After what seemed to be a monotonous preseason for the Washington Redskins, they prepare to host NFC East rival, the Philadelphia Eagles, at home in their season opener. Even though its the first game of the season, a victory would help set the tone for the season and give them a win in one of the toughest divisions in the league.
If history does tend to repeat itself, then the Redskins are poised to come out victorious this Sunday. In each matchup where Kirk Cousins was the starting quarterback, the Redskins have defeated the Eagles five times in a row. Naturally, they look to continue that streak come Sunday and with their updated roster and coaching changes, have the ability to kick off the regular season in grand fashion.
The Eagles Passing Attack
Despite the Eagles finishing the 2016 season with a record of 7-9 and last in the division, their rookie quarterback Carson Wentz showed poise and promise in the pocket early in the season. Even with a lackluster receiving group, Wentz went on to break the record for most completions by a rookie (379). During the offseason, the Eagles strengthened their receiver corp by adding Torrey Smith (from the 49ers) and Alshon Jeffery (from the Bears).
In the red zone, Jeffery’s size will be utilized with fades and over the shoulder throws as his height will provide a slight advantage over the slightly shorter secondary of the Redskins. Jeffery will be their primary target throughout the game but the Redskins may have Josh Norman shadow Jeffery. Redskins defensive coordinator Greg Manusky, while with the Indianapolis Colts, loved to use his primary CB to shadow the opponents #1 receiver, a scheme that many fans wished was utilized last season with Norman.
Last season Norman faced Jeffery as the Redskins took on the Chicago Bears in Week 16. Jeffery went on to haul in 5 out of 10 passes for 92 yards and no touchdowns. Norman had a few deflections and got beat on a high ball where Jeffery made an incredible catch but Norman stayed in stride with Jeffery and was there for the immediate tackle. Also, Norman racked up a pair of interceptions, one of them being a poor wobbly pass but still great reaction by Norman.
Head Coach Jay Gruden is familiar with this match up and recently said, “When we played him last year he had some big plays against us, we know what kind of threat he is. He has the speed to beat you vertically, but the strength to catch all the intermediate stuff and run after the catch. He is one of those all-around receivers you have to be aware of at all times.”
Gruden is quite aware of what kind of play making ability Jeffery has and will want to minimize his impact on the field. Using Norman to shadow him with newly acquired safety DJ Swearinger to provide any assistance over the top, the Redskins matchup well against Jeffery and company. Smith provides speed and a deep threat that should test Bashaud Breeland and newly appointed starting safety Deshazor Everett. Wentz and the passing attack may test Everett as he’s the least experienced player in the secondary which could become problematic if he begins to get beaten on big plays.
Lastly, and one of the biggest threats, will be Eagles tight end Zach Ertz. Redskins always seem to have issues against tight ends and last season in their last matchup, Ertz caught 10 passes for 112 yards but fortunately didn’t find the end zone. Defensively, the Redskins have upgraded their linebacker position with the addition of Zach Brown. Brown is coming off a pro bowl career with the Buffalo Bills and played well in both the run and passing game. He’s more then capable to be a three-down linebacker which then the Eagles won’t be able to key in on if the Redskins are lining up for a run or pass.
If Brown, alongside Mason Foster, can plug up the middle in the passing game and keep Ertz covered across the middle, then the Redskins should be able to contain him. Add in the ability to bring pressure with disguised blitzes and rattle Wentz early and often, the Redskins could control the flow of the game. Manusky may use a mixture of 3-4 Zone Cover 3 and two-gap system to be a bit more aggressive on the line, a welcoming change. Last season, it appeared most of the defensive backs played soft at the line, allowing for quick completions that would eat up yards.
The Run Stop
During the offseason, the Eagles acquired LeGarrette Blount from the New England Patriots to add to the staples of running backs currently on their roster. Add in Darren Sproles, Wendell Smallwood, and a pair of rookies with Corey Clement and Donnel Pumphrey, the running back by committee appears that no one really took the role and ran with it (pun intended).
Even Head Coach Doug Pederson recently said, “It goes back to the game plan, quite honestly, we understand that LeGarrette might be a little different runner even than Sproles or Wendell. I think it’s game plan specific. It’s hard to go into a game saying, ‘LeGarrette, you’re going to get X number of touches,’ because you never know what the game — what circumstances might be posed during the game.”
If Blount is utilized similar to his time with the Patriots, he’ll be more between the tackles and goal line whereas Sproles and Smallwood will be the receiving backs that can get to the outside and use their speed. Fortunately for the Redskins, their two first draft picks Jonathan Allen and Ryan Anderson have excelled against the running game. Allen has an innate ability to shed tackles and fill his gap quickly whereas Anderson has shown he can cut off running lanes, causing the runner to run more side to side. This is where linebackers Brown, Foster and Preston Smith can rush to the outside and wrap up the ball carrier.
However, with all their speed and proven tackling ability, the Redskins will have to win the most important battle; the trenches. The Eagles offensive line is quietly dominant with bookend tackles Jason Peters and Lane Johnson. If the Redskins want to win the battle to bring pressure they will have to rely on nose tackle Ziggy Hood.
During the preseason, Phil Taylor looked like his former self before his string of injuries and it appeared the Redskins have found a player who could fill the nose tackle position perfectly. Unfortunately in Week 3 of the preseason, Taylor went down with a quad injury and later that week, it was reported he will miss the entire season. Hood has been named the starting nose tackle, an extremely important position for a 3-4 defense. If he’s able to draw double teams, this should allow Ryan Kerrigan and Smith some leverage in blitz packages.
Last season, the Eagles used run plays only 41% of the time and with their upgrades in the passing game, expect a more pass happy offense. They will try and test the Redskins run defense early however and if are able to break off large runs, a more even balance of run and pass may have the Redskins scrambling more then they’d like.
The biggest variable will be how Manusky uses blitz packages. Wentz last season after a hot start, began to see a lot more pressure and made several mental mistakes. Only rushing 3 or 4 won’t be enough and will give Wentz and his offense too much time to pick apart the defense. If Manusky rotates in Junior Galette and he’s able to play at the caliber that’s expected then the Redskins will rattle Wentz.
Thankfully the Redskins used the offseason to upgrade their defensive roster because they will be tested in this matchup against the Eagles. It will be a long and heated divisional battle but the Redskins should have the upper hand.
The Redskins Passing Juggernaut?
The most hyped offseason acquisition this season for the Redskins was when they signed Terrelle Pryor. After losing both DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon to free agency, an immediate upgrade was necessary and Pryor has the capability to be an even bigger target then Jackson and Garcon. However, this preseason Cousins and Pryor have had trouble connecting with Pryor only hauling in 2 receptions for 28 yards.
It’s not an major concern as it does take time to build chemistry between a quarterback and receiver and while they continue to build upon their connection, Cousins still has Jamison Crowder and Jordan Reed. Already having a strong bond, Cousins will look to them as his safety blankets in the passing game. Last season, Crowder accumulated 847 yards and 7 touchdowns. Even with Jackson streaking down the sideline, Crowder still caught 11 passes for over 20 yards and 3 passes for over 40 yards. Expected to play a lot more slot, Crowder could become a deep threat but is also more then able to run any route.
Throw in Josh Doctson, who is expected to play this Sunday, and the Redskins have one of the more prolific passing offenses in the league. Even though Doctson’s playing ability is as much unknown as Pryor, his athletic ability shouldn’t be counted out. Him and Pryor have the height over the Eagles secondary, whose tallest starting defensive back is just 6′ 0″, whereas both Doctson and Pryor are 6′ 4″. Cousins will have to place the ball a little higher to give them the upper hand in coverage.
Also, the Eagles have two new starters at corner with Ronald Darby and Jalen Mills. Redskins should be looking to attack them and create mismatches often and help string early completions for Cousins to help him settle into the passing attack. Add in multiple tight end sets with Reed and Vernon Davis, and the passing lanes should start to open up for Cousins.
The major concern which came up a lot during the preseason will be protecting Cousins from the pressure. Eagles starting defensive tackles Tim Jernigan and Fletcher Cox will be barraging the offensive line constantly and Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz will dial up the pressure. Expect to see more stints at the line as the Redskins offensive line had trouble throughout the preseason protecting against them.
Luckily good news came through as center Spencer Long was cleared to start this Sunday. Even though rookie Chase Roullier had a strong debut, Long has a bond with the offensive line which could be the difference between a sack and a completion. Keep Cousins upright with a time for the vertical passing game to develop then the Redskins should be able to pass well against the young and smaller secondary.
Make A Run For It
Still the weakest aspect of the Redskins offense, the run game still hasn’t shaped up to Grudens vision. Starting running back Rob Kelley started off slow in the preseason but opened it up in Week 3 against the Cincinnati Bengals. Amassing 57 yards on 10 rushes and breaking a 21-yard long run, Kelley grew more patient in the backfield and showed better vision. He will have to be decisive in his cuts because Schwartz tends to play a lot of nickel defense.
If Schwartz does play Nickel, he tends to use five defensive backs with just two linebackers, usually Nigel Bradham and Jordan Hicks, who’ve done well previously for Schwartz. Whereas, their third linebacker, Mychal Kendricks has struggled rotating in the Nickel and has shown more to work well as a blitzer. If the Redskins see him rotate in then they should key in and attack the outside to create that mismatch.
Even if the Redskins start off slow in the run, Gruden has show in the past seasons and mentions it every chance he gets, he will not abandon the run. “We’ve got to figure out a way to be balanced,” Gruden says. “Not just at the beginning of the year but at the end of the year. I think sometimes when you have so many weapons, everybody’s like ‘Man, Jordan. Jamison. Josh. Terrelle. Just throw the ball every snap.’ But I think our offense is best when we can run the ball, be physical.”
Another key player in the run game will be Chris Thompson. He’s become a primary receiving back and is able to play the screen extremely well. The only issue is that when he’s in the huddle, it’s almost a tell to the defense to key in on Thompson for the expected dump pass. Cousins could use this to his advantage and look to the other side of the field for a quick slant to a receiver along the sideline.
The run game will have it’s challenges but the Redskins do have some success last season against the Eagles. In their first matchup, the Redskins 230 yards on the ground but a large chunk was from Matt Jones whose no longer on the roster. Kelley gained only 59 yards with one run going for 45 yards. The other four attempts went for a total of 14 yards, nothing amazing but were critical third down completions. The next matchup held similar results but Thompson did have a game winning 25-yard rush for a touchdown that gave the Redskins the lead late in the 4th quarter. If the Redskins can achieve similar success pounding the ball and abusing the defensive line to open the passing, then the rushing attack will be a triumph.
A mixture of Kelley and Thompson will be crucial for Gruden if he wants to keep the running game alive and relevant throughout the game. The biggest test will be the offensive lines set protections. Blown protections similar to what happened during the preseason, then the Redskins will have to abandon the run and become one dimensional. It’s happened before and Cousins has the ability to overcome the weakness, it’s just not an ideal situation.
Gruden is 0-3 as a head coach in his season opener’s but Cousins is 5-0 against the Eagles as a starter. So, what will give? Gruden will overcome his bad start and Cousins will get his 6th victory against the Eagles due in part to the newly revamped defense playing more aggressive on the line and the passing game proving too much for the Eagles young and smaller secondary.
Redskins 24, Eagles 20
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