Jerry Brewer: Pos­i­tive signs don’t sur­prise Red­skins.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - Jerry Brewer jerry.brewer@wash­post.com For more by Jerry Brewer, visit wash­ing­ton­post.com/brewer.

I stood be­fore an ir­ri­tated Ter­rance Knighton, and so I can em­pathize now with the of­fen­sive line­men he tosses around weekly. The man with the clever nick­name Pot Roast is usu­ally 354 (or so) pounds of jolly, but he has an an­gry switch. Flick it by ac­ci­dent, and he’ll act like din­ner is an hour late.

“You sound sur­prised,” the nose tackle har­rumphed. “We’re an NFL team. We’re ca­pa­ble. Don’t un­der­es­ti­mate us.”

We were talk­ing about the Washington Red­skins’ most charm­ing trait this sea­son: Just when you won­der if they’re ter­mi­nally de­fi­cient in an area, they show signs of rapid im­prove­ment.

In Week 1, they couldn’t fin­ish and lost to Mi­ami, fol­low­ing a fourth-quar­ter script that has plagued them for years. The next game, they fin­ished and did it again in Week 4. In Week 3, they lost com­po­sure on the road af­ter fall­ing be­hind 12- 0 early. The next game, they showed re­silience with a lit­tle fourthquar­ter come­back against Philadelphia.

Go even deeper, and you see the pos­i­tive signs this team has shown in four for­mer weak spots that Coach Jay Gru­den em­pha­sized through­out the off­sea­son: the run game (of­fense ranks first in NFL at 139.5 rush­ing yards per game), de­fense (fourth in the league in to­tal D, sur­ren­der­ing 288 yards per game), third-down con­ver­sions (fourth at 46.8 per­cent suc­cess rate) and the red zone (12th with 60 per­cent touch­down rate).

The sea­son is only four games old, and a 2-2 record is noth­ing to start pound­ing the chest about, but Washington is well on its way to a strik­ing level of tan­gi­ble im­prove­ment. It’s the abil­ity to ad­just and cor­rect quickly that is so en­cour­ag­ing.

Just don’t act flab­ber­gasted by all this when you go to Pot Roast — who was brought in as a free agent to help change the los­ing cul­ture — for in­sight.

“This is a dif­fer­ent team,” he said.

Prom­ise to re­spect it as such, and then Knighton will soften and turn thought­ful.

“The change is about lead­er­ship and coach­ing,” he said. “I think our lead­er­ship is show­ing on the field. No­body is giv­ing up. Coach Gru­den is send­ing the right mes­sage through the locker room right now, and the lead­ers are re­it­er­at­ing it in the locker room. It’s just a men­tal­ity that we have right now. We’re just go­ing to keep punch­ing, no mat­ter what the score is.”

Of course, when un­der­go­ing an in­cre­men­tal trans­for­ma­tion, there are fresh chal­lenges ev­ery week, more weak­nesses to ex­punge and new ques­tions to an­swer. On Sun­day, against an un­de­feated At­lanta squad that new Coach Dan Quinn has reen­er­gized in a hurry, the theme will be con­sis­tency.

It would be clas­sic Red­skins — sorry, Pot Roast, old habits have more lives than cats — to come off the Ea­gles win and lay an egg on the road. They did it at New York af­ter beat­ing St. Louis. If the cul­ture re­ally has changed, they should be com­pet­i­tive.

Yes, this is a bad matchup for Washington with start­ing cor­ner­backs Chris Cul­liver and DeAn­gelo Hall un­avail­able to play against Julio Jones and At­lanta’s di­verse pass­ing game. For­mer Washington of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Kyle Shana­han has quar­ter­back Matt Ryan play­ing at an elite level in At­lanta, and run­ning back Devonta Free­man has been an early-sea­son rev­e­la­tion. Even at full strength, this would be a huge task for the Red­skins’ de­fense.

If the most pos­i­tive pat­tern in the first quar­ter of the sea­son was the swift, self-cor­rect­ing na­ture of this team, the most neg­a­tive was the er­ratic man­ner in which it per­formed. The in­con­sis­tency hasn’t just oc­curred from game to game. From quar­ter to quar­ter, this team re­mains a mys­tery.

Washington has played three of its first four games at home, and it has led by dou­ble fig­ures in all of those con­tests. But it sur­ren­dered two of those leads and also al­lowed St. Louis back into the game af­ter get­ting ahead 17- 0.

The big­gest prob­lem has been the third quar­ter, when op­po­nents have outscored Washington, 26-3.

Gru­den preached over­com­ing ad­ver­sity last week, and his team re­sponded against Philadelphia. His new ser­mon is about con­sis­tency. The re­sults might come a lit­tle slower this time, how­ever, be­cause he’s start­ing to rely on so many young play­ers and be­cause con­sis­tency is a broad con­cept that af­fects ev­ery facet of the team.

It in­cludes depth. The team didn’t have ideal depth to start the sea­son, but now that in­juries have mounted, it’s a ma­jor con­cern. Eight pro­jected starters from the pre­sea­son won’t play Sun­day. Qual­ity re­serves have been lost, too. The at­tri­tion is alarm­ing for this early in the sea­son, and as I the­o­rized back in train­ing camp, the team’s new com­mit­ment to a highly ag­gres­sive, phys­i­cal style could cause it to fiz­zle late in the sea­son. This strat­egy is the right di­rec­tion to go, but un­til Gen­eral Man­ager Scot McCloughan can fully stock the ros­ter, the team might wear down be­fore it can en­joy the fruits of an ap­proach de­signed to wear down op­po­nents.

Still, Gru­den can sense that he’s get­ting through to these guys. Mes­sages are be­ing re­ceived. Many of these play­ers are quick learn­ers. So he can ad­vance past rudi­men­tary coach­ing tac­tics.

“It’s up to the play­ers to go out there and ac­tu­ally per­form,” Gru­den said. “Then you rely on your cap­tains to re­ally push the younger guys into be­ing in good sit­u­a­tions. Then, of course, the coach­ing staff has done an ex­cel­lent job of stress­ing the im­por­tant things from a fun­da­men­tal stand­point to a scheme stand­point to an ef­fort stand­point. When you do that the cor­rect way, you’ll get good re­sults, but we have to main­tain that level.

“We can’t play well one quar­ter and not well the next quar­ter. We’ve got to main­tain our ef­fort through four quar­ters, ob­vi­ously our fun­da­men­tals through four quar­ters, es­pe­cially against a good team like At­lanta.”

If they don’t do it, then At­lanta will em­bar­rass them. The Fal­cons have outscored op­po­nents by an av­er­age of 11 points per game this sea­son. Their plus-44 point dif­fer­en­tial is tied for sec­ond in the NFL.

The sec­ond quar­ter of the sea­son will also test the team’s abil­ity to sus­tain its im­prove­ment. The sched­ule is much tougher and will be a greater in­di­ca­tor of how much bet­ter the Red­skins truly are. Af­ter play­ing three of the first four games at FedEx Field, Sun­day starts a stretch of three of four games on the road. Those road op­po­nents — At­lanta, the New York Jets and New Eng­land — are 10-1. If not for Tampa Bay be­ing wedged into this four­pack, it would be the most suf­fo­cat­ing stretch pos­si­ble.

For fear of Knighton flat­ten­ing you, heed his ad­vice: Don’t un­der­es­ti­mate his im­prov­ing team.

But how much more can you ex­pect?

Washington football, in 2015: Chuck­ing skep­ti­cism one re­deem­ing act at a time.

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