The Atlanta Falcons are a perfect 4-0 and facing a 2-2 Washington Redskins team that’s led by a rookie quarterback. There’s nothing to worry about Sunday when the team travels to FedEx Field in Landover, Md., Sunday, right?
That’s not exactly how the Falcons see things.
The Redskins have a lot going for them right now, and may be better than their record shows. Rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III has the fourth-best quarterback rating in the NFL, and fellow rookie Alfred Morris ranks fifth in the league with 376 rushing yards.
The first-year duo has propelled the Redskins on the ground and has the team ranked second in the NFL in rushing. This bodes well as they’ll have the opportunity to run against the Falcons’ 29th-ranked run defense.
Here’s how Atlanta should draw up a game plan for Washington.
Find a way to slow down RGIII
Do you remember last season when Cam Newton was setting all those rookie quarterback records? Griffin is doing his best job to make those are very short-held records for Newton.
Griffin’s 316 yards short of Newton’s yardage mark through four games, but he’s almost 10 percentage points better in completion percentage, has rushed for 101 more yards than Newton and has thrown fewer interceptions.
Griffin is a faster version of Newton who throws the ball with more accuracy. Atlanta wants to stop Griffin from hurting the defense with his feet and force him to throw the ball.
“We’ve got to try to make him one-dimensional,” said defensive end Ray Edwards. “We definitely have to stay gap sound and definitely get our chase mechanics right.”
Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said another important thing for the defense to do is to stay alive as it is forced to move from side to side to contain Griffin.
“It’s just staying alive,” said Weatherspoon. “It’s not just penetration. They’re going to run that zone scheme and we’ll be going sideways a little bit. If our linemen stay alive, we think that’s something that will help us. Defeating the cut-block will be big for them, and getting us linebackers downhill even though the play will be going outside. Because he’s looking to cut that ball back.”
Taking away Griffin the runner is only half the battle for Atlanta. The Falcons also have to defend against Griffin the passer, and the talented rookie has completed almost 70 percent of his passes through the first quarter of the season.
Playing against the pass is more of a strength for Atlanta, however. The Falcons rank 29th against the run but ninth against the pass. If Atlanta can force Griffin to attempt to beat the Falcons with his arm, it is more likely to have success.
Keep Matt Ryan Clean
Heading into Week 4, Matt Ryan had only been sacked four times. Carolina got to him seven times on Sunday, opening the door for future opponents to find a way to pressure the Atlanta signal-caller.
According to Pro Football Focus (paywall), offensive tackle Tyson Clabo was responsible for three of the seven Carolina sacks and five more quarterback hurries. Clabo has been dealing with a hip injury lately, but more to the reasoning behind Carolina’s success was the fact that Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson had a career game Sunday.
Johnson tallied four sacks and four hurries, batted down a pass and hit Ryan twice more without bringing him down. Clabo won’t have to face Johnson again in Week 5, but he will have to handle an equally destructive Ryan Kerrigan.
No one in the NFL has more quarterback hurries than Kerrigan with 15. He’s a master at getting to the quarterback, and he’ll be lined up on the same side as Clabo most of the time.
Who will win on Sunday?
Of Kerrigan’s 140 pass-rush snaps, according to Pro Football Focus (paywall), 87 percent come from the side where Clabo will be protecting Ryan. The Atlanta coaching staff found a way to help Clabo late in the game Sunday—it included keeping Tony Gonzalez and Harry Douglas back to block—and will have to devise another strategy for the Redskins.
It’s impossible for the Falcons to keep Gonzalez as a blocker for the entirety Sunday, so offensive line coach Pat Hill has his work cut out for him in the film room this week.
The storyline, from a purely statistical point of view, for Sunday will be which offensive strength will be more dominating against its opponent's defensive weakness.
For Atlanta to win, its pass offense must overpower Washington’s weaker pass defense, even more so than Washington’s run offense overpowers Atlanta’s weaker run defense.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.