- - Sunday, October 14, 2018

LANDOVER — After last week’s beating by the Saints, quarterback Alex Smith talked about the comfort level of the offense when the Redskins fall behind early in a game.

“We didn’t have much success early,” he told reporters, speaking to what went wrong in New Orleans. “Got down. The crowd got going. All of a sudden we got one-dimensional and those guys feasting. They know it’s a pass situation, so it kinds of becomes worse. If you do have some success early, you keep the game balanced, you can handle that better.”

So Sunday, the Carolina Panthers — specifically their special teams said, “Alex, let us make you feel comfortable,” on their way to a 23-17 loss to Smith and Co.

On a fourth-and-one from nearly midfield on the first possession of the game, the Panthers punted. The ball landed on the two-yard line, right in front of a Carolina player, who watched it bounce into the end zone — which meant Washington would start its first drive of the game on its 20, instead of its own two.

Then, in winning the field position battle, Washington went three-and-out, and Tress Way punted 51 yards to the Panthers’ 21, where former Maryland star D.J. Moore fielded the ball and then coughed it up, giving Washington the ball on the Carolina 22.

One player later, the Redskins scored on a perfect pass from Smith to Vernon Davis, putting Washington up 7-0.

Smith was comfortable.

The Redskins’ defense made Smith even more comfortable by stopping another Carolina series and forcing a punt that gave Washington the ball on its 36. Six minutes later, Smith hit Paul Richardson on a two-yard scoring pass and the Redskins were up 14-0.

Smith could sit back in the recliner, put his feet up and relax, right?

OK, it ended up getting a little dicey, since the Redskins only managed to put up nine points the rest of the way, and the Panthers managed to stay out of their own way enough to score 17 points and make a game of it.

But in the end, it was another Redskins win, keeping them on top of the NFC East with a 3-2 record and a much-needed rebound from the Monday night embarrassment in New Orleans. And the sparse Redskins crowd went home happy and comfortable.

So who are these Redskins, who look like the worst team in the NFL one week and then turn in a gutsy performance in a win the following week? That has been the Jekyll-and-Hyde identity of coach Jay Gruden’s teams over the past four seasons. But those were Kirk Cousins’ Redskins as well.

What about Smith’s Redskins?

It was all the coach and the quarterback could do to hold back from saying they are a front-running team leading up to this game. Gruden talked about falling behind early in the losses to both Indianapolis and New Orleans and how it contributed to both defeats, and he spoke of it again Sunday even after the win over Carolina.

“I think we had a chance to do a lot better,” Gruden told reporters after the game. “Overall, we were efficient early on, jumped out to a big start, made some big conversions but couldn’t the deal in the third and fourth quarter again. That’s kind of been our M.O. here.”

So if that is your modus operandi — your way of doing business — why?

I asked him about the losses to the Colts and the Saints — this pattern the coach just confirmed — and he responded, “I don’t remember those games much. I remember today.”

He tried to explain problems sustaining offense. “It’s a combination of things and plus let’s give it up to Carolina’s defense it’s not like teams are scoring 60 on these guys every week.”

The woeful New York Giants hung 31 on Carolina a week ago.

No one wants to say that so far, the identity of these Redskins under their new quarterback is that of a front-runner that fades down the stretch — certainly not the quarterback.

I asked Smith if he was concerned that this pattern was becoming “a thing,” and he answered, “I didn’t know that it was a thing. Every single week is a different challenge.”

I think it’s fair to say that for a quarterback who throws two touchdown passes, staking himself to a first-quarter 14-0 lead, and finishes with 21 completions on 36 attempts for just 163 yards has a particularly unique challenge — don’t get behind.

That, so far, is a thing.

Smith, of course, benefited from a strong performance by an injured Adrian Peterson, who rushed for 97 yards on 17 carries. But it was even clearer Sunday that if the 33-year-old Peterson can’t go for any reason there is no Plan B for running the ball. And while Smith can run that efficient, clock-consuming offense, it isn’t adding up to many points in a points-driven league.

But as long as everyone — Peterson, the Redskins defense, special teams and their opponents’ self-inflicted wounds — keep contributing to the effort to make Smith comfortable, it may be enough. As Gruden reminded us Sunday, “It’s a grind. And we grinded this one out and got the big win.”

Hear Thom Loverro on 106.7 The Fan Wednesdays and Saturdays.

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

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