- John Keim, ESPN Staff Writer
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ASHBURN, Va. -- The response he needed to see occurred two seasons ago, near the end of a loss at Atlanta. Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins had tossed two interceptions that day, yet still drove the team to a late touchdown, only to lose on a failed two-point conversion.
But the point for Cousins: He threw interceptions and he didn't wilt. Last season, that's what the coaches felt happened and it's one reason Cousins was benched after five starts.
"You're going to throw picks," Cousins said. "It's, can you come back? I want to come back better. You're going to get in situations that are tough. To make quick decisions and get rid of the ball and avoid sacks, you're going to have times where you get rid of it quickly to avoid a sack and you saw the play wrong."
Here's why this matters: Last season, Cousins had a 47.08 passer rating after throwing his first interception in a game. After that first pick, he completed a combined 15-of-30 passes for 229 yards, one touchdown and four interceptions (three of which occurred in one game). He threw interceptions in 10 of the 14 games he's played with six multi-pick games.
Before his first interception, Cousins had a 113.8 rating -- completing 68-of-101 passes for 948 yards and five touchdowns.
"Interceptions are going to happen," he said. "It's not the turnovers as it is throwing the turnover and then not losing an ounce of confidence. That's a bigger deal. I feel good about my ability going forward to respond."
There's no way to know, of course, whether that remains an issue until he actually gets in a regular-season game, throws a pick and must respond. A lot of that depends on how well starter Robert Griffin III plays. For now, the Redskins like what they've seen when it comes to Cousins and interceptions this summer.
"He hasn't thrown many this camp. He's improved on the turnover issue very much so through OTAs and training camp and preseason games," Redskins coach Jay Gruden said. "We're impressed with the progress that Kirk has made very much. He's done a great job."
Cousins, like the other quarterbacks, feels good about where he's at entering his fourth season and second in Gruden's offense. Yes, he's facing backups in preseason games but Cousins has shown what the coaches wanted to see: a quarterback getting rid of the ball right after he hits his last step in his drop and a quarterback who has improved his ability to move in the pocket. The latter trait was evident in both the preaseason wins against Cleveland and Detroit.
Against the Browns, he created time and space in the pocket one time by sliding left, backpedaling and then dumping over the line to running back Matt Jones. Another time, he slid left thanks to pressure to his right and then connected with receiver Reggie Bell. Last week, with pressure coming upfield on the right side, Cousins kept his eyes upfield while stepping up, then slid all the way to the right, almost by the sideline, before finding Rashad Ross.
Cousins focused on this area after watching film from 2014. The hard part is improving here without facing a rush. Cousins tried to simulate game-like conditions in his head. He says he's a work in progress in this area. It's about feel.
"If you expect to sit back there in one spot and read a defense, you're kidding yourself," Cousins said. "The ability to manipulate an imperfect pocket is very important. When I take drops [in practice] I try to envision in my mind a pocket collapsing and operate as if it's a tight space. The number of times you get a wide open [pocket] is rare. In a game you're falling away and we never practice that. Some of the great ones come up with drills that mimic what they do.
"I learned in this league you have to be anal and paranoid and very much have attention to detail and constantly saying, 'What else can I do better?' At this level guys are doing that and if you're not, then you can't hang."
While Cousins has experience, he -- and his supporters -- will point out that he only has nine starts. He's only started and completed one game in which the Redskins won (vs. Cleveland his rookie season). But he has played well in relief appearances vs. Baltimore as a rookie and against Jacksonville last season.
The learning curve continues; where it takes him remains unknown -- whether it's as a future starter or career backup. Opinions have always been split on him and as a backup, there's always the promise of the unknown. But Cousins is encouraged.
"I'm still learning; I have a long ways to go and I'll be the first to admit that," Cousins said. "My mistakes are correctable. I'm not sitting here going, 'Oh my goodness, I don't have arm strength to play in this league.' Then I'm screwed. I look at it like if that's my issue I'll be fine. Every year I've gained more confidence and every year I get more experience and every year I'll be better coming back and learning from those situations and being a better quarterback. If that's my issue I just have to keep working because we can get it corrected."