The Washington Redskins can make a statement Sunday, not by beating the terrible Carolina Panthers but by proving that they can bounce back from embarrassing efforts like the one they put forth in Pittsburgh last week.
They were beaten brutally by the Steelers and—considering the injuries they're dealing with—could fade away now without anyone holding it against them.
But this team still has more talent than recent editions. And, of course, they have Robert Griffin III.
There's a very good chance the 'Skins finish out of the playoffs yet again this season, but they can at least regain some of that early-season confidence and keep things interesting with a victory at home against Cam Newton and Co.
As far as the game plan goes, I have some suggestions.
On offense, run first and stick to it
There's a wide chasm separating the Steelers' defense from Carolina's. Pittsburgh dominated Washington's receivers, took care of Alfred Morris and contained RG3 throughout. They're smart, experienced and supremely talented.
The Panthers are, well, the Panthers. They don't do anything extremely well, and they aren't very healthy. They've done a decent job the last couple of weeks against Dallas and Chicago, but RG3 presents a whole new challenge—one they haven't had to deal with this season.
But there's one thing the Panthers have done better than the Steelers, and that's rush the passer. Carolina's pass rush is ranked fifth in the league by Pro Football Focus and ranks eighth in football with 2.9 sacks per game.
Griffin's receivers have been struggling in general, and they forgot how to catch passes last week in Pittsburgh. If they continue to let him down, Griffin could be in trouble with Pierre Garcon and Fred Davis out. The 'Skins have to ensure at this stage that their stud rookie quarterback stays healthy so that he can continue to mature during the second half of the season.
That's why they need to give the Panthers a steady dose of Alfred Morris this week. They have to keep Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy at bay while handing it off consistently against a so-so run defense that lost middle linebacker Jon Beason for the season last week.
I don't think neutering the super-talented Griffin is a good idea, but you saw how much he was hit when the Redskins faced a similar pass rush against Cincinnati in Week 3.
The Giants neutralized the Panthers' pass rush by serving Carolina's defensive tackles with a heavy diet of Andre Brown and the running game. As a result, the Panthers were only able to hit Eli Manning three times and he found receivers as the box became loaded over the course of the game. The Giants won in blowout fashion, 36-7.
The following week, Atlanta stubbornly tried to play the aerial game from the get-go. They threw on six of their first seven plays and finished with a 47-to-19 pass-run ratio. Matt Ryan was sacked seven times, and Atlanta barely survived at home, winning 30-28.
The key for the Redskins will be to follow the blueprint set forth by their division rival and maintain confidence in Morris despite the fact the rookie back has underperformed in two of the last three games.
On defense, focus on Steve Smith
The Panthers have yet to face a quarterback like RG3, but the Redskins have yet to face anyone remotely like Cam Newton. And so it's tough to tell how they'll react to having to face a mobile quarterback.
My belief is that they'll fare OK. This D has battled Griffin in practice day in and day out, which should work to their advantage in a game situation against Newton. That won't help their train-wreck secondary against Newton's missile of an arm, but fortunately, Carolina's offensive attack isn't as loaded as Pittsburgh's or the Giants' or Atlanta's, all of whom have taken advantage of that struggling defensive backfield in recent weeks.
Bradon LaFell and Greg Olsen are having good seasons, but Carolina's primary offensive weapon is still Steve Smith. Let the front seven do its best to slow down Newton and keep an inconsistent running game in check, hope that Lafell and Olsen don't crush single coverage and bracket Smith all day long.
This isn't close to fool proof, but they can't afford to blitz the hell out of Newton with all of those defensive injuries. They have to put their faith in Josh Wilson and Madieu Williams to take care of Smith and hope the rest takes care of itself.
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