- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The Washington Redskins will have their hands full with the Houston Texans’ front seven, one that includes J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney, when the teams face off Sunday.

It would be one thing if the offensive line was at full strength. The fact is, it’s not.

But quarterback Alex Smith and coach Jay Gruden had praise for the offensive line, and guard Jonathan Cooper in particular, after a line missing three injured starters held up in Week 10’s 16-3 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Cooper, in particular, hadn’t played a snap in the NFL in 2018 before Washington gave him a call.

“The task that was in front of him to come in on a short week, get up to speed and then go out there and execute I thought was a tall task against a good D-line, definitely the strength of their defense,” Smith said at his weekly press conference Wednesday.

Though Cooper drew two flags in the game, Smith called one of the refs’ decisions “borderline very questionable” and focused on the bold way Cooper approached his first game as a Redskin.

“It would be easy in that situation to be tentative and hold back,” Smith said. “I thought he didn’t blink in the huddle around him. I thought he almost relished the challenge of it and I thought that was neat to be around.”

Once the seventh overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, Cooper is now on his sixth team if you count the San Francisco 49ers, with whom he spent last offseason before being cut. Cooper said his approach in Washington has had to be different.

“Coming off the couch, that’s a whole different experience, just being at home and not being on the team,” Cooper told The Washington Times. “As much as I didn’t take it for granted last year, I feel like that much more I’m just grateful for each day that I have. It’s very real when you’re like, ‘Oh, could this be the end?’”

Asked what has been different so far about his time with Washington, Cooper laughed as an O-line teammate nearby rattled off bungee sprints and other workouts they do.

“Definitely some of the hardest individual work I’ve ever had,” Cooper said. “(Offensive line) coach (Bill) Callahan, he doesn’t take it easy on us at all.”

For the second straight season, Callahan has had to get a group of backups and emergency signings in shape for NFL action with the starters hurting. Gruden announced Wednesday that left tackle Trent Williams will miss his third straight game this week as he recovers from thumb surgery. Guards Shawn Lauvao and Brandon Scherff are out for the year, and right tackle Morgan Moses is battling an MCL injury but played last week.

But after watching film of the Tampa Bay game, Gruden remained pleased with his new line.

“I was impressed with Jonathan Cooper, coming in a few days and really competed. I liked that,” Gruden said. “I liked Morgan, fought through his injury, did a good job. Ty (Nsekhe) obviously has had some bumps and bruises, did a good job. Obviously Chase (Roullier) in the middle was great with the calls, and then (Tony) Bergstrom didn’t get any credit but playing right guard did a pretty good job also.

“There’s room for improvement and I think the more they play together the better they’ll get.”

The focus shifts to Week 11 and an important home tilt with the Texans, who share the Redskins’ 6-3 record and who have some of the most talented defensive linemen in the league.

Washington hasn’t played Houston in four years. But Smith has seen them more recently, during his time with the Chiefs.

“Certainly one of the most disruptive fronts in football, I think when you just talk about creating problems, penetration,” Smith said. “They’re all over the place, they’re really really talented, they get up the field and they’re well-coached. I think together as a defense, they’ve been together a long time, the bulk of that defense has been together. So they know what they’re doing and they play fast.”

Cooper added that linebacker Whitney Mercilus and the rest of the unit are also dangerous.

“I think just Clowney’s elusiveness is unreal and how they utilize him, putting him in the different packages and moving him around,” Cooper said. “And J.J. Watt, just a perennial great player. He has strength, he has moves, the big swim and all that. He can also move around as well.”

Gruden said the line walked through Houston’s variety of blitzes and packages, calling it “step one” of a challenging week of preparation.

“Step two will be continue to study the film and watch those guys and watch how they rush,” he said. “Like I said, you can’t simulate the get-offs that those two guys have. Clowney and Watt have as good a get-off as there is in pro football, not to mention that they’re long, fast and skilled and powerful. The most important thing is we gotta get make sure we get off on the snap count and change our snap count.”

• Adam Zielonka can be reached at azielonka@washingtontimes.com.

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