The Washington Redskins have lost back-to-back games as well as two crucial defensive players, but all three of their games have come down to the final possession. With this offense, they can hang with anyone, and a win in Tampa Sunday would ensure that they'll no longer be alone in the NFC East basement.
The bad news is that Washington might be about to meet its toughest opponent yet, especially away from home.
The good news is that the Redskins' struggling defense actually matches up very well with Tampa Bay's offensive attack.
Allow me to offer up a blueprint for how the 'Skins can take advantage of that, along with a suggestion for how they can overcome the Bucs' difficult defensive front.
Force Josh Freeman to Beat You
I've had a chance to watch Freeman very closely as he's gone up against NFC East defenses the last two weeks, and it's almost hard to believe how worthless he's been. He truly has regressed since that breakout second season.
The Redskins luck out here because their secondary is in shambles and their pass rush is depleted, but the Giants were dealing with the same problem in Week 2 against Tampa and they created a blueprint for how to beat the Bucs by dominating that game in the second half.
The Giants rarely blitzed and sold out to ensure that the Bucs' run game was kept under control. As a result, 17 of Doug Martin's 20 carries went for five yards or fewer and he only broke free for one gain of over eight yards. His final yards-per-carry average was only 3.3.
The Redskins might not have the pass rush the Giants possess—especially with Brian Orakpo and Adam Carriker out—but they are just as good against the run. In fact, they're arguably in better shape in run defense with Jarvis Jenkins and Rob Jackson working in place of Carriker and Orakpo.
The Washington secondary struggled last season in all respects, even against teams with one clear No. 1 receiver (Brandon Marshall for Miami and Larry Fitzgerald for Arizona, to name a pair who killed them). But this year, Josh Wilson has looked like an All-Pro in two of the first three games. If Wilson truly is improved, he should be able to shut down Vincent Jackson.
And it's apparent that if you can shut down Jackson, you can control Tampa Bay's entire passing game. According to Pro Football Focus, 55 percent of the passes Freeman's thrown to his receivers have gone at Jackson. He locks on and doesn't go through his progressions, which could benefit the Redskins greatly.
So for once, the 'Skins might not have to blitz the living hell out of an opponent to compensate for their bad pass defense. On Sunday, they should focus on controlling Martin, let Wilson limit Jackson with some safety help (which is exactly what Dallas did Week 3) and see if Freeman can capitalize on what's left.
History would seem to indicate that he'll fail at that. And maybe, for the first time all season, Washington will surrender fewer than 30 points on D.
On Offense, A Lot Hinges on Pierre Garcon
Of course, the 'Skins have also scored at least 28 points each week thus far, but they could be in for a rude awakening against the league's top-rated run defense. The Bucs dominated DeMarco Murray and the Dallas running game last week and took care of business against less-threatening rushing attacks from Carolina and New York.
The problem for Washington is that it can't afford to ditch the running game and give the Bucs' front seven a chance to pin its ears back and lay even more smacks on Robert Griffin III, who by my count has been hit 7,394 times three games into his NFL career.
So if we assume that the Bucs remain stout up front, how do the 'Skins maintain balance without running 20 quarterback keepers while also—somehow—protecting RG3?
The key could be Pierre Garcon, who has the ability to go to town on an inconsistent cornerback like Aqib Talib. If Garcon is healthy enough to suit up for the first time since Week 1, the NFL's top-rated offense could become that much more lethal, stretching the field early to put the Bucs defense on its heels and giving Alfred Morris room to run.
The problem is that there's still a chance Garcon won't be active Sunday as he slowly recuperates from a foot injury suffered in the opener. And that's why the Shanahans have to be prepared to somehow keep the dogs off of Griffin and Morris regardless of who's in the receiving corps.
Realistically, a steady dose of deep balls should probably be in store for the Bucs' secondary regardless of who suits up. But another thing the Giants did well throughout that Week 2 matchup with Tampa Bay is work quickly. It's almost impossible for a rookie like Griffin to emulate Eli Manning's unmatched ability to identify a target and release as soon as he completes his drop, but something in that range should be the goal.
That not only means a lot of timing routes, but lots of screens and maybe fewer packaged plays that force Griffin to make decisions on the fly.
I just re-watched that series and Griffin only threw one pass that took more than 1.5 seconds to unfold. And yes, I realize that some of those plays were packaged, giving him the ability to hand off, throw or run, but I think as defenses adjust to this offense the 'Skins have to get away from that a bit in order to clear Griffin's head and allow him to focus on executing more smoothly in a time crunch.
Against a defensive front like Tampa's, the game plan should be in Kyle Shanahan's hands, not Griffin's.