- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 15, 2017

ASHBURN — The last time Kirk Cousins faced the New Orleans Saints, he was nearly perfect.

The Redskins quarterback threw for 324 yards and four touchdowns in a 47-14 rout on Nov. 15, 2015. He missed just five passes, but finished with his second-ever perfect quarterback rating — and his only one since taking over as Washington’s starter.

Two years ago, however, the New Orleans Saints were a much different team — defined by a horrendous defense.

The 2017 Saints, still led by quarterback Drew Brees, are now a defensive powerhouse, ranking fifth in points allowed and seventh in pass defense. At 7-2, the Saints have ripped off seven straight wins due to a reworked defense infused with young talent (cornerback Marshon Lattimore) and veterans having career years (Cameron Jordan, Alex Okafor).

The Redskins, again, face a first-place team while trying to salvage their season. Washington, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index, has just a four percent chance of making the playoffs.

Redskins cornerback Josh Norman, who said after Sunday’s 38-30 loss to Minnesota that he played his worst football since his rookie year, said the Redskins’ issues have come down to consistency.

“I take full responsibility for my group,” Norman said. “I really do. I carry that burden on our shoulders because it starts with everything we do — being physical, being at the point of attack, being aggressive — we didn’t have that and that’s my fault.”

When reviewing tape, Norman said he wasn’t as bad against the Vikings as he initially thought. But he added he was off on some plays by a matter of inches, which was the difference.

Norman said the Redskins have to “get out of the rut” of winning a game, then losing. Part of being consistent, he added, is being able to string wins together.

For that to happen, the Redskins will have to clean up other areas.

Running back Chris Thompson, arguably Washington’s MVP in the first half of the season, said he has to do a better job of getting open and finishing his routes. Over the last two games, Thompson has had just 52 yards receiving combined.

“If I look at film, I’ve had some pretty bad routes the last few games,” said Thompson, who leads the Redskins with 494 receiving yards. “The results have shown. I’ve got a lot of work to do in the second half of this season.”

Thompson said the Redskins also have to do a better job in pass protection. Cousins has been sacked on a career-high 6.8 percent of his drop-backs this season, though that will likely improve with Washington’s offensive line in better health.

On defense, lineman Ziggy Hood said the Redskins are still having communication problems. Washington installed a new defensive coordinator, Greg Manusky, in the offseason, which helped revitalize the defense.

Hood said breakdowns against the Vikings traced back to a lack of communication. At the same, it’s Week 11. Shouldn’t the Redskins be further along by now?

“We’ve got new guys in and out of the lineup,” Hood said, referencing the Redskins’ amount of injures. “We’ve got to have the young guys play their role while being able to hear and understand what the veterans are telling them.”

Redskins coach Jay Gruden, though, slightly pushed back at the idea that the Redskins have been inconsistent, instead giving credit to the quality of teams they’ve faced.

The Redskins have had the league’s toughest schedule to date, according to PlayoffStatus.com.

But the Redskins suffered a letdown against the Vikings. While Minnesota was a one-point favorite, the Redskins again played significantly worse in a game where outsiders expected them to play better. Anecdotally, the Redskins have played better in games where they’re significant underdogs (like in Seattle).

Safety D.J. Swearinger criticized his teammates’ effort in practice leading up to the Redskins’ loss to Minnesota, saying they needed to be better going forward.

Gruden said it’s on him for the Redskins to be ready to play.

“We’re not matching, play-for-play, with the other other team,” Gruden said. “Their offense has a good play … vice versa. We just have to overcome the adversity, and we didn’t do that [against Minnesota].”

The Saints are another challenge for the Redskins. Because of an improved defense, New Orleans isn’t playing from behind as much.

The change has allowed the Saints to run the ball more often, which has produced excellent results with Mark Ingram and rookie Alvin Kamara. The two backs might be the best 1-2 punch in the league, given Ingram’s running ability and Kamara’s versatility.

New Orleans is third in the NFL with 142 rushing yards per game. The Saints are so different that Gruden said he didn’t even watch tape from the 2015 meeting.

Cousins, meanwhile, said he doesn’t know if the Redskins’ previous schedule will help prepare them for the last seven games.

“We’ve stood toe-to-toe with a lot of good teams in this league,” Cousins said. “We said it before we ever played a game that the margin for error is very small and the different between teams that go 10-6 and 6-10 is very little. … Hopefully here in this stretch of seven games, we can be the ones that come out on top.”

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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