The toughest test of their young season awaits the Washington Redskins this Sunday. The visit of the unbeaten Atlanta Falcons pits the Redskins against a legitimate Super Bowl contender for the first time this season.
Securing the first home win of the 2012 campaign won't be an easy task for Mike Shanahan's team. It will require sound, disciplined scheming on both sides of the ball.
Here are some things Shanahan and his staff should do to catch the Falcons out.
Adjust the Coverage Scheme
Note to defensive coordinator Jim Haslett: this secondary is not talented enough to rely so heavily on man coverage. Haslett simply has to adjust his coverages against the high-powered Falcons' passing game.
Eliminating the big gains is priority number one. While that could be true for the Redskins' pass defense in any game this season, it is particularly relevant against Atlanta.
Quarterback Matt Ryan and wide receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White are stretching defenses deep every week. Each game seems to bring a fresh 50-yard completion from Ryan to White or Jones.
Haslett should adopt a loose zone concept to try and discourage Ryan from going deep too often. The Redskins should force Ryan to work the underneath areas and hand the ball off to Michael Turner.
Short-range completions aren't going to seriously undermine Washington's defense and Turner won't kill them either. He might on 25 or more carries, but the Falcons won't have that kind of time, if the Redskins play their own offense right.
Trust the Screen Game
Well-executed screen plays have been a feature of the Redskins' offense this season. They could prove particularly effective against a Falcons' defense too often guilty of over-pursuit.
Atlanta plays aggressive on defense, but they don't play smart. Defenders frequently take bad angles in tackling and go hurtling past ball-carriers because of over-pursuit.
Those bad habits make them tailor-made for Robert Griffin III and the misdirection screen game he executes so well. With Roy Helu out, the Redskins would be wise to activate new arrival Ryan Grant and use the veteran as a key element of the passing game.
Lean on Alfred Morris
In between taking advantage of frantic Falcons' defenders with well-timed screens, Griffin should spend a lot of time handing the ball off to fellow rookie Alfred Morris. Controlling the clock is essential for the Redskins, who simply can't expose their defense to Ryan and his receivers for too long.
The Falcons present a good chance for Washington to continue that trend. Although they are mixing their defensive fronts more this season, the Falcons are still mostly a 4-3 team.
The Redskins have had great success freeing Morris against 4-3 fronts, with their zone-running scheme. They should be able to exploit soft edges against defensive ends John Abraham and Ray Edwards.
Better to have Abraham trying to work his way towards Morris than giving him more opportunities to get to Griffin. Morris is shifty and powerful enough to punish Falcons' tacklers and keep the clock ticking.
However, the Redskins must play a smart game. Deploying man coverage and heavy blitz schemes against Ryan is an easy way to surrender four touchdown passes.
At the same time, playing with a fast pace on offense will only put the defense under even more pressure. If they rely on their obvious strengths, such as the running game and manufacturing big plays via the pass, the Redskins have a great chance of producing the upset.