Last week, the Washington Redskins hosted the Minnesota Vikings in a slugfest of the NFC and ultimately came up just short on Sunday. Losing 30-38, the Redskins fall to 4-5 and continue their path through the gauntlet that is their schedule. So far this season, the Redskins have faced the toughest schedule in the league with their opponents currently having a win percentage of 0.659. Remember, that includes the 1-9 San Francisco 49ers.
One would imagine that it would get easier for the Redskins after being put through such daunting matchups, especially with the injuries they’ve been having, and while there’s light at the end of the tunnel, it’s not until after this Sunday. The Redskins travel down to New Orleans to take on the red hot Saints. The Saints are currently on a seven game winning streak and last week they dismantled the Buffalo Bills, 47-10. To say a tough task lies ahead would be an understatement.
This week we’re going to change it up a little and for our preview matchup we’ll look at 5 key ways to beating the New Orleans Saints.
Current NFL Stats and Rankings
A stark contrast based upon the numbers but the Saints schedule has been easier in comparison having faced five defenses that are at bottom third in allowed yards per game. Also, four of their opponents offenses are ranked in the bottom third for yards per game as well. That isn’t to say that the Saints haven’t been playing well because they have but have been putting up bigger numbers against weaker teams.
The Redskins, on the other hand, have had their struggles on both sides of the ball but every game this far they’ve been in it with a chance to tie or take the lead well into the fourth quarter. The biggest issue has been the inconsistency from week to week and even sometimes from drive to drive. They appear to be playing better than their rankings but this Sunday will be one of their toughest matchups yet.
1) Chris Thompson and the Screen Game
After a hot start, Chris Thompson has been fairly quiet over the past few weeks. It mainly comes from the Redskins tough matchups against Minnesota, Seattle and Dallas, all of whom have been able to shut down the screen game well. This week should be different as the Saints are currently ranked 27th against screen plays to running backs. They’ve been more focused on stopping the run between the tackles. In order to be effective, they bring down safeties Kenny Vaccaro and Vonn Bell into the box leaving the corners to play man and the sidelines fairly open. There will be yards to be gained on the edge, it’s just knowing when to attack will be the difference.
Lining up in the gun with Kirk Cousins and allowing him to read the defense pre-snap, he then can have either Thompson run out into the flat if the safeties come down or he can handoff to Thompson using tight end Niles Paul in motion to be the lead blocker on the edge. The Redskins haven’t had success running the back between the tackles and with Rob Kelley now on injured reserve, the chances of having success using power running is extremely unlikely.
The biggest threat to Thompson in the run game will be getting past the Saints edge rushers, Jordan Cameron and Alex Okafor. Both have speed and great awareness when a ball carrier is racing towards them. They can easily shed their blocks to make a tackle for a loss or at least slow down the ball carrier which gives time for their linebackers to make the tackle.
Using a three man tight end set if Niles Paul is cleared to play would help tremendously in terms of blocking. Jeremy Sprinkle has shown the willingness to block (and not hold) which would prove useful even if it’s a quick chip block to buy enough time to allow Thompson to get to the edge. Another option would be using Ryan Anderson again in as fullback to plow through a defender to create a lane. In the screen game, have one or two tight ends out in front to block would also be beneficial.
Either way, getting the ball in Thompson’s hands will be important early to test the Saints defense quickly and often. If the Saints then begin to key on Thompson, this could open things up for the passing game.
2) Which Receiver Steps Up This Week?
It seems every week is the tale of a different receiver making an incredible catch. Last week, Maurice Harris made one of the best catches of the season so far to give the Redskins an early lead against the Vikings. The week prior, Brian Quick and Josh Doctson both had incredible catches that ultimately gave the Redskins the go ahead touchdown to beat the Seattle Seahawks. Ryan Grant and Jamison Crowder all have had big weeks previously but just like every other receiver, have not been consistent.
At first, it may seem as a negative that currently no receiver has over 500 yards but that goes to show that Cousins has been spreading the ball around. Even though there’s no clear #1 receiver, each player is capable to making a play when needed the most. The Saints will most likely try to take Doctson out of the game which leaves opportunities for Harris, Crowder, Quick, Grant, Thompson and even Vernon Davis. Not all of them will be lined up at once but having the ability to utilize so many different threats in the passing game could keep the Saints guessing.
However, it’s much easier said than done as the Saints secondary has become one of the best in the league. Centered around Kenny Vaccaro, who has yet allowed a touchdown, and the rookie Marshon Lattimore, the Saints are allowing an average of 201.4 passing yards per game, 7th best in the league. Combined with the aggressive pass rush from their front seven, opposing quarterbacks don’t have a lot of time in the pocket. This can lead to costly interceptions.
Fortunately Cousins has been good at not turning it over, only 5 interceptions through 9 games. Though he’s been safe with the ball, sometimes he may appear to be unwilling to throw into tight windows. There’s not going to be wide open receivers against the Saints secondary so trusting his receivers and putting them in spots where only they can reach (like the Harris throw) will make all the difference in the passing game.
In yesterday’s post-practice press conference, Cousins talked about Harris and Crowder:
“When they’re covered, they can still come down with the ball in a way that the stat line shows that it was as if he was wide open. I think I’ve always felt that Maurice is that, as well as another guy who stands out in that way uniquely is Jamison Crowder. I’ve always felt like Jamison at times makes me a more accurate quarterback with the way that he tracks the football in the air. Those are skills that have to be developed and take time and some guys have it a little more naturally than others, and I think Maurice and Jamison do have a unique trait there in the way they can be QB-friendly.”
Crowder, who missed practice for a personal reason, should be fine to play Sunday and according to Cousins sounds like he will be targeted often. Harris hasn’t seen much playing time but after coming up big and hearing Cousins speak highly of him, his snap count should increase. The matchups will be tight but it appears Cousins is more trusting of his receivers and forcing the ball into their hands.
Who will be the star receiver this week?
3) Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara: Stopping The Rush
In previous years the trick to beating that Saints was to get to Drew Brees and disrupt his passing rhythm. Flexible in the pocket but if he’s rattled enough he’s much less effective in the passing game. There was no real running game threat. Well, now there’s a serious running threat and it’s a two-headed dragon.
Rookie Alvin Kamara started the season fairly quiet as Chiefs rookie running back Kareem Hunt took off immediately and quickly took the attention of fans across the league. The past few weeks, Hunt has been quiet and Kamara has become a household name. Mix in Mark Ingram who’s on track to have his best rushing season yet, and the ground attack has become a major factor in the Saints success.
Both are primarily used on first and second down as rushers but in third down situations, Kamara is used more as the screen threat to convert for a first down. Having a true running game has given Brees even greater weapons and has taken off some of the weight to be the dominant passer that he’s been for so many seasons. That doesn’t mean he’s still not capable because with Michael Thomas and Ted Ginn Jr.
In fact, Brees is currently on pace for the lowest passing yards as the quarterback for the Saints. He’s averaging just 266.4 yards per game through 9 games, putting him on pace for just 4,262.8 yards for the season. If he ends the season with that many passing yards, it will be his lowest total yards surpassing his 2009 season when he threw for 4,388 yards in just 15 games. It just shows with having Ingram and Kamara running the ball, Brees isn’t pressured to carry the team on his back. After practice this week, Brees said:
“Listen, it’s great. Obviously what they’ve been able to do in the run game and also the pass game, I think they’re matchup problems when you get them out on the perimeter and obviously they’re very effective at running it as well.”
Defensively, the Redskins will rely heavily on Martrell Spaight and Zach Brown. Brown is coming off one of his worst performances of the season against the Vikings. He appeared to be hesitant with his rushes and waiting for the runner to come to him. He’ll have to be more aggressive which he’s shown he’s capable of doing. Also, last week Brown wasn’t the lead communicator for the defense and head coach Jay Gruden has said that Brown will be the voice of the defense on Sunday.
Brown has been nursing a sore achilles which may be the lead cause for his slower mobility as the primary run stopper. He’s been limited in practice but is expected to play but will have to play perfect in order to stop Ingram and Kamara.
Spaight is filling in for a depleted linebacker unit with Will Compton and Matt Ioannidis both out for injuries. Last week, he started off hesitant but as the game progressed he became more aggressive. The biggest weakness in the Saints offensive line is center Max Unger. Currently rated as the 30th worst center according to PFF, Unger has been allowing the most pressures amongst the offensive line and has been poor in run blocking. The point of attack for Spaight will have to be right up the middle.
The Saints will most likely use base offense with two tight ends to maximize protection and to keep Redskins best screen defensive player, Kendall Fuller off the field. Stacy McGee and Terrell McClain haven’t been dominant against the run, more so just a body taking up a block. That means Ryan Kerrigan and Preston Smith will have to be ready to shed blocks or at least slow down the running back. If not, there may be a lot of open field for the Saints.
Controlling the Clock – Winning Time of Possession
As previously stated, the Saints offensive is very well-rounded and is able to move the ball fairly regularly. Besides big defensive stops, the offense will have the methodically kill the clock with a heavy dosage of runs so that Brees and company are on the sideline. On average, the Saints have been controlling the clock for 32:36, third best in the league while the Redskins average 30:37, thirteenth overall.
Not only will it keep the Saints offense off the field, it will slowly deteriorate the Saints defense as the game goes on. If the game comes down to another “Save us Kirk Cousins” drive and the defense has been on the field for long stretches, it will be that much easier to march down the field for a touchdown or field goal.
Even though the Redskins has suffered all season (outside of the Rams game) and even with Matt Jones out, Gruden will have to stay committed to the run where it’s applicable. There’s no reason to be rushing on a 3rd down and 11 unless Cousins seems something completely off on the defense but on a 2nd and 4 or even 1st and 10, try running a jet sweep. It may not amount to an average of 6.5 yards a carry but killing the clock that ultimately ends in points will be one of the major deciding factors of who comes out with a victory.
Red Zone Defense
There’s very little to no chance to win when the defense allows a team to score 5 out of 5 times when they are in the red zone. Last week, the Vikings were perfect in the red zone with 5 touchdowns on every trip within the 20. For such tight windows, it appeared there were wide open receivers and running lanes for the Vikings to take advantage of. There needs to be tight coverage with aggressive bumping at the line of scrimmage.
A lot of it will stem from DJ Swearinger who has been the most vocal and expressive player on the defense. He’s definitely not shy to voice his opinion. Last week after the lost to the Vikings, he commented:
“As the defense, I’ve been saying that all year. Our Friday practices has got to be the best practice we have. If we don’t start that culture here, that our Friday practice has got to be your best practice, your most mentally sharp practice, we’re going to keep losing.”
He sees where the problem lies but will it change? It seems a common theme for the Redskins is trying to patch big problems with small solutions. If Swearinger believes that practice on Friday was a major culprit for losing, then he needs to be the catalyst of change. This also translates onto the field. If a player is out of position or he sees something on the offense he believes is a mismatch for them then he will need to change things immediately.
The Saints at home have an 80% red zone efficiency in scoring a touchdown which is tied for the 4th best. With all of his weapons, Brees has been extremely efficient on capitalizing when close to the goal line. Just last week, they rushed for 6 touchdowns against the Bills, one of which came from Brees. They will be in the red zone at least four times this Sunday and in order to stay close, the Redskins will have to force a field goal at least 50% of the time.
Outside of Swearinger, it will rest heavily on what defensive coordinator Greg Manusky can conjure up. His message of smash mouth football has been great in between the twenties but has resulted into one of the worst red zone defenses. Dialing up the blitzes to crash through the line and pressure Brees, or stopping the rush for a loss, may be necessary to preventing another situation similar to the Vikings game.
It seems obvious to prevent the Saints from scoring touchdowns but without a new gameplan, it may be another shootout that will ultimately come down to Cousins…once again.
The New Orleans Saints is one of the hottest teams right now and show no signs of stopping after demolishing the Bills 47-10 last week. The Redskins come off a tough loss against the Vikings are still quite banged up on both sides of the ball that is starting to show its impact. It’s another game that is entirely dependant on Cousins and the offense that doesn’t do enough to overcome a porous defense.
Redskins 23, Saints 34
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