Perhaps "misery loves company" is an appropriate theme for this Sunday's Week 15 contest between the 3-10 Atlanta Falcons and the 3-10 Washington Redskins. Both teams entered this season with high expectations, but neither team is headed to the postseason after 14 weeks of losing football.
Washington's situation continued to unravel this week as head coach Mike Shanahan announced he was shutting down star quarterback Robert Griffin III for the season in favor of starting backup quarterback Kirk Cousins.
Even though the Falcons may not have that kind of drama going on, they will have plenty of their own questions to answer this offseason.
Nevertheless, Atlanta still has a few goals to play for this week in its last game against an opponent with a losing record, including avoiding its first losing record at the Georgia Dome since the lost 2007 season.
Today we'll discuss the recent series history between these two teams before breaking down Atlanta's game plan and keys to victory against Washington.
Recent Series History
Despite playing in the same conference, the Falcons and Redskins haven't played each other too many times over the last few years because they don't usually finish in the same position within their respective divisions.
The Falcons have won both of their games against Washington since head coach Mike Smith arrived in Atlanta in 2008, and each victory came with its own share of fireworks.
In 2009, Atlanta beat Washington 31-17 at the Georgia Dome in a game where Smith had a confrontation on the sideline with Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall.
Three seasons later, the Falcons doubled-down and came back to beat the Redskins 24-17 in D.C. after Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon knocked Robert Griffin III out of the game with a big hit.
1. Protect the Pocket at the Edges
The Redskins employ a 3-4 defensive scheme that generates most of its pressure from athletic outside linebackers Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan. Earlier this year, the Falcons struggled in pass protection against both the New Orleans Saints and Arizona Cardinals, who run similar schemes.
Atlanta must have a better showing on Sunday if it's going to beat Washington. Kerrigan showed how disruptive he can be off of the edge last year when he stopped in the middle of his rush, intercepted Matt Ryan and took the ball to the house for a touchdown.
Falcons offensive tackles Lamar Holmes, Ryan Schraeder and Jeremy Trueblood must limit their protection breakdowns and keep Kerrigan and Orakpo from closing in on Matt Ryan from the outside.
If Kerrigan and Orakpo win their one-on-one battles, we may be in for a sack party this week
2. Harry Douglas Has to be More Involved
Douglas has enjoyed his most productive season as a Falcon, but he had a very quiet outing against Green Bay last week. The Falcons need to get Douglas involved early on this week and hope that playing indoors will help him regain his swagger.
Washington's secondary has been very suspect this year, and Douglas should be able to use his quickness to create some big plays for Atlanta.
3. Need to Get An Early Lead
Neither one of these teams have much to play for except their own pride, but even pride can be fragile this late in a disappointing season. The Falcons need to come out of the gate with an alpha-dog mentality and take control of this game early on.
If the Falcons can build at least a two-touchdown lead early, the Redskins may not be very motivated to mount much of a comeback.
Atlanta is long overdue for a blowout victory.
4. Use No-Huddle to Avoid Lulls
The Falcons didn't score any points in the second half of their loss to Green Bay last week and have been prone to falling into offensive lulls frequently this season. Going to an uptempo, no-huddle offense more often ought to keep the offense from going stale against Washington.
Moreover, Atlanta shouldn't have a difficult time going no-huddle this week since the team will be playing at home and won't have to deal with crowd noise or the elements. Keep an eye out for this on Sunday.
1. Don't Fall Asleep on Kirk Cousins
Kirk Cousins isn't the typical backup quarterback because he's actually gotten a decent amount of work in meaningful games during his first two seasons in the league.
In fact, the Falcons got a taste of what Kirk Cousins can do when he came into the game for Robert Griffin III and threw for a long touchdown pass against Atlanta last season.
Via Vaughn McClure of ESPN.com, Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon elaborated, saying:
You know, Kirk can throw the ball pretty well. He did a great job last year when he came in; kept them in the game. Ultimately, he was just a rookie, so we sat back on him in some zone coverage when they had to go down the field, ended up getting a couple of interceptions there at the end to close it out.
The Falcons need to rely on their experience against Cousins from last season and be sure that they don't underestimate Cousins' ability to make plays.
2. Limit the Run Game
Nothing too complicated here. Even with Kirk Cousins at quarterback, the Falcons still have to realize that the ground game is what makes or breaks this Washington offense. The Packers didn't gut the Falcons rush defense last week with Eddie Lacy, but they were still able to get a few significant gains.
Washington's ground attack ranks second in the league in total yards, so the Falcons have to continue to make sure they clean up their missed tackles and play with sound gap integrity this week if they want to come away with a victory.
3. Turn Up the Heat
Atlanta shouldn't be timid on defense this week against a suspect Washington offensive line. Redskins coach Mike Shanahan pointed out the fact that Robert Griffin III had been sacked 24 times in Washington's last five games as part of his reasoning for why he made the decision to shut Griffin down for the rest of the season.
Washington's offensive line has given up a total of 39 sacks on the year. By comparison, Atlanta's own leaky offensive line has allowed 31. Certainly quarterback awareness factors into that statistic, but when you turn on the tape it's clear that both of these teams have had serious protection issues up front.
Knowing that, Atlanta should be sure to send some heat at Kirk Cousins and this Redskins offense on Sunday.
4. Be Opportunistic
Sean Weatherspoon did a nice job of being "Johnny on the spot" last week when he caught a ball off of fellow linebacker Paul Worrilow's foot and scored a touchdown for Atlanta's defense.
Atlanta's defense hasn't created a lot of turnovers this year, but the defense scored in both of the team's home victories against St. Louis and Tampa.
Falcons head coach Mike Smith emphasized the role that the team's inability to generate turnovers has played in Atlanta's disappointing season when he spoke with the Washington media this week, via Redskins.com:
When you are on the minus side of the turnover ratio – minus one – you’re going to lose about 80 percent of the time. If you get to be minus two in a game, you’re going to lose over 90 percent of the time.
We are not taking care of the ball, nor are we taking it away. We did a very good job last year of taking the ball away and we have only taken the ball away 12 times through the first 13 games [this season].
If someone on this defense can create a play this week, Atlanta could end up getting its third home win of the season.
If the Falcons execute these keys and protect the football on Sunday, they should be able to sweep away this messy Washington team and earn their fourth victory of the season convincingly.