- - Sunday, November 4, 2018

LANDOVER — Last month, after he led the Washington Redskins to a six-point win over the Carolina Panthers — their third win of the 2018 season, in a game where they took an early two-touchdown lead — I asked quarterback Alex Smith if the pattern they appeared to establish of winning games where they took a lead and losing games where they fell behind early, was a “thing.”

He bristled at the notion. “I didn’t know that it was a thing,” he said. “Every single week is a different challenge.”

Well, after Sunday’s 38-14 loss to the Atlanta Falcons at FedEx Field — a loss where Washington fell behind 14-0 early, he didn’t brush the question off. In fact, he struggled with it.

“It’s a great question,” he said, searching for a response. “I hadn’t thought of that.”

Well, at least not since the last time I asked him.

“I think we’ve been in a bunch of close games, so I know we’ve had the lead, but there’s still back and forth,” Smith said. “There are even games that have been one-score games, so we’ve been in some tight situations, we’ve been in big moments. I think those are learning experiences for us as a football team. It’s tough to play against a good football team when you’re multiple scores down, period. As much as you’d like to come back and do that, it’s just rare. But certainly like I said there’s a lot for us on tape I think to get better at.

“Sometimes I think you’re going to have to come back from behind and I think there’s all three phases in that, but for us as an offense and what we need to focus on, like I said, I feel like you can’t do it with negative plays, all the penalties and getting off scheduled when it’s hard enough trying to come from behind, but when we add those on top, it becomes pretty daunting.”

Smith seems like a smart guy, and when all five of your team’s wins come when you have the lead early in the game — never having to play from behind — and all three of your team’s losses come when you fall behind early and your offense seems incapable of coming back, it becomes a thing.

It’s a thing. A problem. A pattern that you have to recognize and acknowledge as worthy of thought and consideration.

Coach Jay Gruden struggled with it as well, although he stated a simple response to this pattern his team has developed of failing to show any ability to come from behind. “Don’t get behind,” he said, clearly frustrated in a short postgame press conference.

But guess what? That has worked. This team has won five games in the first half of the season and leads the NFC East by doing just that. Don’t get behind, and these Redskins can win.

Granted, there are other components that go into that plan for success — a defense that can keep Smith and Co. out of an offensive shootout, for instance, and the methodical, ball-control running offense that takes pressure off Smith by keeping opposing offenses off the field.

That formula has worked five out of eight times this season.

Why can’t they do it five out of the final eight games this season?

Here’s maybe why — the offensive line is in shambles.

Left tackle Trent Williams is out for a month, recovering from thumb surgery. Starting left guard Shawn Lauvao was taken off the field Sunday in a wheelchair and didn’t return. Right guard Brandon Scherff left the game with a shoulder injury. Right tackle Morgan Moses was in and out of the game with injuries. And left tackle Ty Nsekhe was seen holding his left arm and appeared to be in severe pain at the end of the game.

We’ve seen this carnage before — the offensive line of 2017, when the Redskins were bringing in linemen off the street to fill in for injured starters. It led to a rushing attack that was 28th in the league.

That meant games in a 7-9 season were won and lost on the arm of quarterback Kirk Cousins, who, despite the decimated offensive line and no running game to relieve the pressure, still managed to lead Washington to the 12th-best passing offense in the NFL, throwing for 4,093 yards and 27 touchdowns.

That’s not going to happen with Smith, who completed 30 of 46 passes Sunday for 306 yards and one touchdown, and who has nine touchdowns and 1,867 yards passing halfway through this season. For Smith to win, they need a strong rushing attack led by Adrian Peterson, who was a nonfactor Sunday, carrying the ball nine times for 17 yards, after rushing for 149 yards in last week’s 20-13 victory over the Giants.

For Smith to succeed, he needs the defense that was ranked third in the NFC in points allowed and in the top 10 in many other categories coming into the game against the Falcons — not the defense that was destroyed by Matt Ryan and his cohorts on Sunday, surrendering 350 passing yards and 154 rushing yards.

If there is a point over these next eight games when Gruden turns to Smith — he of the four-year, $94 million contract — on the sideline and says, “You’ve got to win this game for us,” Smith may reply, “You must have me mistaken for someone else. Kurt, I believe his name was.”

You can hear Thom Loverro on 106.7 The Fan Wednesday afternoons and Saturday mornings and on the Kevin Sheehan Show podcast every Tuesday and Thursday.

• Thom Loverro can be reached at tloverro@washingtontimes.com.

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