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As Kirk Cousins' game evolves, Redskins should expect more

Kirk Cousins making plays with his legs was vital in the Redskins' game-tying drive late against the Chiefs on Monday night. Jason Hanna/Getty Images

ASHBURN, Va. -- The final drive showed the evolution of Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins' game. It wasn’t about a pass. It was about his legs. In his first two years starting, the Redskins wanted Cousins to extend plays. Sometimes he would, sometimes he wouldn’t.

But Monday night against the Kansas City Chiefs, that’s what he did on a game-tying drive. The Redskins would also like those plays to result in bigger ones down the field, using his arm. However, they also know it’s a positive evolution. In this case, his legs helped lead a game-tying drive.

Through the first four weeks, Cousins’ performance hasn’t yet settled the debate: Is he worth $24 million a season? There have been bad games (the opener in which he was too inaccurate), there have been terrific games (a Sunday night matchup against Oakland) and there have been moments (leading late drives for points in a win over the Los Angeles Rams and the tie Monday). Every game Cousins plays, it seems, leads to a variation of how much he should be paid.

One week he looks like a top-10 passer, but in others he looks much lower. He has shown steady improvement each week, usually coming through when needed -- after the opener. Cousins’ progression could take off in October.

"There is a lot to like, especially after the first game," Redskins coach Jay Gruden said. "He was a little bit inaccurate the first game, more so then he ever has been, but a lot of that had to do with the pressure that Philly gave him. He has improved dramatically Week 2, Week 3 and even [Monday] night."

Better start

Cousins started slowly each of his first two years as a starter, with a combined 10 touchdowns and eight interceptions in the first four weeks. This season, even with the poor opener, he’s thrown seven touchdowns and one interception. He ranks eighth in total QBR and fifth in passer rating. His grade thus far probably rates around a B-minus.

He lost two 1,000-yard receivers and now throws to one who is talented but raw (Terrelle Pryor) and another who is talented but inexperienced (Josh Doctson). Cousins must develop a trust with both players. Cousins also has a new playcaller, albeit one in Gruden who became a head coach in large part because of his offensive mind and playcalling. And there’s clearly still enough talent on board to be effective, especially with the rise of third-down back Chris Thompson. There are no excuses for not being successful.

Gruden says Cousins is getting to the line of scrimmage faster, giving himself longer to audible. He’s also more confident when calling audibles deeper in the play clock. The Redskins only delay of game penalty thus far was one they took on purpose. In his first two years as a starter, they were whistled for 14 such penalties.

“You can see he is more comfortable … with everything,” Gruden said. “He has a great handle on the offense. He can handle a lot of terminology. He can handle a lot of information, and it has shown on game day.”

The hope for Washington: It can continue to evolve as an offense because of Cousins’ comfort level. At some point, Cousins could simply go to the line with a formation, read the defense, and make the playcall.

In the opener against Philadelphia, Cousins completed just 23 of 40 passes. In Week 2 against the Rams, the Redskins relied heavily on the run game. Cousins managed the game, but on the game-winning drive, Cousins completed all three of his passes -- two of which were on third downs, including the touchdown pass to receiver Ryan Grant.

The following week, Cousins completed 25 of 30 passes for 365 yards and three touchdowns against Oakland -- throwing with excellent anticipation. Finally, against the Chiefs he was 14-of-24 for 220 yards and two touchdowns. His lone interception this season: a red zone pick against the Eagles on a play that should have resulted in a touchdown. In the red zone over the past three games, he’s completed 5-of-7 passes with three touchdowns.

Evolving his game

Playing in a hostile environment on Monday, Cousins handled the game well. The Redskins had no delay of game penalties and didn't waste any timeouts because the clock was running down. On his final drive, Cousins completed one pass for 16 yards. But he scrambled three times for 33 yards, converting on a third-and-8 in part by pump-faking and freezing a defender as he ran. Cousins handled the drive with poise; the runs were a byproduct.

On the final pass of this drive, Cousins looked quickly away (too quickly?) from tight end Jordan Reed, who would get open off a double move. Instead, he threw to Doctson. The ball was there and Doctson initially caught it, but in twisting and falling to the ground, the ball squirted out.

"I was impressed that last drive," Gruden said. "He had a couple big runs to get us into a position to get a tying field goal or possibly win the game if Josh can hang on to the ball. Kirk is playing well, and he is getting us in position to win. That’s all you can ask for.”

There clearly have been times Cousins could extend the play a little longer, possibly resulting in bigger plays. But Cousins ran the ball 26 times in 2015 and 34 times in 2016. He’s already at 15 runs this season, cutting down on forced passes and picking up yards.

“That’s an area of my game I can use more of,” Cousins said.

The final 12 games provide Cousins a chance to cement his worth, one way or another. For now, there’s steady growth -- his legs are helping that arrow point in the right direction.

“He is using his legs in the passing game and delivering strikes, but obviously there is room for improvement like there is for all of us,” Gruden said. “But I have been impressed with Kirk in the way he has come on after Week 1.”