The Cincinnati Bengals are 1-1 through the first two weeks of the 2012 season, and if they want to end this Sunday at 2-1, they'll have to do a lot of work.
The Bengals travel to Washington to face the Redskins, they of the red-hot offense behind rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III.
Right now, the Redskins are ranked 11th overall in average passing yards per game and fourth in rushing yards per game, while the Bengals defense ranks 29th in pass yards allowed and 19th against the run.
But to Cincinnati's credit, the Redskins are even worse against the pass, allowing 313.5 passing yards per game. In a contest that, by the numbers, projects to be a shootout, here are three ways the Bengals must plan for the Redskins if they hope to win this week.
A Shootout—The Right Way
The Bengals secondary, despite being populated by a number of first-round picks, hasn't been very good this season, if the 308.5 passing yards per game they're giving up on average is any indication. Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III is averaging 263 passing yards per game thus far, and it doesn't appear to matter much whom he's throwing to.
As mentioned above, however, the Redskins are struggling to stop the pass as well. This sets up a classic formula for a shootout, meaning the need for touchdowns will extend to the final seconds of the contest.
Clearly, Andy Dalton needs to work deep-threat A.J. Green for all he's worth, but you don't have to go deep on the Redskins to defeat their defense and score. Look to the slot, where the Redskins defense is struggling the most.
That means (you guessed it) that Dalton needs to again get Andrew Hawkins involved in the passing game. Though only playing 69 snaps thus far, Hawkins has the second-most yards after the catch of any receiver in the league, with 131, and he has caught 10 of the 12 passes thrown his way.
The key to successfully engaging a poor defense in a shootout is to switch up your targets and their depth. You can't always go deep, even when it seems like a good idea, because the passing game becomes one-dimensional and predictable.
Dalton has a strong trio of starting receivers to work with: Green is his big playmaker, Armon Binns his reliable possession read and Hawkins his elusive slot option. Shifty work in the middle of the field is an excellent way to test that Redskins secondary.
If Washington gets too keyed in on Hawkins? Well, that likely means single-coverage on Green, and...you know the rest.
Limit Griffin's Options
Griffin isn't just a prolific passer through his first two weeks—he's also a dangerous run threat as well, with 20 rushes for 124 yards and two touchdowns to his name thus far. His versatile skill set thus presents even more of a challenge for the Bengals this week, as they won't simply be able to prepare for a traditional passing quarterback to attack them in a predictable manner.
One way to attempt to put a halt to a running quarterback from taking off with the ball is to send a defender—whether a linebacker, safety or cornerback—to "spy" on him and mirror his movements. The drawback to that is of course having one fewer player in coverage, and considering how the Bengals have faltered in the passing game, this is a major risk.
However, there are other ways that Griffin can be limited. One is to work harder at not biting on the play-action fake. Play-action has repeatedly burned the Bengals secondary in the past (including Joe Flacco's game-opening strike to Torrey Smith in Week 1) and it also helped the Redskins in confounding the Rams defense last week.
The other is to cut off parts of the field to Griffin's passes. If they limit his lanes, they can more easily swarm the ball and try to notch their first interception of the year.
Griffin must be contained, both on the ground and in the air. Simply bringing pressure won't help—no matter the scenario he's faced thus far, Griffin doesn't have a completion percentage below 65 percent, and it's an impressive 86.7 percent against the blitz.
Cut off targets, cut off the field and set the edge in situations where it's possible for Griffin to run, and the Bengals should have some success in keeping his yardage down.
Don't Forget About Anyone Else
Limiting Griffin both in the air and on the ground should only be part of the Bengals' defensive equation.
The Redskins are the fourth-best rushing team in the league, averaging 164.5 yards on the ground per game, and if the Bengals are successful in keeping Griffin's passing at bay and are able to keep him from taking off, then running backs Alfred Morris and Evan Royster will be tasked with keeping that offense going.
Morris is the bigger threat to the Bengals, with 44 carries for 185 yards and two touchdowns thus far (Royster has just three carries for 14 yards, with Griffin taking the place of a second running back for the most part). But Cincinnati is currently giving up 126 yards on the ground per game, and they cannot spend all of their defensive energies on Griffin lest Morris burn them repeatedly.
That's what makes this Redskins offense so dangerous—Griffin demands so much of a defense's attention that it becomes easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. Keying in on Griffin can only work so well, considering his arm and mobility, but if he's mostly neutralized, the Redskins will have to rely on the run game through Morris (and to a lesser extent, Royster) to pick up yards.
If the Bengals aren't as prepared for this as they are for the threat that Griffin poses, they could wind up in a different kind of trouble. Focus is key if this defense can put an end to the Redskins' offensive juggernaut.