Three things in particular should stick out for the Washington Redskins in their preseason opener against the New England Patriots. Surprisingly, none of them directly involves quarterback Robert Griffin III.
Even as one of his harshest critics, this author is willing to accept some rustiness from a passer who still has a lot to do to refine his craft. The real interest on offense will be those catching Griffin's passes.
Defensively, it will be interesting to see how well the line can create consistent pressure. The unit as a whole must also show it can make a stand when the pace of the game is quickened.
Here's a more in-depth focus on what to watch when Washington hosts the Pats:
How Young Receiver Ryan Grant Performs
Although the starters will only get a modest number of snaps to work with, it's still unfortunate Washington could well be without its top two receivers. Pierre Garcon will sit out the game, while DeSean Jackson's status remains in question, per Mike Jones of The Washington Post.
However, at least their absence will let the Redskins get a good look at some of the younger receivers vying for work in the rotation. The most promising candidate is fifth-round draft pick Ryan Grant.
He has been earning rave reviews recently. During Washington's organized practice with the Patriots, Grant caught the eyes of reporters for both teams.
Real Redskins blogger Rich Tandler highlighted one play as an example of Grant's smarts:
If you’ve done your 53-man roster projection and rookie wide receiver Ryan Gran isn’t on it, tear it up and start again. You’re doing it wrong. In one on one work against Patriots cornerback Justin Green from about the 10 yard line, Grant went down and in and Green had him covered. But Grant curled back around and broke wide open. Many receivers who have been around for years can’t execute that route.
Meanwhile, ESPN.com Patriots reporter Mike Reiss was left suitably impressed by Grant:
One Washington player who has flashed that I didn't know much about entering the joint practices is rookie receiver Ryan Grant, a fifth-round draft choice out of Tulane. He's 6-foot, 193 pounds and has made an early impression on the Washington coaching staff. He ran a 4.64 in the 40-yard dash in the pre-draft process, which is slow for a pass-catcher, but he is a reminder that 40 times don't always translate to the field.
Grant is an interesting figure in Washington's receiver rotation. He is the closest thing the team has to a natural slot receiver.
Many might expect Santana Moss to occupy that role. However, the 35-year-old seems like a player slowly being nudged toward the exit door this offseason. If the team is so happy with Moss, then why draft Grant?
It also says a lot that general manager Bruce Allen and new head coach Jay Gruden used a draft pick on a wideout, even after acquiring veterans Jackson and Andre Roberts.
There's certainly an opening in this passing scheme for a receiver who can thrive underneath. With Jackson and Garcon eventually stretching coverage all across the field, the short-range passing lanes should be left wide open.
This is Grant's chance to keep making an impression and prove he should own the slot role once the real action begins.
The D-Line's Ability to Pressure the Pocket
The defensive line should and must be a team strength this season. Specifically, the Washington defense needs its front to create more penetration and pressure.
That puts the onus on key members of the rotation such as Barry Cofield, Chris Baker and Jarvis Jenkins. Going up against a team that runs a fast-paced offense behind a solid O-line is a good audition for this group.
The Patriots rely on speed of execution. Plays are delivered quickly and the next call is relayed from the sideline almost immediately. That's something that obviously makes the job of a pass rush harder.
But the Washington front three can still work to get around the pocket slow the New England offense down. That task should be made easier by the absence of future Hall of Famer Tom Brady under center.
He is likely to sit the game out, putting reserve quarterback Ryan Mallett in the firing line, per Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald. Washington's D-line starters must take the chance to see how the inexperienced passer holds up under pressure.
Creating a strong inside push is not exactly something the group managed during the joint practice sessions.
ESPNBoston.com reporter Mike Reiss focused on some of the battles along the interior, and he noted general success for the Patriots:
Wendell vs. Barry Cofield was a good matchup, with Cofield lining up shaded off Wendell’s right shoulder. Wendell hung tough in what I’d call two stalemates, while it looked like right guard Dan Connolly had arguably the most success of anyone on the interior, perhaps because he wasn’t facing big-time competition in thwarting Jarvis Jenkins and Clifton Geathers.
The point about Jenkins is a telling one. It's high time the second-round pick in 2011 started to show more chops as a disruptive force rather than a player who will simply occupy blockers.
The latter task may be the primary function of linemen in a 3-4 scheme. However, no defense, whether 3-4, 4-3 or a nickel sub-package, can function without pressure up front.
That's not something this unit managed to consistently produce in 2013, but it's something that must change this season. The skill of outside linebackers Brian Orakpo, Ryan Kerrigan and rookie Trent Murphy will only take the pass rush so far.
The rest of the onus is on the men in the trenches. With pressure off the edges assured, collapsing the pocket inside will be key to obscuring passing lanes and forcing errant throws. It's how this defense is supposed to work.
Gruden and Allen were obviously acutely aware of that fact when they snatched 3-technique pressure specialist Jason Hatcher from bitter rival the Dallas Cowboys.
The 32-year-old is sure to cause more havoc inside once he's healthy. However, offseason knee surgery has denied defensive coordinator Jim Haslett the opportunity to integrate the player who tallied 11 sacks last season.
Gruden thinks third preseason game is target date for Jason Hatcher.— Mike Jones (@MikeJonesWaPo) August 6, 2014
That means it's up to Cofield, Jenkins and Company to use their limited workout against the Patriots to prove this line is ready to exert more influence in the new campaign.
Keenan Robinson as Signal-Caller and Defense vs. No-Huddle Offense
This game represents another chance for Keenan Robinson to prove he merits his position as the de facto quarterback of this season's defense.
The brittle third-year pro is being given the task of acting as signal-caller for the unit, per Liz Clarke of The Washington Post. That means he has to make quick calls to counter quarterbacks trying to manipulate alignments and coverages.
Not having to look across the line and seeing Brady might make Robinson's job easier. But truthfully, the more he gets to work on relaying plays to his teammates, the better for Robinson and the defense.
Robinson already gained a measure of knowledge from going up against Brady during the dual-practice sessions.
He gave a good account of himself, according to Redskins blogger Rich Tandler for CSNWashington.com:
Monday’s practice marked the first time that Robinson had been the primary defensive signal caller against another team. Brady looked like he was playing in Week 6 of the season as he called out signals, pointed out potential pass rushers, and was razor sharp with his accuracy. He moved the Patriots through the Redskins’ defense with relative ease.
Jay Gruden wasn’t happy about everything that went on during today’s session but he was happy with Robinson’s signal calling.
Brady kept Robinson, who had to get the defensive calls via hand signals since his helmet receiver wasn’t working, on his toes.
Pitting wits against a master like Brady should be considered an invaluable learning curve for the young linebacker.
Robinson may only get a few series to again test himself against the Patriots starters. But the brief encounter will be more help for a player preparing to take on a critical role this season.
One of Robinson's primary concerns should be helping his unit react whenever the Patriots go to a no-huddle attack. A central takeaway from the scrimmages with the Patriots was how the Washington defense struggled to cope with the uptempo offense directed by Brady.
ESPNBoston.com writer Mike Reiss noted how Brady and his receivers left the opposition trailing once they increased speed: "There was one point late in practice when the Patriots went to a version of their uptempo offense, and quarterback Tom Brady was simply at a higher level."
Redskins reporters and fans were wondering if their defense was going to stink this year while watching the practices against the Patriots. I heard the same thing last year when the Patriots scrimmaged the Eagles. Stop. Brady would make the Steel Curtain look bad in a dual practice. In seven-on-seven and team drills, Brady is unstoppable. Running a hurry-up practice offense, Brady balances smarts with accuracy. Opposing defenses don't have a chance.
The problem with Clayton's view is that it's offered purely from the context of how good Brady is. But there are implications for the regular season in how the Redskins respond to an uptempo attack.
Specifically, the team faces NFC East foe the Philadelphia Eagles twice. Philly boss Chip Kelly wants his offense to be faster than a sneeze, and let's face it, the Redskins couldn't cope with the Eagles last season.
In two losses, Washington's defense gave up 55 offensive points and 890 yards. If Gruden hopes to make any waves in the division during his first season, he must get the better of 2013's NFC East winners.
Going up against New England's lightning-fast no-huddle is good practice for facing the Eagles.
It may be Mallett under center, but that doesn't mean the Pats won't quicken the pace any chance they get. Brady's deputy has been mighty impressive during camp, particularly in the early scrimmages against the Redskins:
New England's backup passer will still give Robinson the chance to sharpen his skills as Haslett's on-field general.
The points in this article have focused on what to look for during the few exchanges when the starters are on the field. That's what ultimately counts, no matter how briefly the primary players are in action.
There will still be hints of some things a rebuilding Washington team is going to try and lean on once the regular season begins.