ASHBURN, Va. -- The Washington Redskins' defense provided glimpses of hope. They did something Sunday they rarely accomplished the last two seasons: Stop the run.
They also provided another heavy dose of frustration. They did something they also did quite often last year: Get burned on third down -- third and long, to be exact.
Which leads to this question: Where is the Redskins' defense headed? They'll get a challenge Sunday against the Los Angeles Rams, whose offense has been energized by new coach, and former Redskins offensive coordinator, Sean McVay. His skill designing offenses and helping quarterbacks will challenge the Redskins.
"They've got enough weapons they can hurt you," Redskins coach Jay Gruden said of the Rams. "It'll be a great challenge. We have a good idea of what he likes to do, but you just don't know when he's going to do it."
There were equal parts optimism and concern after the opener for Washington's defense.
Reason for optimism
Stopping the run: They'll get a chance to pad their stats against the Rams. Running back Todd Gurley averaged 3.18 yards per run last season and carried 19 times for 40 yards in the opener.
Nose tackle Ziggy Hood said he felt better prepared to play the position this season after making the switch early in 2016. He showed an ability to slide down the line and maintain his leverage, setting up others for plays. When the Redskins ran their base 3-4 defense, they allowed 3.89 yards per carry, according to ESPN Stats & Information. More impressively, they allowed just 2.14 yards on seven carries in their nickel package. Last year? They allowed 5.07 yards per carry in nickel and 4.13 in base.
The linemen did a solid job defending the run. On a third-and-1, both Hood and Terrell McClain not only occupied double teams but also didn't get moved back. They set up a stop.
The key will making this a trend and not an aberration. Keep in mind last year there were only four games in which they allowed 4.0 yards per carry or less -- and five in which they allowed more than 5.0.
Rookie Jonathan Allen stood out as well, playing with good leverage most of the game. He also had several good bull rushes. His presence will continue to be felt.
Linebacker Zach Brown: His athleticism was evident as was his ability to help in multiple situations. On that third-and-1 stop, Brown quickly shot through to make the tackle -- a quick diagnosis helped by good line play. Brown finished with two tackles for a loss and a sack. He also set up a sack with a stunt in which he attacked the inside shoulder of the right guard, allowing Matt Ioannidis to loop inside for a free path. Brown was in position to make plays and he finished. His speed adds a needed element.
Cross your fingers
Linebacker Junior Galette: After he missed two years with injuries, it's natural to worry about his health. He's healthy now and played 15 snaps Sunday, providing snapshots of how he can help, winning with explosiveness to the inside for quick rushes. His one sack was wiped out by an encroachment penalty, but the play still showed what he could do. If that continues -- Gruden said his reps will increase this week -- then the Redskins will benefit. He'll also then help the next category.
Third-down defense: Nothing has changed after the team finished last in this category in 2016. If the Redskins want to sniff the playoffs they'll have to improve. By a lot. Sunday, they allowed 8 of 14 third downs to be converted (and 5 of 9 on third-and-7 or longer). Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz completed 9 of 11 passes for 141 yards and two touchdowns on third down.
Rams quarterback Jared Goff completed 7 of 10 passes for 80 yards, one touchdown and four first downs on third down in Week 1. Last year he had a 71.4 passer rating on third down, but McVay helped improve that number -- at least for one game.
In two weeks the Redskins face the Oakland Raiders' David Carr. So the challenge will continue.
Sunday, they were burned by Wentz's legs -- on the opening-drive 58-yard touchdown pass he kept the play alive for 8.7 seconds. Two defenders didn't plaster to a receiver, as they are supposed to do in that situation: linebacker Mason Foster, who was closest to receiver Nelson Agholor when Wentz started to scramble, and safety D.J. Swearinger. The latter said after the game he wasn't supposed to plaster the receiver, but he did miss the tackle after the catch. Foster's eyes stayed on Wentz; Agholor ran free.
They rushed four on some third downs and blitzed on others. Nothing consistently worked.
One time, slot corner Kendall Fuller, playing off, allowed a catch behind the first-down marker with a two-yard cushion. Another time it was failing to corral Wentz. Another time on a third-and-10 in the fourth quarter, safety Deshazor Everett appeared to have help inside, yet lost outside leverage on a route in which tight end Zach Ertz cut inside and then back outside for an easy completion. Swearinger (who also showed that he should be a help) was animated with Everett after the play. But that was a correctable mistake. The problem: So were a lot of the third-down issues last season. After one game, they weren't corrected. There's reason to think they'll be better; there's reason to wonder.
"The defense did play hard," Gruden said. "We just had some tough deals on third down."