7 Keys to Victory in Washington Redskins' Week 2 Matchup
Chris Thompson, Jordan Reed and Vernon Davis will all be key to the Washington Redskins beating the Los Angeles Rams in Week 2. Every member of the trio can help the Burgundy and Gold exploit favorable matchups against the Wade Phillips-coached defense in L.A.
Phillips' preference for man coverage, particularly in underneath areas, behind a steady diet of the blitz will give the Redskins chances for big plays over the middle. Yet those chances will only be taken if Washington provides better protection for Kirk Cousins.
The team's quarterback was sacked four times during the loss to the Philadelphia Eagles at FedExField. Cousins will face a team that also piled up four sacks in Week 1 in a victory over the Indianapolis Colts and is led by two-time Pro Bowl edge-rusher Robert Quinn.
Defensively, the Redskins boast the talent up front to make the Rams one-dimensional and take advantage of the pass-first attack headed by former Washington offensive coordinator Sean McVay, the Rams' new head coach.
Read on for a full list of the seven keys to a Redskins win in Week 2.
Use the 'Bear' Front to Shut Down Todd Gurley
Starting with the obvious first, the Redskins defense has to prevent Todd Gurley from running wild. He may have struggled last season to replicate his spectacular rookie season of 2015, but Gurley is still one of the most naturally gifted runners in the NFL.
Using versions of the "Bear" front can help a beefed-up Washington defensive line control the trenches and deny Gurley daylight. Put simply, the Bear involves covering up the center and both guards along the line of scrimmage.
The Redskins can do that with Terrell McClain, Stacy McGee and Ziggy Hood. All three looked solid during the win over the Eagles, as did rookie Jonathan Allen.
Washington's top pick in the 2017 NFL draft, Allen led all Redskins rookies and D-linemen in snaps last week, per Rich Tandler of CSNMidAtlantic.com: "The rookie leader in snaps played was (drum roll, please) DE Jonathan Allen, who played 42 of the 68 defensive snaps. That was by far the most playing time for any defensive lineman. Matt Ioannidis was second with 33."
Allen is more dynamic than any other member of line coach Jim Tomsula's rotation. His ability to win one-on-one battles and quickly split gaps will be crucial in keeping Gurley quiet.
Isolating the Rams' trio of interior blockers will give the Redskins an advantage thanks to their superior quickness inside. The Rams have the edge in size at guard with 325-pound Rodger Saffold and 330-pound Jamon Brown. Yet both Allen and McClain are nimble enough to beat this pair, while either McGee or Hood will be too much for ex-Redskins starting center John Sullivan.
Gurley is the weapon the Redskins must take away, even though he hardly shined in the win over the Colts, managing 40 yards on 19 carries for 2.1 yards per carry.
A repeat of those numbers will give Washington the edge in L.A.
Have Josh Norman Shadow Sammy Watkins
The Redskins didn't move Josh Norman around too often last week, keeping him almost exclusively on the left side, a la Seattle Seahawks ace Richard Sherman. It's something defensive coordinator Greg Manusky must change for Week 2 by having Norman shadow Sammy Watkins.
The ex-Buffalo Bill is the most obvious source of big plays in the Rams' passing game. He's also a wideout McVay won't hesitate to move around formations to create mismatches pre- and post-snap.
Watkins was targeted five times in Week 1, catching all of them for 58 yards, including a long gain of 24 yards. Washington's secondary needs to limit his effectiveness in space.
Trusting Norman to do it would be a smart move, but it's reliant on his focus. Norman needs to focus less on the cleats he wears and keep his mind on being one of the premier cornerbacks in football.
Manusky needs a specific plan to stop Watkins, something he didn't have against any of the Eagles' primary weapons last week. Thanks to Norman, though, the plan needn't be complicated.
The Redskins simply need to put their best cornerback on the Rams' best receiver.
Double-Team Robert Woods
The advantage of trusting Norman to shut down an opponent's best receiver by himself means the Redskins can double-team some of the Rams' other notable targets.
One receiver who should see a crowd in Week 2 is Robert Woods. Like Watkins, Woods is a former Buffalo Bills starter who thrived in his Rams debut last week, reeling in three catches for 53 yards, including a 27-yard gain.
While Watkins wins with speed, Woods is all about quality route running. He is the personification of precision out of his breaks and is a big-bodied pass-catcher who quickly gets to the inside and has the length the snag a contested ball.
The Redskins should give Bashaud Breeland help against the 6'0", 193-pound Woods. Using a safety over the top or a linebacker underneath, while Norman handles Watkins, can take away quarterback Jared Goff's two best weapons.
Having a star corner shut down one receiver while doubling another is a ploy often used by New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. As Mark Bullock of the Washington Post noted, Belichick usually flips the script by having his best cover man shadow a team's No. 2 receiver, while versatile corner/safety Devin McCourty helps double the primary target.
Since the Redskins don't have a safety with McCourty's coverage skills, Manusky should keep it simple by doubling Woods and leaving Norman on Watkins.
It may leave Washington's defense vulnerable to the big-play threat of Cooper Kupp, who caught four passes for 76 yards and a touchdown against the Colts. Fortunately, though, the Redskins can trust Kendall Fuller to stay with Kupp after the second-year slot corner impressed against the Eagles.
Double-Team Robert Quinn
No matter what the Redskins do defensively, they won't win unless their offense gets back on track. It won't happen unless Cousins gets more time in the pocket, a luxury he won't be afforded if Washington fails to keep Quinn under wraps.
This long-armed, jet-heeled rush end must be double-teamed on every play, even if it means the Redskins taking their chances with the Rams' other capable pass-rushers. The Los Angeles defense can also turn Connor Barwin and Michael Brockers loose on quarterbacks, but neither can take over and decide a game the way Quinn can.
The Redskins may like their matchup of five-time Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Williams against Quinn. Yet as effective as Williams is, he can be beaten by a speed rush to the outside, which just happens to be Quinn's forte.
If last week's depressing defeat to the Eagles told the Redskins anything, it's how their five starters along the offensive line can't win one-on-one matchups. Philly defensive tackles Fletcher Cox and Timmy Jernigan, along with rush end Brandon Graham, ran riot against individual blockers.
The onus is on line coach Bill Callahan to make sure his blockers are supplemented in Week 2, especially those tasked with keeping Quinn in check.
Phillips isn't shy about moving his best pass-rusher around to put him on the open side of formations. He did it with DeMarcus Ware while in charge of the Dallas Cowboys and to some extent with Von Miller when calling defenses for the Denver Broncos.
Wherever Quinn lines up, he must draw a crowd. At the very least, it should mean having a running back or tight end chip him every play.
Callahan would be better served assigning a tight end to play over Quinn every snap or using swing tackle Ty Nsekhe as a jumbo-style tight end for this purpose.
The Redskins have to commit to stopping a pass-rushing game-wrecker who now has more flexibility in Phillips' version of the 3-4 defense.
Use 2-Tight End Sets and Show Max Protection Looks Early
Slowing down the Rams' blitz-happy 3-4 is the biggest key to a Washington win in Week 2. The process can begin by loading the line of scrimmage with two tight ends and showing maximum protection early on.
Playing with two tight ends will mean the Redskins can double each of the Rams' dangerous edge-rushers, Quinn and Barwin. Since Phillips' defense is essentially a 5-2 front, keeping the rush ends in check is vital.
Fortunately, the Redskins have the personnel to easily put this plan into action. Specifically, the roster features an embarrassment of riches at tight end with Jordan Reed, Niles Paul, Vernon Davis and rookie Jeremy Sprinkle.
Fifth-round pick Sprinkle and the 33-year-old Davis are the best blockers in the group, but the 6'8", 338-pound Nsekhe can also be used if others are struggling.
Doubling up on the outside can also help the Redskins on the inside. In particular, if tandem blocking is quickly set up on the edge, one member of the duo can slide off and help double Aaron Donald.
The awesome 3-technique D-tackle is one of the most destructive interior pass-rushers in the league and is set to make his debut in Week 2.
Donald is back among the starters, according to McVay, per Myles Simmons of the Rams' official website: "He's back here with us now and looking to get him going. And as far as how he'll be utilized in this game and kind of exactly what that plan entails is going to be predicated on how he feels going out to practice and getting involved."
Donald's start to the season may have been delayed by a contract holdout, but he's still a force along the interior and one the Redskins can't ignore.
Seeing Donald back in the fold is one more reason why the Redskins should show maximum protection a lot early on. Keeping seven or eight blockers in may initially waste some of Washington's more effective weapons, such as Davis and Reed, but it will not only slow the Rams' front seven down but also set up big plays over the middle the Redskins can find against Phillips' coverage tendencies.
Get Jordan Reed and Vernon Davis More Involved over the Middle
Phillips has had a career-long tendency to trust his inside linebackers in man coverage over the middle. The use of two-deep zone shells from the safeties, as well as deep quarters-style coverage looks, means the middle can often be left exposed.
It's something the Redskins can take full advantage of by getting Reed and Davis more involved this week. Both tight ends present mismatches on the inside against Rams linebackers Alec Ogletree and Mark Barron.
Creating those mismatches can come from using max protection looks early on.
One of the features of the scheme Phillips runs is the use of "Green Dogs." Simply put, it means a defender assigned in man coverage can blitz or green-dog if his coverage assignment stays in to block rather than releasing out into space.
If the Redskins are willing to chance some seven- and nine-step drops from Cousins, they can hit Reed or Davis on late releases behind these inside blitzes. It would mean Reed and Davis selling blocks initially, then attacking the open middle as hot reads.
Of course, such a tactic would be reliant on protection holding up long enough to sell the rouse. Yet if it does, Washington will hit a host of big plays over the middle.
Isolate Chris Thompson in Space
One of the few weaknesses in a Phillips-coached defense can be covering running backs in space. The preference for man coverage underneath means inside linebackers are often isolated against nifty, pass-catching backs.
Thankfully, the Redskins have one of those in the form of Chris Thompson. No. 25 can be a matchup nightmare against the Rams after hauling in four passes for 52 yards, including a 29-yard touchdown, against the Eagles in Week 1.
Head coach Jay Gruden must dial up Thompson's number a lot in L.A. He needs to tweak formations and alignment to spread the Rams out and isolate Thompson against inside linebackers, particularly on the edges.
Think back to the 2015 AFC Championship Game when Patriots pass-catching back James White gashed the Broncos for 45 yards on five catches. White was always available to keep the chains moving because of the way the Pats flexed him into the slot or split him out wide pre-snap.
A Phillips defense will usually adjust to such a change in alignment simply by moving a linebacker out into space. It's a matchup Thompson can win again and again against the Rams in Week 2.
Throwing to Thompson more often can substitute for a running game missing in action on third down last week; the offense as a whole struggled in general on football's money down, per NFL Matchup on ESPN.
Splitting Thompson out toward the sideline and spreading the Rams linebackers out can also create space in the inside seams for quick releases from Davis and Reed.
The visiting Redskins can beat a talented and exciting Rams team, but it will take more specific game-planning than was evident in Week 1. It means committing to taking away L.A.'s main threats on both sides of the ball.
If Gruden and his staff make such a commitment, Washington will end the season's second week at 1-1.