Two heavy defeats to start the year have prompted questions about every aspect of the Washington Redskins, from head coach Mike Shanahan's team-building skills to the quality of play from quarterback Robert Griffin III.
But as bleak as things appear to be, the Redskins can repair most f the damage by beating the Detroit Lions in Week 3. After all, Shanahan's team has the good fortune of residing in an NFC East that already looks like it will be won by the last mediocre team standing.
|New York Giants||0-2|
Week 2 was a week of shame for the NFC East. All four of its teams were beaten, and in the case of the Redskins and the New York Giants, they were beaten badly.
Grant Paulsen of CBS DC summed things up perfectly for the woeful residents of the National Conference's eastern division on Sunday:
The NFC East was 0-4 today and got out-scored by 40 points.— Grant Paulsen (@granthpaulsen) September 16, 2013
A home game against a Lions team that is coming off a disappointing loss to the Arizona Cardinals could be the perfect tonic for the Redskins. They must take advantage of this opportunity, as both the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles will also be enjoying the comforts of home this week.
|Dallas Cowboys||Home vs. St. Louis Rams|
|Philadelphia Eagles||Home vs. Kansas City Chiefs|
|New York Giants||at Carolina Panthers|
The Eagles will begin the week's action by welcoming former head coach Andy Reid back to Philadelphia on Thursday night. Reid's Kansas City Chiefs have had a fast start to the season, buoyed by a strong defense that is relishing the idea of playing more attack-minded schemes.
As for the Giants, despite taking to the road, they should not be easily counted out. They won big in Carolina last season, and the Panthers currently have as many issues as Big Blue.
There is little to report on the injury front at this point, except maybe positive news for the kicking game. According to CSN Washington's Tarik El-Bashir, Kai Forbath hopes to be back kicking this Friday.
That could put him in a position to return against the Lions, after stand-in kicker John Potter was underwhelming in Green Bay in Week 2.
Elsewhere, reckless safety Brandon Meriweather has somehow escaped suspension for his hit on Green Bay's rookie runner Eddie Lacy. According to Mike Jones of The Washington Post, Meriweather will instead receive a fine for the helmet-to-helmet collision.
Jones also reports that Meriweather's status, following the concussion he suffered in the same game, won't be known until Wednesday.
Given the current state of their patchwork secondary, the Redskins can ill afford to lose any defensive backs.
What might offer a reprieve for the defense is the recent injury sustained by Detroit running back Reggie Bush. He sustained a knee injury in Arizona.
Head coach Jim Schwartz labelled tests on the knee as "encouraging," according to Carlos Monarrez of The Detroit Free Press, but he would not confirm if Bush would be healthy enough for Week 3 action.
Bush's ability to stretch the field, as both a runner and a receiver, would surely challenge Washington's weak-tackling defense.
Other notable injury news for the Lions involves defensive tackle Nick Fairley. He missed the loss to the Cardinals with a sore shoulder.
Schwartz listed him as "day to day" following Week 2 (h/t FoxSports.com). Similar to the way Bush gives their offense an extra dimension, a healthy Fairley makes the Lions' defense dangerous.
What Must Improve
Tackling, tackling and more tackling. The Redskins cannot afford a repeat of the shambles their defense produced in Green Bay.
You know the Redskins can apply some pressure, but can they tackle consistently? They didn’t Sunday, that’s for sure. By the way, five different Packers had gains of at least 27 yards -- and four had gains of at least 32. That’s unbelievable. So is 480 yards passing.
This defense will find it tough enough to slow down the likes of wideout Calvin Johnson, and possibly Bush, without gifting them yardage after first contact.
Fixing the basics and emphasizing fundamentals has to be the priority for defensive coordinator Jim Haslett. His unit has produced some appalling numbers after two weeks, as Brian NcNally of The Washington Times notes:
Washington ranks last in the NFL in yards allowed. It ranks 23rd in pass defense (621 yards) and 32nd in run defense (402 yards). Only the New York Giants have allowed more points than the Redskins' 71.
Of course, it would help Haslett's defense if the Shanahan offense started doing its bit earlier in games. The dual-threat of Griffin and running back Alfred Morris has failed the Redskins until games have been beyond reach.
Thankfully, Shanahan quickly dismissed this idea, per a report from NFL.com's Dan Hanzus, which is the right move at this stage from the head coach.
This author has never been completely sold on Griffin as a passer and still believes the Redskins traded away too much to acquire him. However, it is far too early to be calling for 2012's second overall pick to be replaced.
It is unreasonable to expect any player who missed an entire offseason recovering from major knee surgery to simply return to his pre-injury form right away.
What is currently missing from the offense is the deception and threat caused by the read-option last season. Many will contend that is because Griffin is not as capable of a runner after his surgery.
While that is likely true to some extent, the Redskins looked better against the Packers whenever they went to the read-option. Combining the principles of the option offense with the basics of the Shanahan system is what made the Redskins so dangerous last season.
The head coach himself still seems confident that blend can work again, according to Mike Jones of The Washington Post:
Shanahan said the Redskins still have ability to run zone read and bootlegs like last year. But inability to sustain drives part to blame.— Mike Jones (@MikeJonesWaPo) September 16, 2013
The key part of that tweet is Shanahan's reference to a failure to sustain drives. To say third downs have been a problem for the Redskins this season would be an understatement.
ESPN's Keim breaks down the numbers, and they make for brutal reading:
Third downs have been a killer, particularly in the first half. In the last two games the Redskins are 1-for-9 on third downs in the opening two quarters. Only one of those has been for under five yards. It’s a tough way to live. They were 1-for-5 Sunday, which is why they managed zero first-half points despite averaging 6.5 yards per play. Oh, and of their 24 drives this season, 17 have started at their 20 or worse. Meanwhile, the opponents have combined to convert 9-of-17 third down chances in the first half.
Last season proved that Griffin and this offense thrive with manageable third downs. They need distances that still present the threat of a run and embroil defenses in nasty guessing games before the snap.
It would help if the running game was producing more on first and second downs, too. Morris is getting stopped for minimal yardage, or no gain at all, far too often on early downs.
Part of that stems from the belief that Griffin's threat to run is diminished, so opponents are keying Morris. But a lack of variety from the Redskins is also not helping.
They don't seem to want to use the speed of Roy Helu, Jr. on early downs, or share some carries between Morris and Evan Royster. With Morris being a marked man, maybe more of a committee approach is needed in the running game.
But the real key to a successful rushing attack in Week 3 won't depend on who carries the ball; it will depend on whether or not the Lions have Fairley on the field.
The Lions are a different run defense with the former Auburn star at the heart of their imposing defensive line. ESPN's Kevin Seifert clearly explains how much of a difference Fairley can make:
But even if Fairley misses out again, there are other members of the Detroit defense that the Redskins must be wary of, including youthful pass-rushers Willie Young and Ezekiel Ansah.
Redskins tackles Trent Williams and Tyler Polumbus showed some improvement in pass-protection against the Packers, but the pair should expect to be consistently tested by Ansah and Young on Sunday.
The Redskins should also keep an eye on talented and versatile safety Glover Quin. He can play linebacker in nickel sub-packages and is a good blitzer.
Ultimately, though, this has to be a game where the Washington offense imposes itself on the Lions' defense. They cannot expect their own defense to competently handle Johnson and quarterback Matthew Stafford.
It is easy to anticipate a shootout this week, and the Lions are a more talented team than their recent records suggest. However, similar to the Redskins, they are a sloppy and undisciplined team.
If Shanahan can encourage his own troops to keep their cool and play smarter than they have in the first two weeks, the Redskins should outlast the Lions.