Redskins have formula that can work in tight NFC East

Alex Smith has turned the ball over only three times in six games, helping the Redskins maintain favorable field position. Daniel Kucin Jr./Icon Sportswire

ASHBURN, Va. -- The Washington Redskins don’t want to hear the question. They just want to win a game this weekend. And that’s a good mindset: The Redskins are only 4-2, and 10 games remain.

But: Could Washington stay atop the NFC East for the rest of the season? With the defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles struggling, there’s no reason to think the Redskins can’t at least contend for the division title.

They have a formula that’s working for them, and -- provided they stay relatively healthy -- could keep them around for a while.

The run game

That’s on both sides of the ball. On offense, Adrian Peterson has rushed for 438 yards in six games, with all but 26 of it coming in their four wins. A player who wasn’t signed until mid-August has become one of their most indispensable.

The trick will be maintaining this pace for 16 games.

"He's embodied kind of a little bit of what we want to be about not only as an offense, but as a team,” Redskins quarterback Alex Smith said of Peterson. “I just think the way he's played on that edge -- physical, relentless -- that kind of physicality certainly helped set the tone for us quite a few times this year."

The line has set that tone defensively. It’s not just the Alabama guys -- Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne -- it’s also Matt Ioannidis, coming off one of his best games vs. Dallas. They all know how to take on and beat double-teams and keep the linebackers clean.

Washington ranks third in rushing yards per game and seventh in yards per carry. The Redskins held Carolina’s Christian McCaffrey and Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott to a combined 54 yards in consecutive weeks. The Redskins haven’t allowed a run of longer than 18 yards this season.

Field position

In a tight race, little details add up, and that includes turnovers and starting field position by the opposing offense. In both cases, the Redskins stand out -- and it’s not by accident. Smith remains a work in progress leading the Redskins’ offense.

Smith takes care of the ball. He’s thrown only two interceptions and lost one fumble (though he has fumbled six times). That, plus Tress Way’s punting, has helped Washington maintain good field position.

The Redskins rank seventh in the NFL in terms of opponents' starting field position (73.8 yards from the end zone). They ranked 30th in the NFL in this area last season (69.7). How big a difference does that make? Of the last nine teams in this category a year ago, eight had losing records. Ten of the top 11 had winning records.

Last season, Redskins opponents started 23 drives on their side of the 50-yard line (29th in the NFL), and the average starting position of those drives was the Redskins’ 27.6-yard line -- worst in the NFL. This season, they’ve allowed three such drives. They didn't turn the ball over in the past two games, the first time they did that in consecutive games since Weeks 11-12 in 2016.

This isn’t a surprise for a Smith-led team. During his five seasons with Kansas City, the Chiefs had a combined 72 drives start inside their 50. Only New England was better.

Way has had 14 punts downed inside the 20 -- most by any player with only six games and tied for 10th overall. Teams must drive an average of 77.5 yards after his punts.

"It's hard unless you get some chunk plays to go 85 yards consistently on 12-, 15-play drives,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said. “With our run defense, the way it's starting to pan out to be, I think it’s hard to pop runs. Then our pass rush is getting better and better and our coverage is getting better.”

The schedule

Washington’s remaining opponents have a combined 27-42 record, and only one team, the Houston Texans (4-3), has a winning record. There’s a caveat: Two of the remaining games are against the Eagles, who remain dangerous.

Six of those 10 games are on the road -- and they have four away games in one five-game stretch -- so it won’t be easy. But they don’t face a team that, right now, is playing at a high level.

Not that it’s time to relax. The Redskins are a long way from achieving anything. But they like what they’ve seen, especially in practice.

“We have a sense of urgency that we’ll get better instead of just going through the motions,” Redskins safety D.J. Swearinger said. “We go out there with a purpose.”