Before the Redskins take on the Giants at FedExField, Redskins.com's Jake Kring-Schreifels and Dante Koplowitz-Fleming provide the storylines and matchups to follow on Sunday.
1. Cut down pre-snap mistakes
Head coach Jay Gruden doesn’t usually take his temper out at the media when he’s addressing reporters at the podium, but Thursday afternoon he let some of his frustration on the football field spill over.
When asked about the challenges the offense is facing with another new quarterback under center, Gruden didn’t hesitate.
“The cadence is the biggest thing right now, I’m about to go crazy,” he said.
Last week against the Eagles, the Redskins committed four false start penalties, a product of losing two more starting guards, a silent snap count and the difficult adjustment to quarterback Mark Sanchez being inserted into the offense after Colt McCoy’s leg injury.
Gruden was particularly upset because the offensive line committed a couple more false starts during practice Thursday, an area that needs some serious renovation before Sunday’s game against the Giants. They’re drive killers, and the pre-snap penalties cause frustration within the unit and prevent the kind of rhythm and flow needed to sustain successful point-scoring possessions.
“You’ve gotta really be consistent with your cadence, you’ve gotta be able to change it up, because you give Olivier Vernon and these defensive linemen for the Giants, ‘hey it’s on one every time,’ they will kill our tackle no matter how good they are, they’ll get the jump,” Gruden said. “They have to change the cadence up, that’s been the biggest issue right now and we’re working through that, the more reps we get the more we’ll get ready by Sunday.”
Just like last week, when Colt McCoy finally received a full week of practice, Sanchez has had that opportunity, too, using practice time and meetings to get on the same page with his offensive linemen to get them used to his calls at the line.
“You want to do it right, because that’s the way they would have done it,” Sanchez said. Then you get guys around you, guys who've been a long time, Vernon Davis, Trent Williams, guys like that, helping new guys, talking to them, knowing that yeah I've got a job and they could just stay in their lane, but also understanding, hey man this guy is new next to me, we've got a new quarterback and hey man this is how we do the cadence, this is how we do this kind of formation, don’t forget to tag so and so. Hey I'm going to be a little flatter on this because of that. Here's how we've kind of done it in the past, just bringing guys along and I've seen that in this locker room. There's a great comradery on this team and they really understand that we're down some guys – its next man up and let's roll."
2. Get off the field on third down
When asked what has gone wrong with the Redskins defense in the last month, Josh Norman was unequivocal in his response.
"We've just got to get off the field,” Norman said. “Got to find a way to get off the field."
But past that, Norman didn’t have an answer for the nosedive Washington’s defense has taken in the last month.
In the early part of the season, much of Washington’s success was attributed to its defense. D.J. Swearinger Sr. was making headlines as Pro Football Focus’ top graded safety, and the young defensive line duo of Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne was gaining fame as the Alabama Wall. Add Matt Ioannidis and his 7.5 sacks through nine games and you had the recipe for a playoff defense.
Fast forward a month and everything is different. They’ve gone 1-4 in their last five games, giving up an average of 30 points in those losses. But what really stands out, like Norman emphasized, is the third down percentage. Washington’s defense is ranked 29th in the league in third down percentage (44.1 percent).
But that number has looked even worse in their recent skid, as ESPN reporter John Keim pointed out on Twitter.
For comparison, the worst third down rate in the league right now belongs to Cincinnati's defense which is allowing opponents to convert on 53.9 percent of third down attempts. A team has never finished the season allowing more than 50 percent of opponent’s third downs to be converted in the last 27 years, when the NFL started tracking third down conversion rates for defense.
Luckily, Washington probably won’t be finding itself in the record books for that stat due to their early season boost, but to have a shot at the Giants this Sunday they will need to get more third down stops.
In the Giants' last four games after their bye week they’ve gone 3-1, averaging 29.3 points per game and converting on 40 percent of third downs.
The Giants are a better team now than when the Redskins played them in Week 8, when the defense sacked Eli Manning seven times and only allowed the Giants to convert on 2-of-14 third downs.
Having a repeat performance against a division rival at home could do a lot for a defense that seems to have no answers, and this Sunday is the perfect opportunity for Washington to start stepping up on third down.
“Teams are just really going to attack you, you know what mean? They find a way to get at us and until we put the fire out, you open a can of worms,” Mason Foster said when asked about the defensive drop off. “They’re attacking us a certain way, we’ve got to put it out or they’re going to keep doing it until you find a way to stop it. That’s pretty much what we’ve been going through.”
Check out these photos of the Redskins' preparing for their Week 14 game against the New York Giants Thursday, Dec. 6, 2018, at the Inova Sports Performance Center at Redskins Park.
3. Establish the run early
Sanchez couldn’t have had a better first snap of his Redskins career under center than he did Monday night against the Eagles. His handoff to Adrian Peterson, who ran for a 90-yard touchdown run, gave the Redskins the lead and certainly took the immediate burden off Sanchez pinned deep in the team’s own territory.
However, Peterson was mostly unused the rest of the game. He finished with 98 yards. That’s a product of a couple factors, primarily that the Redskins were trailing and, based on holding penalties and false starts, couldn’t afford to run the football on second and third-and-long situations.
That provided a large discrepancy in terms of time of possession, which the Eagles nearly doubled on Monday.
For a quarterback still grasping the offense, running the ball effectively and evening out time of possession, a stat the Redskins had been near tops in the league early on, is paramount. The challenge with that of course is that the Redskins will be playing their third set of guards this Sunday.
Peterson, ever an optimist, doesn’t see that as a hindrance to his success.
"Well you know in the run game I think it's kind of self-explanatory, you know” Peterson said. “At the end of the day we need to play this not involving a lot of pulling, it's mano-a-mano. So, as far as the run game I don't think it should affect it that much. Guys just hit the guy in front of you. At the end of the day, all else fails. In the pass game, it's not a lot, you know understanding the calls and the protections is what they're focusing on, so I feel like we'll be okay. As long as these guys are protecting the quarterback I think the run game will be fine."
Should the ground game be established early, offering easier downs and distances for Sanchez, the play-action should be able to work in the Redskins' favor, letting Sanchez find some space outside of the pocket with clear throwing lanes and room for deep passes.
"I think you probably have to be a little bit more simplistic in your approach, but you still can challenge the defense in different ways,” Gruden said. “I think running the ball will be key obviously and some play-actions getting him outside the pocket can be very beneficial and then the drop back concepts that we have will be things that he is comfortable with.”