LANDOVER, Md. -- The key to the Redskins' hopes of repeating as NFC East champions can be summarized by one play late in their 27-20 win over Philadelphia. It was the image of Washington running back Matt Jones charging downfield on a third-and-7, gobbling up precious yardage and consuming even more valuable seconds. The Eagles had to know that call was coming, as it was the sensible move for a team holding a one-score lead, pinned back in its own territory. That Philly surrendered a 57-yard dash at such a crucial moment tells you plenty about the Redskins' long-term potential.
Simply put, the Redskins need to run the ball the way they did against Philadelphia to be serious playoff contenders. They generated 230 yards on the ground and reminded people once again why they're currently riding a four-game winning streak.
This is still a team with enough flaws that it could implode at any moment. One of the best ways for Washington to avoid such a plight is by doing what it did on Sunday: keeping things simple and bullying opponents whenever possible.
"I feel like a broken record a little bit, but it makes it easier," Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins said, when asked about the rushing success against Philadelphia. "[We] stayed at manageable distances and we were able to flip the field without even having to throw a pass a couple of times. All three running backs [Jones, Chris Thompson and Robert Kelley] contributed in important ways. And obviously, the offensive line has to pave a way and solidify the blocks, along with the tight ends and the receivers. So, great job and great play design by the coaches."
Cousins feels like he's continually talking about the importance of his run game for one simple reason: It has been the most obvious factor in this team rebounding from an 0-2 start. The Redskins have averaged 131.3 rushing yards over the last four weeks (as opposed to 68.5 in those first two losses), which has led to the team becoming more consistent in all phases. They're controlling the clock more effectively (32 minutes of possession in that win streak) and their defense also has become more dominant in the process (Washington has allowed 19.3 points per game during this four-week span, compared to 32.5 in the first two defeats).
That type of success also means Cousins can return to the form that made him so successful in the second half of last season. He started this year looking very much like a man who knew he was playing for the long-term contract he couldn't procure during the offseason. Too many of his passes were off target, the offense couldn't move consistently and he operated as if he was trying too hard to produce significant results. Now he's back to playing within himself, shrugging off costly mistakes (like the interception Eagles cornerback Malcolm Jenkins returned 64 yards for a touchdown) and giving his team opportunities to win.
It's not that Washington has a dazzling array of talent in its backfield. It's just that the 'Skins have players who can take advantage of their opportunities. Against Philadelphia, Jones gained 135 yards while Kelley and Thompson combined for 96 more on a day when Washington averaged 7 yards per carry. As Eagles head coach Doug Pederson said during his Monday press conference, "I would agree that we got our tail kicked up front this game. That's obvious."
"I think they're all good players," said Redskins head coach Jay Gruden, whose team now ranks 12th in the league with 110.3 rushing yards per game. "Chris gives you something a little different. He's one of our third-down backs, but he can do some first-down carries. Matt is a big plugger, and then the great change up is Fat Rob. He did a good job today. [He has] great vision [and] he runs through tackles. I like all three of them."
Gruden clearly is ready to ride this three-headed rushing attack for as long as he possibly can. The Redskins need that hard-nosed identity because, at the most basic level, that's how they need to define themselves. Their passing game is easily the most dynamic aspect of this team, with deep threat DeSean Jackson and tight end Jordan Reed (who didn't play on Sunday because of a concussion) being the primary playmakers. That also can be a curse, as sometimes it's been too easy for Washington to lean on that element instead of asking other players to be difference makers, as well.
It's already becoming quite apparent that style points aren't going to win the NFC East this year. The Dallas Cowboys are leading the division with a 5-1 record because rookie quarterback Dak Prescott is proving to be a capable replacement for Tony Romo and first-year running back Ezekiel Elliott is gashing defenses every week. The Eagles raced off to a hot start because their own first-year quarterback, Carson Wentz, showed his own mix of confidence and surprising savvy. The point is that these teams are making the most of what they do have, while diminishing the potential impact of their flaws.
The Redskins proved last season that their major strength is their resolve, and that once again is revealing itself this fall. When asked how his team overcame its 0-2 start, Gruden said, "It shows that they put in the work and they're resilient and we understand situational football pretty good, the importance of each down and the next down. We can overcome things that happen. You know, we gave up a kickoff return [an 86-yard touchdown by Philadelphia's Wendell Smallwood] and then an interception return back-to-back. Guys stayed resilient. Just kept working, kept grinding. That's pretty much the motto of our team right now."
The best way for this team to keep grinding is for it to continue relying on that ground attack. The Redskins are now 4-2 and their next two opponents (Detroit and Cincinnati) have struggled to stop the run all year. If Washington can do what it did against Philadelphia, it wouldn't be surprising to see that four-game win streak extend to six. That's how comfortable this team looks in its own skin at this juncture.
The Redskins also are in the perfect place to make a power move in the NFC East because they're back to flying under the radar. There is so much discussion about everyone else in the division -- from the emotional roller coaster that Odell Beckham Jr. has been riding with the Giants to the instant success of Wentz and Prescott -- that nobody has been saying much about Washington. Of course, that could all change in the coming weeks. The key is that the Redskins stick with a formula that already is paying huge dividends.