7 Keys to Victory in Washington Redskins' Week 3 Matchup
Week 2's dominant rushing display can't just be a fluke for the Washington Redskins when they host the high-powered Oakland Raiders at FedExField on Sunday night in the third week of the 2016 NFL season.
The Burgundy and Gold amassed 229 yards rushing during last week's win over the Los Angeles Rams and must follow a similar blueprint to exploit a Raiders defense vulnerable on the ground.
A heavy diet of running will also help Washington control the clock and keep an explosive Oakland offense on the sideline. When quarterback Derek Carr and his fleet of gifted receivers do see the field, Redskins defensive coordinator Greg Manusky should show them stacked fronts and an array of blitz pressure.
An aggressive scheme can work for Manusky so long as his talented secondary isn't overwhelmed by wideouts Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree. Regular double coverage on the latter is essential this week.
Read on to find out the seven things the Redskins must do to upset the 2-0 Raiders.
Double Michael Crabtree
Marshawn Lynch's brand of hard-nosed running has added a new element to the Raiders O'. But make no mistake, "Beast Mode" isn't the Redskins' biggest problem this Sunday.
Instead, Oakland's dynamic double act at wide receiver poses a much greater threat. Specifically, Crabtree has to see some form of double team on every play.
No. 15 has been dominant through the first two weeks of this season. He's been virtually perfect reeling in the passes aimed his way, per NFL Matchup on ESPN. Crabtree was at his best during Week 2's 45-20 demolition of the New York Jets, catching three touchdown passes.
In the process, Crabtree further cemented his status as Carr's favorite target. The strength of their rapport was underlined by the perfect passer rating Carr enjoyed when targeting Crabtree, per Pro Football Focus.
Stopping Crabtree is no easy feat since he's one of the most polished route-runners in the NFL. The 30-year-old is subtle and deceptively quick out of his breaks, along with boasting excellent hands.
Crabtree has established himself as Carr's optimum get-out-of-trouble and clutch target. Taking this safety net away demands a commitment to double coverage.
The Redskins must show the veteran wideout different looks. It will mean occasionally playing with a safety over the top or dropping linebackers underneath his routes.
However Manusky does it, Crabtree must see a crowd every play.
Trust Josh Norman on Amari Cooper
Fortunately for the Redskins, they can dedicate extra resources to bracketing Crabtree because Josh Norman can be trusted to matchup one-on-one with Cooper.
Norman is a true shutdown cornerback who was back to close to his best against the Rams. He helped keep Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods quiet, with the pair combining for just three catches for 38 yards last week.
However, Cooper will pose a different challenge to Norman's savvy and skills. Namely, Cooper boasts the kind of field-stretching vertical speed most cornerbacks fear.
It's a quality the ex-Alabama standout most often displays on the go route. In a look at the success of receivers on different routes last season, Eliot Crist of Pro Football Focus detailed how efficient Cooper was when working deep:
"Cooper led all receivers in catches when targeted on the go route with 9, despite being only the 11th-most-targeted receiver (18). Cooper was second in yards with 284 and tied for third in touchdowns with 2. Cooper earned a 132.87 WR rating despite finishing 35th out of 42 WRs in aDOT (25.61), with his long target on the year of 38 yards."
Dealing with this kind of vertical threat should prompt Norman to play plenty of off-coverage. At 6'0" and 200 pounds, Norman is a decent physical matchup against 6'1", 210-pound Cooper. Yet if he's playing without help, the 29-year-old should give himself a cushion to help eliminate the big plays Cooper has made his trademark.
Health is a concern for both of these key players ahead of Week 3. Norman is dealing with an ACL joint sprain, but head coach Jay Gruden still expects him to play, according to Matthew Paras of the Washington Times.
Similarly, Cooper was limited by a knee issue during Wednesday's practice, per Michael Gehlken of the Las Vegas Review-Journal (h/t RotoWire staff at CBSSports.com). The report from RotoWire and CBSSports.com did note how "Cooper also started last week limited before upgrading to full participation Thursday and Friday."
I expect both Norman and Cooper to suit up this Sunday before squaring off directly for what will be one of the most important matchups in this game.
Beware of Raiders Running Backs in Space
Given how easily Todd Gurley exploited their defense in space last week, the Redskins should be concerned about Oakland's pass-catching running backs. Both Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington can pose Manusky's defense matchup problems as receivers.
Gurley was a consistent menace whenever he released into the flat and caught a pass. He totalled three grabs for 48 yards in Week 2, including a 28-yard score.
The threat of the big play from a running back catching a pass in space is something the Raiders pose defenses each week. Against the Jets, it was Richard who took one of his two receptions 39 yards.
Washington is more of a short-range target, but still not one the Redskins can ignore.
The challenge the Raiders' dual-threat runners pose comes from the Silver and Black's willingness to use them. Oakland offensive coordinator Todd Downing will have Carr throw to any of his running backs, including Lynch, from a variety of alignments and pre-snap looks.
Countering this threat can be achieved in a variety of ways. Manusky may want to give an athletic inside linebacker like Zach Brown the task of spying Richard and Washington in space.
Alternatively, Washington's defense could use the blitz to force these versatile backfield playmakers to stay in and help protect Carr.
The latter ploy is the Redskins' best bet, since it also ties in with several other keys to the game plan.
Send 6, 7 and 8-Man Pressure at Carr and Co.
This is a game when the Redskins can't be shy about blitzing. The dual-threat dynamism of Oakland's offense, ensured by Carr and his receivers, along with Lynch's talent on the ground, demands a pro-active approach to defense.
Manusky won't nullify all of these threats, but he can wreck plays at their source by turning his array of pass-rushers loose. It will mean stacking the line of scrimmage with linebackers and safeties and sending blitzing players from multiple angles.
Having linebackers cheat up into the inside gaps pre-snap will not only show Carr pressure looks, it will also overload the line of scrimmage and give the Redskins a better chance of slowing Lynch on early downs.
Sending pressure off the edges will also challenge the lateral agility of a gifted but heavy Raiders offensive line. Sending six, seven and eight rushers at Carr, Lynch and Co. will take the Raiders out of their comfort zone and allow the Redskins to dictate the pace against one of the league's best offenses.
Fortunately for Manusky, he has the players to make this risky strategy work. In particular, Washington's defensive coordinator can lean on a quartet of effective edge-rushers.
Both Ryan Kerrigan and Preston Smith recorded a sack in the win over the Rams. Meanwhile, Junior Galette drew a holding penalty and rookie Ryan Anderson looked solid.
Combining this foursome with the interior pressure Terrell McClain and rookie Jonathan Allen can generate gives the Redskins all the weapons they need to turn up the heat on any offense.
One of the advantages of being brave enough to blitz the Raiders is how it will keep those useful pass-catching running backs in to block.
Pressure through the A-gaps will demand Carr keeps an extra blocker in the backfield. Meanwhile, rushers off the edge can employ snatch and peel techniques to make sure Richard and Washington don't enjoy clean releases into pass patterns.
The Raiders are third in the league in explosive plays, passes of over 15 yards and runs over 11, per NFL Matchup on ESPN. Playing against a unit this dynamic means the Redskins can't just sit back and wait to give up yardage in chunks.
Instead, Washington's D' must attack from the off. Blitzing will not only slow Lynch early, it will also challenge Carr to show the touch and accuracy on his passes when he's forced to get rid of the ball quicker than he'd like.
Be Ready for the Gadget Plays
The Raiders have the talent on offense to beat any opponent straight up. But it doesn't mean the Silver and Black are above using some trickery.
Downing likes to use gadget plays, and in Cordarrelle Patterson, he has the ideal roving weapon for the kind of schemes sure to punish a less than fully focused defense.
The Raiders like to use Patterson's skills as a runner more than his background as a wide receiver. Oakland's third play from scrimmage against the Jets was a draw to Patterson out of a shotgun look.
In all, the ace return man rushed three times for 57 yards in Week 2, including a 43-yard score. The touchdown came after Patterson joined the backfield late after the Raiders initially showed the Jets an empty backfield look, per Carl Steward of the Santa Cruz Sentinel:
"Lining up at the left wideout spot on a third-and-one, Patterson went in motion and then came set right next to Carr, looking more like a blocker than someone who would get the ball. But at the snap, Carr jammed the ball into Patterson’s gut and he exploded forward toward what was obviously a planned blocking scheme that only needed to be held for a fraction of a second. Once Patterson flashed through it, he was gone, untouched, to the house."
Identifying where Patterson is pre-snap is obviously an important part of reducing his impact. Yet gadget plays are only stopped by knowing the tell-tale signs heralding them. Put simply, it's a good bet when Patterson is in the game he's going to get the ball as a runner. The Raiders aren't about to throw to him when they have Cooper, Crabtree, Richard and tight end Jared Cook.
Patterson isn't the only gadget-style threat the Redskins must be wary of, though. The Raiders will also use trick plays from their regular personnel.
They did when Lynch and Carr executed a flea-flicker on 2nd-and-6 in the opening quarter against the Jets. The play went for 26 yards after Carr took the pitch back from Lynch and connected with Crabtree deep downfield.
Washington's defenders must be wary of Oakland's penchant for trickery and play sound, fundamental football to prevent these gadget plays from amassing yards in chunks.
Overload the Line of Scrimmage and Run the Football
It's impossible to understate how impressive the Redskins were running the football in Week 2. Washington's offense beat up and beat down an ultra-talented Rams front seven and got big gains from three different running backs.
Rob Kelley, Chris Thompson and Samaje Perine each registered a run of over 11 yards. How's that for getting explosive plays?
The Redskins can have similar success against a Raiders defensive front so far soft against the run. Oakland's D' is yielding 4.8 yards per carry on the ground.
Washington's backs can again run riot, provided Gruden has his offense overload the line of scrimmage. The Raiders usually stack their fronts, so the Redskins will have to get creative to gain a size and matchup advantage in the trenches.
Oakland head coach Jack Del Rio plays a 4-3 scheme with 3-4 principles. It's based around putting three big tackles in the middle and having standup rush end Khalil Mack and versatile linebacker Bruce Irvin bracket the beefy trio.
This is the Raiders' standard look on base downs. Add a pair of inside linebackers behind it, along with safety Karl Joseph, who is regularly deployed in the box, and the Raiders try to win against the run with numbers.
It's a ploy the Redskins can counter by using multiple-tight end sets the way they did against the Rams. Gruden can stack the line with Jordan Reed, Vernon Davis, Niles Paul and rookie Jeremy Sprinkle. Alternatively, he could also add extra tackle Ty Nsekhe to the line and create a six-man front the Raiders will struggle to handle.
Overloading the line will give the Redskins the platform they need to dominate inside and knock open plenty of inviting running lanes, no matter who is available to take the carries.
Kelley is nursing a rib injury and Gruden "has no plans for Thompson to take over as the feature back," per Mike Jones of the Washington Post.
It means rookie Perine is likely to get the lion's share of the carries if Kelley isn't fit enough to start. Perine was solid against the Rams, gaining 67 yards on 21 tough carries.
He'll need 20-25 touches again if the Redskins are going to wear the Raiders down.
Go After David Amerson
The obvious weakness in the Raiders' secondary is a player the Redskins know well. David Amerson, Washington's second-round pick in the 2013 NFL draft, can be beaten regularly.
Jermaine Kearse and the Jets proved as much last week. Kearse averaged 16 yards on four receptions, including a 34-yard scoring grab in the second quarter. He also beat Amerson for an 11-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter.
Amerson's inability to deal with Kearse should give Kirk Cousins plenty of confidence, since Washington's starting quarterback has even better weapons to aim for.
This has to be the week Cousins and the Redskins get Terrelle Pryor Sr. and Josh Doctson more involved as deep threats. Both 6'4" Pryor and 6'2" Doctson have the size, leaping ability and vertical speed to expose Amerson, a boom-or-bust cover man who will take chances and can often lose track of the ball on deep throws.
The Redskins' best ploy will be to take advantage of Oakland's habit of putting eight in the box and selling out for the run, by using play-action passes to create shots deep. Going after Amerson on these shots will allow Washington to lay its own big plays on a Raiders defense still the weak link of the team.
Beating a red-hot AFC contender won't be easy, but the Redskins have the talent and matchup advantages to upset the Silver and Black in Week 3. Specifically, Washington's ability to run the ball, along with the quality core of pass-rushers able to get after Carr, can frustrate the Raiders on both sides of the ball.