Why the Washington Redskins Are Still NFC East Contenders

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Why the Washington Redskins Are Still NFC East Contenders
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The sky is not falling.  At least not yet.  It's time to polish off those rose-colored glasses and examine the Washington Redskins' path back to the playoffs.  It's a long road, but with a little luck, it's certainly still possible.

Everyone is ready to write off the Redskins after their loss on the road to the Minnesota Vikings last Thursday.  At 3-6, it's hard to argue.  Well I'm here to say, let's start arguing.

The Redskins just lost to a 1-7 team.  So what?  Losses to bad teams happen.  This is the NFL.

The Redskins had to go on the road to play their second game in five days.  Since the 2010 season, road teams are 13-25 in Thursday night football games.

The Redskins lost a game where they out-gained the Vikings 433-307.  The Redskins didn't turn the ball over and won the time of possession battle by 12 minutes.  The Redskins win this game nine out of 10 times.  This happened to be the 10th.

The arguments that late-game collapses, costly special teams plays and stupid penalties are costing them games are valid arguments.  But, those issues are much more easily fixed than having an offense incapable of scoring points.

Last year, the Redskins lost to a 1-7 Carolina Panthers team to drop to 3-6.  Everyone wrote them off as done.  Everyone except for the Redskins locker room.  This team understands their situation better than most.  And, they understand what it takes to come back and make a run at the playoffs.

Let's look at the road ahead and what the Redskins have to do throughout the rest of their schedule.  I didn't put the New York Giants on this table because in order for the Redskins to have any chance, the Giants will be beaten by them twice, almost certainly eliminating them from contention.

NFC East Remaining Schedule
Week -- Redskins -- -- Eagles -- -- Cowboys --
11 Eagles Redskins Bye
12 Niners Bye Giants
13 Giants Cardinals Raiders
14 Chiefs Lions Bears
15 Falcons Vikings Packers
16 Cowboys Bears Redskins
17 Giants Cowboys Eagles

www.nfl.com

The Redskins still have four division games remaining.  It is absolutely essential that they win all of these games.  Winning these games won't be easy, but this division certainly doesn't scare anyone.

Finishing with a 4-2 record in the division is vital for tie-breaking purposes, as winning the division outright will be exponentially more difficult than winning a tie-breaker scenario.

Assuming a Redskins' division sweep, the Philadelphia Eagles can finish, at best, 3-3 within the division.  The crucial games for the Dallas Cowboys are at the Giants Week 12 and home vs. the Eagles to close the season.  If the Cowboys can win both those games, they would have at least seven wins, but they would have a 5-1 divisional record.

The Cowboys and Eagles both have schedules that are neither too easy nor too challenging.  It's reasonable to assume they continue on their trend of winning half their games, both teams possibly finishing anywhere between 7-9 and 9-7.

The Redskins would be 7-9 if they win the rest of their division games, meaning a win in Atlanta Week 15 would put them at .500 for the year.  It's unlikely that they win against the San Francisco 49ers or Kansas City Chiefs; however, both games are at home, and because the NFL is so volatile, it's hard to predict where any team will be more than a week down the road.

The Redskins can finish 8-8 if they beat every team on their schedule with a .500 record or worse.  The main problem is that the Redskins haven't shown they can beat these teams consistently.  Let's examine what's working and what needs to change.

The run game has exploded recently.  In a good way.

Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sport

According to ESPN's John Keim, the Redskins averaged a mediocre 106 yards per game before the bye.  Since then (Week 5), the Redskins have been first in rushing, racking up 187.4 yards per contest over their last five games.

For a comparison, the Redskins ranked first in rushing last year, at 169.3 yards per game.  So recently, they're averaging almost 20 yards more than the best rushing team last year, themselves. 

The plus side of rushing the ball with such effectiveness is that it opens up the play-action passing game for Robert Griffin III and Pierre Garcon.  The emergence of Jordan Reed has added another dimension to this offense, making it capable at worst, and formidable at best.

So the offense is playing well, but what about the problem areas? How can defense and special teams improve?

If there were easy answers to these questions, defensive and special teams coordinators Jim Haslett and Keith Burns would have answered them already.  The problem is not one big problem, but the sum of many smaller ones.

Special teams has been nothing short of a disaster in 2013.  Mike Tanier of Sports On Earth Blog has gone as far as suggesting they are the worst special teams ever.

However, the back-breaking mistakes special teams has made this year are more easier to correct than the general poor performances regarding kickoffs and punt returns.  Kai Forbath is an accurate kicker who has missed only one of the nine kicks that weren't blocked.

Two blocked field goals is obviously a huge problem, but they both occurred in the same game and were due to low kicks. This problem is simpler to address than a problem with blocking on the kick team.

The special teams unit has almost given up on kicking to any remotely dangerous kickoff or punt returner, opting for worse field position on a drive-by-drive basis as opposed to giving up the big return.

What Area is Holding the Redskins Back the Most?

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This may not be the best strategy, but given the pathetic kick coverage unit, it won't lose them games.

The defense has given up a staggering number of points so far this year, but there may be a glimmer of hope ahead.  The Redskins have faced a brutal schedule so far in terms of offensive firepower.

In their first nine games, the Redskins have faced offenses ranked No. 1, 3, 4, 5 and 7 in terms of points per game.  The only offense they played not ranked in the top half of teams in terms of scoring was the Oakland Raiders (No. 29).

The Redskins now get to play the Giants twice, ranked 30th in points per game, as well as the 23rd ranked Atlanta Falcons.  The only teams they face in the top 10 in scoring are Dallas (No. 4) and San Francisco (No. 10).

Even though it doesn't feel like it sometimes, the Redskins defense has improved over the course of the year.  After giving up 511 yards per game over their first three contests (per NFL.com), the defense allowed a respectable 350 yards per game in their final six matches.

The points against are still high, but in many games that has been due to excessive turnovers or disastrous special teams play.  The Redskins still need to improve in many areas, but they do have their bright spots.

DeAngelo Hall is playing at a Pro Bowl level this year, shutting down many of the top receivers in the league.  Of the Redskins' five defensive touchdowns (second only to Kansas City), Hall has three of them.

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), DeAngelo Hall's worst game in terms of yardage allowed was against the Detroit Lions, with 77.  He is playing with confidence in both his coverage and his tackling that is allowing Jim Haslett to provide more help to the rest of the field.

The biggest area of concern at the moment is the pass rush, or lack thereof.  The Redskins only have six sacks in their last five games combined.  It is essential that they put more pressure on opposing quarterbacks, regardless of other circumstances, if they want to maintain leads and force more turnovers.

Last year, Haslett turned the defense around by using more exotic blitzes instead of allowing quarterbacks to pick apart their secondary.  A similar strategy must be considered at this point in the season given the lack of production so far.

The Redskins have been competitive in all of their games this season after their first two losses.  They must eliminate the big mistakes on special teams and put more pressure on opposing quarterbacks.  If they can improve in those areas, then who knows, we might just be talking about another magical run come January.

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