ASHBURN — When Jay Gruden pored over the film of his last four season openers — all of which were losses — he didn’t like what he saw. As he went through his review, the Redskins coach kept noticing the same types of mistakes.
He cut them up and showed them to his team in a film session.
“Turnovers really,” Gruden said of the difference. “I think most games that you lose, you lose the turnover battle, and we did that in pretty much all of them. Key turnovers cost us in all four of those first games and it can’t happen.”
Teams always preach the importance of “starting fast,” but for the Redskins in Sunday’s matchup against the Arizona Cardinals, that means protecting the football.
Through Gruden’s four years at the helm, Week 1 numbers in the turnover category are cover-your-eyes ugly: five interceptions, five lost fumbles and a -5 turnover differential. There have been special teams miscues, as well — including a blocked punt, a fumble on a punt return and an allowed punt return touchdown.
Further, of the Redskins’ 10 combined interceptions and lost fumbles, seven occurred in a one-score game.
But the Redskins hope this year is different — in large part because they have quarterback Alex Smith, whose best trait is arguably protecting the football.
Smith, who threw just five interceptions last season, was 4-1 with the Kansas City Chiefs in season openers — throwing 12 touchdowns to only four interceptions. Of those four, three came in a Week 1 loss in 2014.
Smith said turnovers happen when not every player is on the same page.
For the Redskins to pull off a win in Arizona, they, too, will have to be in sync. Washington is reincorporating tight end Jordan Reed, running back Chris Thompson and wide receiver Jamison Crowder after all three playmakers missed the preseason as a precaution. Smith and the Redskins have said they believe the extensive amount of practice time will have them more than prepared.
Thompson, Crowder and Reed, too, shouldn’t be limited in their reps. Reed told reporters the pain has subsided in his toes after he dealt with nagging pain all last season. Thompson said he’s no longer nervous about his previously broken leg after be worried in training camp. Crowder was dealing with a minor groin injury, which he said is gone.
If all three are healthy, they’ll be reliable options for Smith, particularly on third-down.
Washington, meanwhile, have had a slightly different challenge when it comes to preparing for the Cardinals, who have a first-year head coach in Steve Wilks. Because this is Week 1 and teams hide schemes in the preseason, the Redskins have had to closely study the tape of teams like the Carolina Panthers (Wilks’ last stop) and the Denver Broncos (who last employed Cardinals offensive coordinator Mike McCoy).
The Redskins will also have to stop quarterback Sam Bradford, running back David Johnson and wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald. Johnson, in particular, figures to be the engine to Arizona’s offense. While the running back missed all but one game last season with a wrist injury, Johnson had 2,118 yards from scrimmage in 2016.
Johnson will be a great test for the Redskins’ improved defensive line, which hopes to be better at stopping the run after drafting first-rounder Daron Payne.
“We have to make sure we tackle, tackle well on Sunday, and play team defense so everybody knows exactly where they’re supposed to be, [where] your fits are, and try to swarm the running back because he’s a good one,” defensive coordinator Greg Manusky said. “It’s a must for us.”
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