- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 27, 2017

They can say it’s just the preseason. You can say it, too, and there are fractions of truth in all the platitudes. There was frustration on the field Sunday, though. To find it, look no further than at Kirk Cousins, crumbling under a stiff-arm from Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict steamrolling into the end zone after a pick-six early in the second quarter.

Starting quarterbacks don’t do that. They don’t run into 248-pound linebackers right by the pylon when the score doesn’t matter. They don’t, that is, unless they have something to prove.

Cousins chose to sacrifice his body after Burfict intercepted his pass intended for running back Chris Thompson in the flat. Cousins was nearly picked off on a similar play in the first quarter, and Burfict read it perfectly the second time. At that point, after going nowhere fast for four straight drives, after a third-straight slow start in a preseason game, Cousins was willing to risk his body.

“I feel like once we cross those lines, whether it’s the preseason or regular season, you just play,” Cousins said.

Coach Jay Gruden agreed.

“To let a guy score a touchdown on our home field is unacceptable, so I’m happy he did that,” Gruden said.

Gruden was putting it all out there too in the Redskins 23-17 win. On one play, he asked for a double-reverse screen pass for Chris Thompson. That’s not a preseason call.

Yet even with the benefits of several scripted calls at the start of the game, tight end Jordan Reed back in the fold and Cincinnati-specific preparation, Cousins’ unit needed five drives to get moving. The starting offense played the entire first half, plus the first drive of the third quarter. Cousins finished the game 10-of-19 for 109 yards and the one interception.

Gruden was mostly upbeat after the first two preseason games, which also featured lethargic starts. On Sunday, he said he was a bit concerned.

“We can’t start like that in the NFL consistently and expect to win a lot of games,” Gruden said.

There were bright notes, one of which was the run game. Rookie center Chase Roullier, starting in place of Spencer Long, who is recovering from meniscus surgery, played well. He got mixed up on a couple Bengals stunts, but held his own and made some good blocks, including one notable one on linebacker Vincent Rey to clear space for a 21-yard run by starting running back Rob Kelley.

Run blocking had been so poor in the first two preseason games that it was impossible to get a good look at Kelley. That changed Sunday, to the tune of 57 yards on 10 carries for the Redskins starter. Kelley scored a touchdown on a 1-yard run up the middle to cap an 85-yard drive, Cousins’ best, after the interception.

“I think the difference for me was the offensive line,” Kelley said. “They opened up some holes. Obviously, you can see, they had some holes that anybody could run through out there.”

Pass blocking was more suspect. Cousins was sacked twice, both times on third down, where the Redskins converted only 4-of-13 opportunities. Left tackle Trent Williams and right guard Brandon Scherff were beaten badly on different plays. That’s going to happen on occasion, but it’s been concerning to see the two Pro Bowlers struggle at times this preseason.

“As long as we execute we can make things happen, it was just execution issues early on,” Williams said.

Cousins himself wasn’t sharp, either. He held onto the ball too long at times and put himself in position to get sacked when he didn’t step up in the pocket. He and receiver Terrelle Pryor still aren’t in sync. Pryor made one great catch over the middle, where he lept and absorbed a big hit for a 17-yard gain. It would have been a safer, more routine play had Cousins’ throw not been high. Pryor dropped a couple good throws, and finished with one catch on four targets.

The offense was working without receiver Josh Doctson, who was held out because of a lingering effects from a hamstring pull. Reed, in his first preseason game after missing the first two with a sore big toe, caught two six-yard passes and looked fine in limited work. The Redskins may have given the game their best effort in other ways, but they were still careful with Reed.

The defense was gashed and gave up a touchdown on the Bengals’ first drive, but recovered well the rest of the game. The starting defensive line was comprised of Jonathan Allen and Terrell McClain as ends and Phil Taylor Sr. as nose tackle, but Taylor left the game with a left quad injury early and didn’t return. Gruden said after the game that Taylor needs an MRI.

Several young players gave the coaching staff things to think about. Cornerback Joshua Holsey had a sack, and undrafted safety Fish Smithson took an interception 63 yards upstream. Holsey is fighting for the Redskins fifth cornerback spot, or to somehow convince the coaches to keep six. Smithson is more likely a practice squad candidate.

One not-so-young player flashed, too. Linebacker Junior Galette played in his first game since 2014. He’s still dealing with a hamstring injury and said he isn’t 100 percent. He took the field, though, and that was over two years in the making.

Kicker Dustin Hopkins also had a good day, going 3-for-3 kicking field goals, including one from 51-yards out.

The starters won’t play the final preseason game in Tampa, so the next time they take the field, it’ll count. They played as if that was the case Sunday, with mixed results.

• Nora Princiotti can be reached at nprinciotti@washingtontimes.com.

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