Breaking Down Washington Redskins' Blueprint for Winning the Division
It goes without saying that there is a renewed optimism in and around the Washington Redskins, and for good reason. They finally look to be back on the right track after a couple of false starts and missteps along the way.
Optimism alone, however, will not be enough for the 'Skins if they want to win the hotly contested NFC East this season.
The New York Giants are defending Super Bowl champions, while the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles are looking to rebound from injury-ridden seasons culminating in identical 8-8 records. For the Redskins to overcome their division rivals, they must rise above and beyond their mere nine wins under Mike Shanahan.
Here is the blueprint the Redskins need to adhere to in order to win their division for the first time since 1999.
Right tackle Jammal Brown is expected to miss four to six weeks recovering from hip surgery. Chris Chester has been slowed by an ankle injury, and Kory Lichtensteiger is working back from a procedure to remove floating particles from his knee that caused him to miss the entire preseason.
For an offensive line that struggled with injuries last season, this season isn't looking much better
The NFC East boasts pass-rushers DeMarcus Ware, Jason Babin and Jason Pierre-Paul, who finished second, third and fourth respectively in the NFL in sacks last season. Pass-protection is critical to winning games in the division, and the Redskins cannot afford to have their franchise rookie quarterback on his back more than on his feet.
Disruptive Pass Rush
The 3-4 defense is at its best when outside linebackers get to the quarterback and the interior linemen and linebackers control the ground game. With young bookends Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan rushing the passer, there is little doubt that the Redskins can get to the quarterback.
The duo combined for 16.5 sacks a year ago, but they could easily combine for 24 this season, if not more with teams struggling to block them both.
With a suspect secondary, the Redskins front seven will have to wreak havoc on the backfield to keep the likes of Tony Romo, Eli Manning and Michael Vick from carving them up in the passing game. Manning and Romo finished in the top 10 in passing last season, while Vick finished 17th, missing three games due to injury.
If Stephen Bowen and Adam Carriker can repeat their 11.5 sack combination, opposing offenses will find it hard to stop the Redskins defense with all of the pressure.
Productive Ground Game
The Redskins backfield does not strike fear into the hearts of opposing defenses. However young and underrated Roy Helu, Evan Royster and Alfred Morris may be, they aren't going to demand respect from opposing defenses until they produce on the field.
Other than the Eagles, who finished fifth in the NFL in rushing offense, the NFC East has not run the ball particularly well.
With a rookie quarterback, success on the ground will be key to winning games, especially given the apparent lack of consistent rushing threats in the division. We've been waiting for the zone-blocking scheme to produce the out-of-nowhere 1,000-yard running back, and there is no time like the present.
Washington's running backs bring their own style to the offense, which could keep teams off balance. Royster is more of a grinder, with Morris and Helu being more elusive, and that creates problems for defenses game-planning for one style.
Stout Red-Zone Defense
Last season, the Redskins defense excelled in the red zone, finishing fifth in the NFL in red-zone touchdowns allowed. If the offense can't hold up its end of the bargain, the defense is going to have to stand strong at the goal line this season.
Beyond keeping opponents off the board, or limiting them to a field-goal attempt, red-zone defense can be a huge momentum boost in close games.
When the defense comes off the field fired up, it is going to catch on with the offense, and a scoring drive of their own will only compound the demoralization of their opponents. It goes a long way towards taking fans out of the game as well, which makes things easier on the road.
Big Plays on Offense
Kyle Shanahan's offense is best run with a big-play receiver, a good tight end and a running back who can run and catch. Pierre Garcon, Fred Davis and Roy Helu Jr. figure to be the right personnel for the job.
Success in today's NFL relies on big plays through the air, and the Redskins will have to follow suit if they have any hope of catching their more accomplished division foes.
Garcon and Davis are big bodies with run-after-the-catch ability. They can stretch the field and make plays in traffic. This in turn will open up the ground game so Helu can find some running room to rip of 10- and 15-yard runs, as well as allow for screens and swing passes to running backs.
The ability to score from anywhere on the field is a necessity in a division like the NFC East, where DeSean Jackson, LeSean McCoy, Dez Bryant, DeMarco Murray, Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz can do serious damage on offense.
As a team, the Redskins finished last season with a -14 turnover differential, second worst in the NFL. Beyond Rex Grossman's 20 interceptions, the defense failed to produce turnovers of their own to balance out the follies of the offense.
To win the division, or win at all, the Redskins need to limit giveaways and produce takeaways to keep the game in hand.
DeAngelo Hall seemed to shy away from his ball-hawking ways last season, and it hurt his credibility as a corner. Josh Wilson's ball skills fell by the wayside as he adapted to Jim Haslett's 3-4 scheme, but he should be better this season. Madieu Williams' experience should give opposing quarterbacks second thoughts of throwing so readily at the safeties.
The Redskins have beaten themselves with turnovers in the past, and division crowns aren't won by teams who shoot themselves in the foot.
Getting the Most out of RGIII
No one is expecting Robert Griffin III to recreate the rookie numbers that last year's NFL Rookie of the Year Cam Newton produced. He simply isn't the physical presence that Newton is, and the Redskins don't need him to take unnecessary punishment carrying the ball.
What the Redskins do need is to get a solid season out of their rookie, giving him room to learn from his mistakes rather than expecting him to be perfect.
With the stable of running backs Washington has, the Redskins are going to be running the ball to open things up in the passing game. Griffin will run a lot of play action given the amount of pocket movement Mike Shanahan likes to have on offense. Preseason showed an emphasis on short and intermediate routes, with a few shots down the field that didn't connect.
The Redskins will use the short game to force defenses to cheat up, leaving the secondary open for deep throws.