The Washington Redskins (0-1) host the Dallas Cowboys (0-1) in their NFC East opener Sunday at FedEx Field, with the loser relegated to an 0-2 start that’s bound to trigger panic among its fans. Here are five story lines to follow:
1. Kirk Cousins’s progression: In his debut as a highly compensated, franchise-tagged quarterback, Cousins threw for more than 300 yards. But Pittsburgh’s defense all but invited him to throw short- and mid-range passes and shut down anything deep. Moreover, Cousins missed key throws, made some poor decisions and failed to improvise with his feet on must-have downs. As a result, the Redskins were toothless in the red zone, forced to punt on their first three scoring drives. Coach Jay Gruden doesn’t believe Cousins lacks confidence, but he was far from authoritative in the 38-16 loss to Pittsburgh. The team needs far more from him if it intends to defend its NFC East title.
2. Jump-starting a stalled running game: The Redskins’ running game was non-existent against Pittsburgh (12 carries, 55 yards) – ineffective at the outset, with Matt Jones losing four yards on his first two carries, and abandoned by offensive coordinator Sean McVay once Washington fell behind. Getting the running game going is critical to keeping Cousins out of third-and-longs, converting third downs (they were just three of 10 against Pittsburgh) and, in turn, keeping its defense fresh. McVay acknowledged that he needs to do better at mixing up the play-calling and staying patient with the running game. Against Pittsburgh, the play-calling seemed to suggest that the Redskins don’t trust Jones and worry about exposing Chris Thompson to injury. Maybe it’s time to give rookie Robert Kelley a chance.
3. Cornerback Josh Norman’s assignment: Defensive coordinator Joe Barry’s decision to plant Norman, whom the Redskins made the NFL’s highest paid cornerback in the offseason, on one side of the field rather than have him shadow wide receiver Antonio Brown was the most puzzling aspect of the loss to Pittsburgh. Barry’s explanation – that getting the other defensive backs lined up properly would have been “hard” if Norman tracked Brown – was also a head-scratcher. Now comes Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant. Barry may voice all the confidence in the world in his No. 2 cornerback, Bashaud Breeland. But why pay Norman top dollar if he’s not tasked with covering opponents’ top receiver?
4. Rookie QB Dak Prescott takes a next step: The Cowboys never imagined that Prescott, their fourth-round draft pick from Mississippi State, would be pressed into service on opening day. But after losing Tony Romo to a back injury, Dallas had to be pleased with Prescott’s NFL debut, despite the loss to the Giants. He managed a potential game-winning drive well, but the last-gasp rally was spoiled by a receiver’s failure to duck out of bounds. Nonetheless, Prescott did enough to suggest that Cowboys aren’t necessarily doomed without Romo. Coach Jason Garrett likes the growth he has seen in his rookie. “He works, and he prepares,” Garrett said of Prescott. Will the Redskins’ pass rush fare better against Prescott than it did against Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger?
5. Defending the run: The Redskins’ defense couldn’t stop DeAngelo Williams, Pittsburgh’s No. 2 running back, who gained 143 yards and rushed for two scores. Now comes the Cowboys’ tandem of first-round draft pick Ezekiel Elliott and two-time Pro Bowler Alfred Morris, whom the Redskins let depart via free agency. Morris has downplayed any suggestion that he’s out for vengeance in his return to FedEx Field; he simply wants to play well. He and Elliott could have memorable afternoons against a suspect defensive line that wasn’t upgraded in the offseason. Heading into Week 2, starting end Chris Baker is ailing with sore ribs, and Kendall Reyes is out with a groin injury. Cullen Jenkins, a 13-year NFL veteran, was re-signed this week to fill the breach on a patched-together unit.