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Kirk Cousins, Redskins' offense powering NFC East title push

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The Washington Redskins are on the verge of clinching the NFC East, spurred by a red-hot offense that's beginning to find its rhythm behind a sizzling quarterback (Kirk Cousins) and a pair of dynamic pass catchers on the perimeter (DeSean Jackson and Jordan Reed). Skeptics wonder if the Redskins -- 1-5 in away games this season -- can finish strong despite playing their last two regular-season games on the road, starting with this Saturday's showdown with the Philadelphia Eagles on "Thursday Night Football" on NFL Network. But I'm convinced Washington will not only win the division -- which they can do by winning Saturday -- but pose a problem for opponents in the playoffs.

I dug into the All-22 Coaches Film to discover the reasons behind the Redskins' recent offensive surge, and I've come up with three reasons to believe Jay Gruden's squad is a threat to create chaos down the stretch:

1) Kirk Cousins is thriving as the Redskins' franchise quarterback.

REDSKINS AT EAGLES

When Gruden named Cousins his starter heading into the season, I questioned whether the second-year coach had made the right call, based on the inconsistent production and performance we'd seen to that point from the fourth-year pro. He entered 2015 with a 2-7 record as a starter and an 18:19 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Although he certainly flashed intriguing potential in a handful of games (see his 329-yard effort against Cleveland in 2012, a 381-yard showing against Atlanta in 2013 and a 427-yard performance against Philadelphia in 2014), Cousins' tendency to turn the ball over made it hard to trust him as a long-term starter. Most importantly, Cousins' inability to consistently guide the team to the winner's circle made it hard to view him as a potential franchise quarterback in today's game.

In 2015, Cousins has shown tremendous growth as a dynamic game manager and playmaker. He has drastically reduced his interceptions and displayed better judgment with the ball in key moments. Over the last eight games in particular, Cousins has played like a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback in helping the Redskins close in on the NFC East crown. Since Week 7, he has completed 72.8 percent of his passes and posted a 16:3 touchdown-to-interception ratio. In addition, he has compiled a 115.0 passer rating during that span, while displaying a firm grasp of Gruden's offense.

The All-22 Coaches Film reveals a decisive, quick-rhythm passer with slightly above-average arm strength attacking opponents with an assortment of short and intermediate passes all over the field. Cousins will probe the belly of the defense with pinpoint throws inside the numbers, but he also pushes the envelope with tightrope tosses to the sidelines. He shows outstanding anticipation, touch and timing on intermediate throws (11 to 20 yards), which is why the Redskins' scheme features more middle hooks, digs, speed outs and seams/skinny posts with Cousins on the field. These routes not only allow the young quarterback to attack the voids in coverage, but they encourage him to play aggressively from the pocket.

Against the Buffalo Bills in Week 15, the Redskins featured an aggressive "Dino" (double post) concept to unleash Cousin as a quick-rhythm passer. In the play below, the Redskins are aligned in dubs formation, with receiver Pierre Garcon motioning into a stack position behind tight end Jordan Reed. Garcon runs an inside post route to attract the attention of safety Corey Graham. When Cousins spots Graham leaning toward the inside post, he immediately targets Reed on the outside post. With Reed in perfect position against the corner, Cousins fires a dart to his tight end for an 18-yard touchdown (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):

While featuring a number of ball-control passing concepts to get Cousins into a groove as a passer, the Redskins have also taken enough deep shots to keep defenders from squatting on routes on the perimeter. The return of receiver DeSean Jackson -- who missed much of the first half after suffering a hamstring injury -- to the lineup in Week 9 has certainly encouraged Cousins to take more shots, but it has been the clever utilization of run-heavy sets and personnel groupings (six offensive linemen) that has helped Cousins enjoy success with the deep ball.

Looking at the video clip below of Jackson's 77-yard touchdown from that same Bills game, I noticed the Redskins set up the play by using six offensive linemen (see Tom Compton at tight end) to create the illusion of the run. With Garcon and Jackson executing a switch route (curl-rail) from a slot formation, the Redskins have the perfect answer for the Bills' man to man tactics:

The Redskins have also mixed in an assortment of movement-based passes with "levels" concepts (flat, crossers and post-routes) to help Cousins connect on a few layups to get into a rhythm. These bootleg plays take advantage of overaggressive defenders reacting to backfield action while also giving the fourth-year pro an easy high-low read on the perimeter. These "pitch-and-catch" throws are the kind of low-risk, high-yield throws that help the Redskins stay in manageable situations.

With Cousins becoming increasingly comfortable with the Redskins' ball-control offense, he has started to put up the kinds of numbers typically reserved for elite quarterbacks. He leads the NFL with a 69.7 percent completion rate, and he's posted six 300-yard games this season. Cousins has also posted a passer rating of 100.0 or better in each of the past four games. He's playing his best football heading down the stretch, just like a franchise quarterback who is expected to perform in the clutch.

2) DeSean Jackson is still the best big-play receiver in the NFL.

Despite the criticism Jackson receives for his flamboyant style, there is no disputing his standing as the most explosive playmaker in the NFL. The eighth-year pro has amassed 19 touchdown receptions of at least 50 yards in his career, which is a testament to his remarkable speed, acceleration and burst on the perimeter. In addition, Jackson has tallied 52 receptions of 40-plus yards and averaged 17.7 yards per catch.

Studying Jackson's game via the All-22 Coaches Film, I'm blown away by his ability to run past defenders who are expecting a vertical route from the diminutive speedster. Jackson wins on go-routes and post-routes against single or double coverage, but he also terrorizes opponents with double moves on the outside. He has rare stop-start quickness and sudden acceleration, which makes him a tough guard for defenders electing to play "off" coverage. Against press coverage, Jackson's straight-line speed and burst give him a decided advantage against defensive backs without exceptional lateral quickness or top-end speed.

The Redskins have taken advantage of Jackson's skills as a dangerous deep-ball specialist by putting him in ideal situations to overwhelm hapless defenders. The Redskins will position him on the outside of a run-heavy formation to exploit single coverage on the outside with an assortment of double moves (stutter-go, out-and-up and post-corner-post).

Against the New York Giants in Week 12, Jackson's ability to win on a deep post route was set up by the formation and backfield misdirection. In the play below, the Redskins are aligned in an ace "off" formation, with Jackson positioned on the outside to the right. Cousins will execute a play fake to the left before rolling to his right within the pocket. Jackson slips inside Jayron Hosley and runs a deep "poco" (post-corner-post) route against the Giants' two-deep coverage. With Jackson's speed overwhelming Hosley and Brandon Meriweather, the speedster easily tracks down Cousins' deep ball for a 63-yard score (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):

While Jackson has always created problems for opponents with his ability to terrorize opponents from the outside, the Redskins have accentuated his big-play talents by utilizing him frequently in the slot. By positioning Jackson on the inside, the Redskins are able to exploit mismatches against slot corners and safeties down the field. In addition, the deployment of Jackson in the slot makes it harder for opponents to bracket or double-cover the speedster on vertical routes. Thus, the Redskins are able to provide their most dangerous playmaker with more one-on-one chances.

Against the Carolina Panthers in Week 11, the Redskins ran the play below, in which they are aligned in an empty formation, with Jackson positioned as the WR2 to the right. The team has a smash-seams concept called, with Jackson instructed to run a vertical route along the numbers. Panthers NCB Colin Jones is completely overmatched in the slot, and Jackson wins easily on a slippery move that forces Jones to spin around in place. Cousins reads the single-high safety coverage, targets Jackson on the throw and delivers a perfect pass to the speedster for a 56-yard touchdown (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):

With Gruden and offensive coordinator Sean McVay increasingly using Jackson to exploit mismatches on the perimeter, the Redskins' passing game has become more explosive and dynamic heading down the stretch.

3) Jordan Reed has developed into a dominant red-zone weapon.

The tight end position has become one of the most critical parts of the passing game, particularly down in the red area (from the opponents' 25-yard line to the goal line). Teams are increasingly targeting the "Y" near the goal line to take advantage of the superior size and athleticism that most enjoy over defenders on the perimeter. With teams increasingly featuring oversized wide receivers as the "Y" (traditional tight end) or "H" (move tight end) in the lineup, the presence of an ultra-athletic pass catcher at the position is a huge advantage for creative play designers.

In Washington, the Redskins have featured Reed as the queen on the chessboard in the red zone. McVay and Gruden have positioned the 6-foot-2, 237-pounder in multiple spots (outside, slot, H-back and traditional tight end) to exploit favorable matchups on the perimeter. Reed has terrorized opponents from every spot on the field, but it has been his ability to win on the outside that makes him a problem for defensive coordinators. He is a rare big-bodied pass catcher with superb route running skills and agility. He capably runs slants and skinny post-routes from a flanked position, but he also has the size and leaping ability to win on fade routes against smallish defenders. Defensive coordinators are unable to slow down Reed with traditional tactics, due to his athletic superiority and the presence of a talented cast of pass catchers on the perimeter.

Studying the All-22 Coaches Film of the Redskins' games, it is apparent that Reed's ability to win on slants or fades creates problems on the outside. In the video clip below, from the game against the Bills, the Redskins score an easy touchdown on a fade route when the defender sits on his inside shoulder to defend the slant. With Cousins and Reed enjoying a strong rapport, the Redskins are wise to tap into the connection in the red zone.

Reed has quietly become one of the biggest impact players in the NFL, based on his ability to create mismatches on the perimeter. He ranks second in receptions (74) among tight ends, and his nine touchdown receptions rank behind only Rob Gronkowski and Tyler Eifert at the position. Given the importance of putting the ball in the paint down the stretch, Reed's emergence has played a major role in the Redskins' surprising run to the NFC East title.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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