LANDOVER, Md. — All games and no practice reps make Alex Smith a dull quarterback.
Injuries to receivers Jamison Crowder and Paul Richardson and running backs Adrian Peterson and Chris Thompson have kept them from getting work in with Smith at practice and stunted the Washington Redskins' passing game so far this season. The NFC East-leading Redskins have run all over opponents with a banged-up Peterson, boasted a much-improved defense and is only missing the kind of effective passing game they'll see Sunday when they host Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons.
"I think the success for a lot of NFL teams is if you can stop the run, and you can run the ball and control the clock, you've got a chance to win some games. We've been able to do all three," Thompson said. "The passing game has been up and down. It's been slow. We've been without our full group of receivers for a little bit of time. ... We just have to find a way to do a better job."
Smith and the Redskins (5-2) have averaged 212.7 yards in the air, and only three teams have fewer passing touchdowns than their eight. They won't have Crowder again this week as he'll miss his fourth consecutive game with an ankle injury.
Atlanta (3-4) has been battered by injuries to both starting guards and safeties, running back Devonta Freeman and linebacker Deion Jones and as a result hasn't lived up to preseason expectations. Ryan has held up his end of the bargain with 15 touchdowns and two interceptions and leads the NFL with 333.6 yards a game with the benefit of a receiving corps of Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu and rookie Calvin Ridley.
"He's obviously done a tremendous job of reading defenses and putting a lot of different guys in advantageous situations," tight end Austin Hooper said. "That's just a credit to the work Matt's put in all year. If he keeps it going, good things will come."
That's also the Redskins' message to Smith, who also has thrown only two picks and been solid at managing the ball even if the yards haven't piled up. Smith doesn't believe he has been too cautious, but acknowledges the passing game has to be far more effective in certain areas.
"The ones that stand out though are the situational stuff, the third downs that you don't convert because they would have given you a whole other rack of opportunities," Smith said. "The red zone, obviously because it's so vital. I think the situational stuff always tends to jump out when you don't execute, because of its magnitude."
Washington is 22nd in the league on third down and 25th in the red zone. Those particular failings speak to Smith still needing to get in sync with tight end Jordan Reed, Crowder, Richardson and Josh Doctson in his first year with the Redskins.
With so many missed opportunities at practice because of injuries, Smith said one of the biggest hurdles is he and receivers reading the same coverage from a defense and being on the same page.
"There is really a premium on both the receiver and quarterbacks seeing the same thing and reacting to it the same way, and I think that's the hard part," Smith said. "There are times when it is cut and dried, when it's pure zone and we're spacing the field and timing routes and there are times when it's purely man and you just beat him. But a lot of times, it's a blend of the two and I think you've got to see the same thing, react to it the same way."
Some things to watch when the Falcons visit the Redskins:
Blips in the passing game have made it all the more valuable that Peterson is still running strong at 33. Peterson has rushed for 587 yards and four touchdowns through seven games and is the most important piece of Washington's offense.
"He's playing so well right now, when we call a running play, he better be out there," coach Jay Gruden said. "I expect him to be a major part of our offense moving forward. He has to be right now, the way we are throwing the ball."
Jones needs 134 yards receiving in his 102nd career game to become the fastest to 10,000. He's averaging 116 yards a game as part of a deep group of Falcons receivers the Redskins are concerned about.
"They get open, they separate, they go up and get the ball," Washington linebacker Zach Brown said. "It's just hard to have corners to deal with that."
While the Falcons stood pat at Tuesday's trade deadline, the Redskins acquired safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix from Green Bay for a fourth-round pick. The combination of Clinton-Dix and D.J. Swearinger, who had two interceptions last week against the Giants, gives Washington arguably the best duo of safeties in the league.
"I came here to play," Clinton-Dix said. "I came here to work. Even if that's on special teams, I'm just helping contribute to this team any way I can, because No. 20 is going to be suited up this weekend, and you can bet that."
Part of Atlanta's rough road so far this season has been an 0-2 record on the road with a close loss at Philadelphia and a blowout one at Pittsburgh. The same offense that has put up over 32 points a game at home has managed just over two touchdowns on the road.
"The biggest issue is cadence, or the lack thereof, in the ability to hear," Hooper said. "It's just in understanding the subtle, nonverbal signals that allow you to play fast."