|The expected return of Jackson adds a missing big play element to the Washington offense|
The Skins started the season with the intention of being a run-based offense. They already had Alfred Morris, who had rushed for 1,000 yards every season of his career, and used a third round pick this spring to add Matt Jones to the mix. A strong running game would do wonders to help protect Kirk Cousins, who entered the season still unproven as a starting quarterback.
Unfortunately for the Skins, the offensive line hasn't done a good enough job to make that run-first plan come to fruition. Despite that talented backfield duo, the 31st ranked run blocking line in football (according to ProFootballFocus) has led to the team averaging just 3.7 yards per carry this season. Only the Chargers, Browns and Texans have been worse on the ground. Those numbers have really trended downward recently, with the Skins averaging just 45 rushing yards per game and a dismal 2.25 yards per carry over the past three weeks.
|Jones is a load to bring down in the open field|
Barring a surprising break from their recent trend of strong run defense, the Patriots should be able to force the Skins into a pass-happy approach. Despite the uneven play of Cousins, the passing game figures to be Washington's best option to challenge the Patriots. With Jackson back in the lineup, the Skins now have a pretty deep group of pass catchers that could give the Pats secondary some problems. He also adds a badly needed deep threat to an offense that simply couldn't stretch the field without him, as none of their pass catchers with 40 or more targets have a reception longer than 29 yards. The Skins have one passing play over 40 yards this season: Jackson had 13 plays of 40+ yards last season.
Jackson's pure deep speed requires a deep safety shaded to his side, which puts the Patriots in an interesting position matchup wise. Malcolm Butler is their best and most athletic corner, and theoretically would make the most sense on the ever-dangerous Jackson. However, given that Jackson will likely receive bracket coverage with the safety over the top, the Pats could put Logan Ryan in the assignment, trusting Butler to handle #2 wideout Pierre Garcon on an island. The Patriots used a similar strategy effectively against the Jets, with Butler taking Eric Decker by himself while Ryan took on Brandon Marshall with help over the top.
Jackson's presence means that whoever covers Garcon will likely be on an island. The matchup question then becomes whether the team would be comfortable with Ryan covering Garcon without help. Garcon has remained productive this year, catching 37 balls for 350 yards, but he's largely been in a possession receiver role. His 9.5 yards per catch are by far his lowest since his rookie year (when he barely played). Ryan has been playing the best football of his career since ascending to a starting role, and getting that assignment would illustrate the coaching staff's level of faith in him. If they feel like they can trust him there, it would allow them to use Butler, whose natural quickness makes him the best athletic matchup for Jackson, on Washington's most dangerous threat. Safety help over the top will prevent the long ball, but Washington can be expected to get creative finding ways to get Jackson the ball to take advantage of his elite run after the catch ability (WR screens, end arounds, etc). A deep safety does very little to take that away, and Butler is the better individual matchup against those type of plays.
With Butler and Ryan almost certainly tied up with Jackson and Garcon, productive slot receiver Jamison Crowder will likely become Justin Coleman's primary assignment. The shifty Crowder has been one of the more productive rookie receivers in the league, catching an impressive 76% of his targets for 292 yards (9.1 yards per catch). He has at least four catches and 40 yards in each of the last five games, including an 8 catch, 87 yard game in their overtime loss to the then unbeaten Falcons. Despite his status as an undrafted rookie, Coleman has been competitive in coverage, and his ability to win this matchup between rookies would go a long way towards a Patriots win.
|Reed is a dynamic passing game threat|
The Skins will move him around the formation quite a bit, including in the slot and split out wide, to try to create advantageous matchups for him. Patrick Chung has spent a lot of time covering tight ends this season, but Reed is a different level matchup and should get attention from McCourty, who is the superior coverage option. Given his receiver-like ability, this is a matchup in which McCourty's background at corner should come in handy. His ability to hold up in that matchup will be crucial, as Reed is a go-to guy both in the red zone and on third down for this offense.
With such a dangerous group of passing game playmakers, the key for the Patriots defense will be getting pressure on the man delivering the ball. Kirk Cousins has become a bit of a punchline, but he hasn't been as bad as you think. In fact, his 68.7% completion percentage is fifth in the league amongst passers with 200+ attempts. One of his biggest issues has been pushing the ball down the field (his 6.48 yards per attempt ranks 30th in the league), something that figures to get a boost with the return of Jackson.
Turnovers remain the biggest issue for Cousins, as he can force throws and make bad decisions when his protection breaks down. His eight interceptions have him tied for the sixth most in the league, with many of them coming as his protection breaks down around him. While he hasn't been sacked often (only the Jets have allowed fewer than Washington's 8 sacks), pressure has been plentiful, as Washington ranks 21st in the league in pass blocking according to PFF.
The lack of sacks can be attributed to the play of Washington's offensive tackles. Left tackle Trent Williams has been a stud since his arrival as the fourth overall pick in the 2010 draft. He remains a cornerstone protecting the blindside, and will be an extremely tough test for NFL sack leader Chandler Jones. The right side is manned by Morgan Moses, last year's third round pick, who has stepped in nicely as a starter after spending most of his rookie year on the bench.
The weakness of Washington's line has been on the banged-up interior. 2012 third rounder Josh LeRibeus appears to be in line to make his fourth career start, as starter Kory Lichtensteiger hasn't practiced all week. When healthy, Lichtensteiger was amongst the league's worst starters, so LeRibeus' status as his backup doesn't reflect kindly on him. Another 2014 third rounder, Spencer Long, figures to make his fifth career start, as he's assumed the role at left guard since starter Shaun Lauvao landed on injured reserve with an ankle injury. Remarkably, the projected starter with the most experience on the interior is rookie Brandon Scherff, the fifth overall pick from this spring's draft. Scherff was considered a low-risk prospect coming out, but he's had his share of rookie moments this season, particularly in protection. It's another week where I'd expect the Patriots to move Chandler Jones inside a bit to take advantage of that those weak-links in protection. It's also a week to expect big things from Dominique Easley. Easley has been the Patriots best interior rusher and should feast against these guys, particularly if the Pats turn their offense one-dimensional and he's able to tee off on his pass rush without having to worry about the threat of a running attack.
After a hot start to the season, the Redskins defense has regressed to match their low offseason expectations. For the season, they're actually middle of the pack in both scoring defense (24 ppg/16th) and total yards surrendered (2523, 18th), but those numbers are trending downward. They've particularly been bad against the run. After holding their first four opponents under 100 yards rushing, they've allowed 587 yards (195.6 per game) on the ground over the past three games. Over the season, only the Chargers have allowed a worse yards per carry average than their 4.9.
That number is particularly alarming given the amount they've invested in their front seven in recent years. Starting defensive linemen Terrance "Pot Roast" Knighton, Jason Hatcher and Stephen Paea were both key free agent acquisitions, while a pair of recent second round picks (Trent Murphy, 2014 and Preston Smith, 2015) also play key roles on the line of scrimmage.
|Despite Knighton, the Skins have struggled to stop the run|
Their other defensive lineman come more from the "undersized penetrator" mold, which makes them puzzling fits for the Redskins 3-4 front. Veteran Jason Hatcher was signed following a career high 11 sack season for the Cowboys in 2013, but he's managed just 6.5 sacks in nearly a season and a half in Washington. He's still at least managed to start, which is more than can be said for Stephen Paea. Paea was a coveted free agent after a productive stint in Chicago, but he's played in just 23.3% of Washington's defensive snaps this season. A better pass rusher than run defender, Paea has mustered 1.5 sacks this year, coming up far short of the impact expected from him this season. Veteran Ricky Jean-Francois rounds out the rotation on the defensive line.
The run defense hasn't gotten much help from the linebackers behind them, as the Skins start the uninspiring duo of Perry Riley and Keenan Robinson in the middle. Riley has mustered just 12 tackles in his five starts, while Robinson has just 26 in seven games. It's never a good sign for a run defense when the two leading tacklers on the team are the two starting safeties. Despite coming off the field in nickel situations, 2013 undrafted rookie Will Compton ranks fifth on the team in tackles with 18. When Washington is in their base defense, it will be important to get a hat on him, as he's displayed a nose for the ball in his limited role.
While Washington's pass defense isn't as poor as their run defense, it's certainly a stretch to call them good. They've given up the 11th fewest yards in the league, but rank poorly in other statistical categories, including yards per completion (7.8, t-8th highest). They've allowed opposing quarterback's to complete 63.2% of their passes, the 18th best rate in football (just a tick higher than New England's 63%), but have really struggled to come up with turnovers. Their three interceptions ties Seattle, Jacksonville, Dallas and Baltimore for the lowest in football.
|Culliver was good in San Francisco, but has been injured for much of 2015|
Just getting Culliver back would be a big boost for Washington, who are set to take on one of the league's top passing offenses. His projected return to the starting lineup would bump Providence native Will Blackmon to nickelback, a much better fit for his skillset. Breeland is the best of that projected top three and would be a logical candidate to take Julian Edelman, although thats far from a matchup Tom Brady will shy away from attacking. That would likely leave Culliver on Brandon LaFell, who would have the size and strength advantage in that matchup. Expect LaFell to continue to get fed targets as Brady attempts to rebuild the chemistry that made him a key part of last year's offense.
As I mentioned earlier, the starting duo of Dashon Goldson and Trent Robinson leads the team in tackles this year. Unfortunately for Washington, neither of those two are particularly adept at taking away the deep ball, as Washington has allowed 25 plays of 20+ yards and 5 of 40 or more yards already this year. Goldson is a heavy hitter and excellent as a run defender in the box, but he's a poor coverage player whose aggressiveness can be taken advantage of with play action. Robinson, a sixth round pick of the Niners in 2012, has become a starter out of necessity after the ineffective Brandon Meriweather was let go to headhunt and get beat elsewhere. Neither of those guys are good options to contend with Gronk, and the linebackers can forget about it. We could see Gronk repeat his memorable beastly performance from the last time the Pats played the Redskins, which featured an all-time Gronk highlight.
The one matchup that definitively favors the Redskins defense this weekend should be Ryan Kerrigan pass rushing against Cameron Fleming on the edge. Kerrigan has battled through a hand injury to play every game as a pass rushing outside linebacker, and the former first round pick leads the team with 3.5 sacks. The injury has clearly sapped some of his effectiveness (Kerrigan had 13.5 sacks last season), but he's still the teams best pass rusher by a country mile. He typically lines up on the left side, which means Fleming will see plenty of him at right tackle. Fleming has struggled in protection since coming into the starting lineup, and the Patriots will likely adjust their protection calls to minimize the potential damage of this matchup. Brady's quick release will also help.
Unfortunately for the Skins, the rest of the team's pass rushers haven't been able to help Kerrigan shoulder the load. 2014 second rounder Trent Murphy has stepped into a starting role after Junior Gallette was lost for the season to an Achilles injury, but Murphy has had a minimal impact as a pass rusher. With Hatcher and Paea both underachieving, it's been Baker, nominally a run defender, who ties Kerrigan for the team lead in sacks. Rookie second rounder Preston Smith has shown up at times as a sub rusher: his versatility to lineup both as a stand up edge rusher and on different spots on the defensive line must be taken account for. Still, this is a pretty poor pass rushing unit that has underachieved it's way to just 13 sacks; only six teams have fewer.
The game's third phase should favor New England as well, as the special teams have hardly held their weight in Washington this season. The high-points for this unit have been kicker Dustin Hopkins, who has quietly made 11 of 12 field goals (the only miss coming from 50+ yards) and all 13 of his extra points and a kick coverage unit that's held opponents to just 17.9 yards per kick return.
However, those positives are certainly outweighed by a disastrous punt coverage unit that's allowed a whopping 15.4 yards per return (including a game sealing touchdown in Week 1) and also allowed a blocked punt. If New England's defense holds up to it's end, there could be plenty of opportunities for the punt returning duo of Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola to break one for a big play. On the other end, Crowder has become the team's primary punt returner, but his shiftiness has yet to translate into success, as he's managed just 5.1 yards per return. Kick returner Rashad Ross does have a 101 yard touchdown return to his name, but he's averaged just 21 yards per return on his other 14 attempts.
Bill Belichick > Jay Gruden. Do I really have to elaborate on that?
The Redskins have a few top end players that will have to be schemed for, but the biggest challenge for the Patriots this week is avoiding the trap of letdown following three heavily hyped rivalry games. This is a team that they should beat easily if they bring their "A" game. Given the focus with which they've approached this season, I'll be surprised if this doesn't eventually turn into a blowout win, particularly playing in comfy confines of Gillette Stadium.