrigan at outside linebacker and also sacked Hundley. A blitzing Mason Foster occupied the left tackle on the play. Foster and Brown looked an able pair at inside linebacker.

There were other good signs from cornerback Fabian Moreau (two tackles, one pass breakup) and safety Montae Nicholson (three tackles), who both made their Redskins debuts Saturday.

“They played some extensive minutes [and] they played pretty good, I think,” Gruden said.

Safety Deshazor Everett, filling in for Su’a Cravens, also made four tackles. Chris Carter, making a push for a roster spot at outside linebacker, had 1.5 sacks. His helmet came flying off during one, but Carter still made the play. Inside linebacker Martrell Spaight made an eye-popping tackle for loss.

Receiver Josh Doctson played in his first game since last September. Doctson had been sidelined by a slight pull of his right hamstring and was a game-time decision, but played. He caught one 12-yard pass from Cousins.

Backup Colt McCoy finished 7-of-11 for 70 yards and a touchdown pass to Niles Paul placed perfectly over Paul’s back shoulder where only the tight end’s outstretched arms could reach it.

“It’s been a while since I’ve scored a touchdown so I was happy,” Paul said.

Rain arrived in the fourth quarter, so many left before they could see Nate Sudfeld complete 6-of-11 passes for 64 yards. The Cheeseheads of Greater Washington elected to stay.

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