What: Detroit Lions (1-1) at Washington Redskins (0-2)
Where: FedEX Field, Prince George's County, Md.
When: Sunday, Sept. 22, 1 p.m. ET
Watch: Fox, check local listings
Washington has not been a nice place to visit for the Detroit Lions. The franchise has traveled to play the Redskins 21 times. Their record is 0-21. That dubious string dates back to 1939.
In order to finally finish that futility, Detroit must play smart and disciplined football. That is obviously an ongoing struggle under Jim Schwartz, but the Lions have the talent to pull it off.
Washington will be hungry for that initial victory. Aside from avoiding the mental mistakes and turnovers, a key for every game, here are some tactics the Lions can use to keep the Redskins winless.
Washington has been completely outclassed in the first halves of both games it has played in 2013.
Against Philadelphia, the Redskins struck first with a DeAngelo Hall fumble return for a touchdown. Philadelphia proceeded to roll to a 33-7 lead early in the third quarter. Washington's offense had the ball for eight drives in that time. It ran 24 plays, turned the ball over three times and surrendered a safety on those drives while accumulating just 34 yards.
In Green Bay, the early woes continued. The Packers led 24-0 at halftime and extended it out to 31-0 before Washington started playing like an NFL team. Its first eight drives in this game improved to 28 plays and 162 yards but still produced zero points and another turnover.
Washington stormed back with a vengeance in both games. They won the fourth quarter in both games with matching 13-0 margins, as Robert Griffin III got comfortable against less intense defenses. In order to win, Detroit must replicate the early-game successes of Philadelphia and Green Bay.
Matthew Stafford has come out sharply in both games thus far, a trend that must continue if the Lions hope to win. Seizing an early lead in Washington will break the fragile will of a floundering team.
Here's a red-zone play the Packers used last week that the Lions can absolutely execute to produce the same result, a touchdown.
Green Bay was in 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end) from the shotgun, with the tight end lined up on the short side of the field and two wideouts to the left. The Lions use this formation frequently, with Calvin Johnson either the single receiver or coming out of the slot. Washington was showing blitz from its 3-4 front and had eight defenders clustered at the line of scrimmage inside the box.
That left a lot of room for the receivers to operate.
Washington quickly abandoned the blitz look and dropped eight into coverage. It effectively eliminated the shorter-route options, but there was no way the tightly aligned defenders could drop deep enough to impact the far outside routes. Note that the receiver at the top (Jordy Nelson) was already beyond the underneath help and at full speed running forward as the defense was backpedaling.
Aaron Rodgers noted this easily, and Matt Stafford can too.
Nelson was isolated on DeAngelo Hall (No. 23), who was playing outside technique to keep Nelson from breaking to the corner, instead forcing him to where he thought his inside help would be. But because Rodgers had a clean pocket against the three-man rush and the linebackers and safeties were physically unable to get far enough back into position, it was an easy touchdown on the post pattern.
Matthew Stafford has the arm talent to rifle that ball into either Calvin Johnson or Nate Burleson, who would be the two options to be in the Nelson position. Should the Redskins adjust and get the outside backer to drop quicker and deeper, the tight end will be open on the out pattern with a blocker in front and room to run.
Racking up points early is imperative, and this is one example of how Detroit can do just that.
This runs counter to how Detroit approaches offense, but against the Redskins, it's a highly prudent strategy. Washington has been absolutely terrible at stopping the run this year.
Just last week, the Green Bay Packers, one of the least effective running teams in the league for years, scorched the Redskins defense for yards. Green Bay scored its first 100-yard rusher since a 2010 date with these same Redskins when James Starks ground out 132 yards, per Doug Farrar of Sports Illustrated. Starks is Green Bay's backup running back, and his style and effectiveness recall former Lions running back Olandis Gary.
That is not a compliment.
A big factor is poor tackling by Washington. The Redskins have missed an astonishing amount of tackles in just two games; Pro Football Focus (subscription required) tallies the Redskins with 30 missed tackles thus far. By contrast, the Lions have just 10, according to their game charters.
Even if Reggie Bush cannot answer the bell with his knee injury, the Lions should still attack the Redskins' tackling weakness. Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press reported that Bush did not practice on Wednesday, and his status for Sunday is still undetermined.
Joique Bell has proven he can break tackles. His strength in his lower body and solid balance allow him to power through arm tackles. Pro Football Focus credits Bell with 32 of his 56 rushing yards on the season as yards after contact. That comes against significantly better tackling defenses than Washington.
Given the strong run blocking in the Arizona game, going against character and pounding the run within the box is a sound strategy. Center Dominic Raiola is coming off what I believe to be his best game in years. On this particular play, the veteran (No. 51) showed his range and ability to lock up a target in space.
The play was designed for Raiola to pull out and seal the defender trying to close the gap. Raiola completely blew him up, freeing Bell (No. 35) for a 20-yard gain.
Left tackle Riley Reiff has shown he can turn a defender's shoulders and seal open a crease. Check out his handiwork on this play:
Reiff eliminated his defender from the play and opened a wide hole for Reggie Bush. Washington runs a similar 3-4 defensive front to Arizona, one which likes to bring pressure. Solid blocking like this can produce big results against the shaky tackling in Washington.
Force the Redskins to Throw
Most weeks, the biggest concern for the Lions defense is the pass coverage. Between the ongoing struggles of young corners Bill Bentley and Darius Slay and the perennially questionable status of safety Louis Delmas' knee, the Lions are certainly vulnerable to passing attacks.
Yet, this week is different. The Redskins thrive on running the football. Last season, they rode a strong running game to a surprise playoff berth. Only two other teams ran the ball more than the 2012 Redskins (Seattle and New England, also playoff teams. Hmm...), and only the Adrian Peterson-led Vikings and NFC champion 49ers ran for more yards per carry than Washington's 5.2 figure.
Washington's offense is built to run the ball. The line features maulers like left tackle Trent Williams and left guard Kory Lichtensteiger. Top running back Alfred Morris hits the holes with power and excellent leg churn, making him a very tough man to tackle with just one defender.
Coach Mike Shanahan has built his legend on the back of the power-oriented zone-blocking scheme that paved the way for underwhelming talents like Tatum Bell and Reuben Droughns to put up 1,000-yard rushing seasons with above-average yards-per-carry numbers.
Detroit needs to take away that running prowess. Because of Robert Griffin III's gimpy knee, the read-option that Washington rode so heavily a year ago is blunted. RG3 ran for 815 yards at 6.8 yards per carry in 2012, but this season, his knee issue has limited him to 25 yards on nine carries.
That means the defense can key on Morris. The Lions demonstrated the ability to bottle up Adrian Peterson in Week 1, which I broke down here. They also showed they could quickly snuff out the run last week too.
Arizona was in 11 personnel with two wideouts to the strong side, flanking the tight end. The Lions had brought safety Louis Delmas (No. 26, with arrow) closer to the line to assist against the run.
The defensive linemen did a good job of establishing upfield surge. Delmas saw a hole and quickly filled it before the runner had a chance to get there. Note the two defenders off the line, Bill Bentley (No. 28) and Stephen Tulloch (No. 55, crouched), were free from blockers and square to the holes that the runner might choose.
The running back, Rashard Mendenhall, opted to try running off right tackle, where the contain end had gone too far up the field. Tulloch anticipated this perfectly and exploded into Mendenhall, slamming him to the turf for a two-yard loss.
Now look at this formation from Washington's game against Green Bay. Look familiar?
The Redskins tried a run off left tackle from this, and the Packers would have had it stopped quickly except linebacker A.J. Hawk missed the tackle that Tulloch made.
Tulloch was coming off a very strong game, which I chronicled in the initial reaction to the Cards contest. With Ndamukong Suh playing so well inside, Tulloch must be at the top of his game once again to snuff out plays like this.
If the Lions are successful at containing the run game, that forces Griffin to throw. Between the very effective Lions pass rush, which Pro Football Focus ranks second in the league, and Griffin's relative inability to extend plays with his legs at this time, the secondary shouldn’t be tasked with performing miracle work.
I like the Lions' defensive chances behind the pass rush and against Washington's receiving corps more than I like the chances to stop Alfred Morris and the running offense repeatedly. Getting that aforementioned early lead would assist nicely into this game plan.