Converted TE Niles Paul could have a bigger role in the Washington offense in week 2 agains the Rams. Zuma Press/Icon SMI
The talk in DC this week has been about how the Redskins "should win" this weekend's game against the St. Louis Rams. Such talk makes me nervous -- for the past several seasons, the pre-game talk in most cities has been about how their team "should win" against the Redskins. Coming off 3 consecutive sub-.500 seasons (4 straight years with a negative scoring differential -- a more meaningful measure of team strength than record), the Skins (and their fans) have no business talking about any game as a "should win" proposition.
That's not to say that Washington shouldn't be favored. They appear to be the better team, and they'll kickoff as 3.5-point favorites Sunday afternoon. But, anyone can beat anyone in the NFL, especially a team like the Redskins, which hasn't shown the ability in the past few seasons to follow up a strong performance one week with a strong performance the next.
So, here are five keys to Washington beating the St. Louis Rams and running their record to 2-0:
Control Chris Long -- Long took a couple years to hit his stride after being picked 2nd overall in the 2008 draft, but the defensive end has emerged as a pass-rushing force. He has increased his sack total each year of his career -- last season he had 13. The job of stopping him from crushing rookie QB Robert Griffin III falls primarily to Tyler Polumbus, the street free agent Washington picked up in mid-season last year. Polumbus struggled in both run and pass protection last week, so I'd anticipate seeing the coaching staff giving him some help -- at minimum with some chip blocks from tight ends and/or running backs.
Find the Tight Ends Early and Often -- Last season, the Rams allowed just 33 receiving yards per game to opposing tight ends. In week one, the Lions torched them for 126. The Redskins tight ends were fairly quiet against the Saints, but Fred Davis and Niles Paul are potentially dangerous weapons. Paul, in particular, has a unique combination of size and speed that makes him a tough matchup for opposing linebackers and safeties. I anticipate seeing the Skins finding ways to target him Sunday against the Rams.
Shut Down the St. Louis Receivers -- On defense, Washington has a good line and first-rate linebackers. Their secondary: sucks. The Rams lack playmakers in their receiving corps, but the Redskins lackluster defensive backs still must play well to shut them down. A good pass rush will help, but they're still going to need to cover better than they did in the preseason and against the Saints.
Beat Up Sam Bradford -- A good way to limit the Rams' passing attack will be to knock the quarterback down with regularity. The St. Louis offensive line was iffy even before injuries to a couple starters. Outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan was virtually unstoppable against New Orleans, and Brian Orakpo was nearly as good. If the Redskins can get to Bradford consistently, the St. Louis passing game will grind to a halt.
Solid Play from RG3 -- Griffin was terrific against the Saints -- arguably the best rookie debut performance in league history. He probably won't be that good against St. Louis, but then he really doesn't need to be. If he can make good decisions, throw the ball with accuracy and use his feet to stay out of trouble, there's enough on film to make this offense score regularly.
There are a few things I'd like to see this week from the Skins. Chief among them, a better ground attack. Last week, they ground out yardage, but it took a TON of carries. Rookie Alfred Morris carried much of the load, but admitted in post-game interviews that he didn't gain as many yards as he could have because he too often took the wrong path when carrying the ball. Morris is a sturdy physical runner, but if he can't correct that issue, the Skins will need to turn back to Evan Royster and Roy Helu.
On the defensive side, I'm hoping to see better play from Jarvis Jenkins. Jenkins showed great promise in the team's 2011 training camp before wrecking his knee in a preseason game. He's working his way back, but hasn't returned to that "immovable force" style of play yet.
Perhaps my biggest worry for Sunday is returner Brandon Banks. He's an exciting player, but fumbles way too much for my taste. Last week, he laid the ball on the ground twice, which has to be cause for concern. If he can't hang on to the ball, Washington will need to find someone else to return kicks.
Robert Griffin III celebrates his first career touchdown pass. Manny Flores/Icon SMI
The Redskins opened the season by going to New Orleans and defying nearly everyone's expectations, including mine. They thumped the Saints -- a team that was supposed to be fired up after being put through the Bounty Gate wringer -- with an artificially narrow margin of victory. Even as the Saints rallied to make the score closer, the Skins' remained firmly in control of the game.
The post-game chatter was mainly about rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III, who merely had the best rookie opener in league history. Helped by an imaginative gameplan from offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, Griffin looked every bit a superstar in the making. There were three specific things I particularly liked about his performance last Sunday:
Quick Release: The last first round QB in Washington was Jason Campbell, whose throws went something like this: That guy's open...I should throw...windup...and...there it goes. And by the time all that happens, the receiver is covered or Campbell got hit, or something. With Griffin, it goes like this: Open? FIRE! When he decides to throw, the ball is gone -- with velocity.
Quick Reads: Traditionally, the problem with rookie quarterbacks has not been physical. That is to say, youngsters were more than capable to play in the NFL. The trouble was between the ears. The game happens fast, and young QBs often have trouble reading coverages and recognizing which receiver is likely to be open. Griffin seemed to know before the snap where he wanted to go with the ball, and -- even better -- didn't lock in on his primary receiver. On the long touchdown throw, Pierre Garcon was not the primary target. The play was designed to go to tight end Niles Paul.
Quick Feet: One of Griffin's major selling points coming out of college was his world class speed. The Skins offensive staff made good use of that mobility with designed runs, boot legs and read options. Griffin also used his legs to stretch plays out when receivers were initially covered -- usually not to run, but rather to wait for a receiver to break free downfield.
It'll be interesting to see what happens from here. The Skins showed little of their offense in the preseason, which meant the Saints couldn't study any film and prepare. They were constantly adapting, and by the time they'd figured out a way to stop one offensive concept, the Skins were on to the next.
In theory, life should get tougher for the offense going forward as defensive coordinators are able to study film. However, the Skins still have other concepts planned that they haven't used yet. Plus, with an array of strategies available, defenses have to prepare for all of them. Yes, the Redskins might curtail designed runs for Griffin, but defenses still have to be ready for those plays. And, Washington can always go "conventional" because a) the Shanahan offensive system has proven successful in the NFL, and b) Griffin is an excellent passer.
All that said, there will be hiccups along the way. He's not going to be great every week. The test for Griffin is the same as it is for every player who has a great game: to do it again. Not necessarily to be "great" every game, but to play with consistent excellence. Pro sports is littered with players who had one great game. Great players are the guys who perform well repeatedly.
My feeling is that Griffin is going to end up in that latter group -- the great players who sustain excellence for years. It's gonna be fun to watch.