As I was watching the game tape for the upcoming game between New England and Washington, I came to a fairly simple understanding of the Patriots opponent.
They're not very good.
The offense seems to be very simple, but the players aren't always able to execute the call. The defense looks to be the same nearly every down.
They remind me of the Jaguars, but with a quarterback with less touch on passes 10 yards down the field. Washington's running backs are slightly better. The defense looks so simple I had to watch over and over again to make sure I wasn't missing anything. It seems like the Patriots were constructed to beat Washington on both sides of the ball.
Washington managed to stick around against the Falcons due to a handful of missed field goals and plenty turnovers. The Jets walked over them once they stopped turning the ball over. They needed an onside kick in the middle of the game to topple the Buccaneers.
Anything can happen on Sunday. But I'll be surprised if the Patriots don't win this walking away.
When Washington runs the ball
The offensive line isn't dominant, but Washington really relies on their run game to open up passing lanes. Matt Jones and Alfred Morris are both capable rushers, while Chris Thompson is used as more of a receiver. Jones is also used as a receiver.
Center Josh LeRibeus isn't very strong and it will be very possible for defensive tackles like Alan Branch or Malcom Brown to throw him into a rushing lane, while Dominique Easley could very well disrupt the play before it starts. Right tackle Morgan Moses is capable, but he seems slow and overreaches on his blocks.
The rushing attack isn't married to any specific scheme; the run zone and man blocking schemes, they stretch the front and they pull block. The issue is that it seems like at least one offensive lineman is defeated by the defender on every single attempt. It's difficult for Washington to get into a rhythm.
Washington uses their running game to open up passes up the seam and on crossers, similar to pretty much every attack in the league. If the Patriots can stick to their defensive play that stifled the Jets and Dolphins, they'll be perfectly fine. Branch, Brown, Easley, Sealver Siliga, and Akiem Hicks will all have a busy day.
When Washington passes the ball
The passing attack seems very similar to the Colts, but with pieces collected at the dollar store (although I will note that the return of DeSean Jackson will seriously improve the offense). Quarterback Kirk Cousins will have three checks every snap: deep, shallow, outlet. There will usually be a player streaking up the seam, a couple players on either side of the formation running an out route, and then a running back leaking out into the flat.
Cousins does a really good job of spreading the targets around his offense. Wide receivers Pierre Garcon and Jamison Crowder will see around 8 targets, and so will tight end Jordan Reed and running back Chris Thompson. Of the other 10 or so targets, half will go to receiver Ryan Grant and the rest to random players, or they will all likely be absorbed by DeSean Jackson.
Essentially, Cousins will look to see if the deep pass is open to the player streaking up the seam. If that is not open, he will look to the outside where a receiver on either side will be breaking to the sidelines. If he doesn't feel comfortable with that pass, he will look to Thompson.
Washington runs a lot of crossing patterns once their running game is set up, using the play action to suck in the linebackers out of the passing lanes. Unfortunately for Cousins, he always seems to throw the ball behind his receiver because he's not an anticipation passer. He has to see the player open before he throws it, which is why he always resorts to check downs.
Assuming that Jackson does play, it's safe to assume the passing line-up will consist of Jackson, Garcon, Crowder, Reed, and then the running back. If this is the case, the Patriots should play with their nickel defense that features Patrick Chung in the box as an extra linebacker of sorts, and Justin Coleman as the extra defensive back.
Free safety Devin McCourty should patrol the deep half of the field to make sure that Jackson doesn't get behind the defense. Chung will likely pair across from Reed since this match-up gives Logan Ryan the assignment of Crowder. Malcolm Butler will be asked to man up with Pierre Garcon one-on-one, while Coleman will cover DeSean Jackson with help from McCourty over the top.
Cousins isn't the biggest threat to run the ball, although he is mobile outside of the pocket, so look for the Patriots to crank up the pressure when possible.
When the Patriots run the ball
No team has seen more opponents run to the outside since week 5 than Washington. Teams have rushed 68 times outside the tackles, picking up 5.57 yards per carry. Oh, and Washington was on a bye last week- that means they've only played three games and they still have the lead.
Washington can't stop a run to the outside if the game depended on it. They feature 5 men on the line on first down, and then change into a 4-man front on later downs. They use a 3-4 front on first down, but the defensive tackles and the outside linebackers are on totally different pages.
It seems like every single play resulted in an offensive lineman sealing the defensive end away from the outside rushing lane, while an extra blocker would push the outside linebacker deep away from the hole. Every. Single. Time. The linebackers aren't fast enough to compensate and hit the hole, so the running back has an open lane into the second level.
This is a game where both Dion Lewis and LeGarrette Blount could have massive days. The past three opponents of Washington had individual running backs average 188 yards from scrimmage, while the rushing unit as a whole averaged 231 yards from scrimmage. Both players are very good when asked to run to the outside in a non-stretch capacity. This could be a romp.
Better yet? Over that same time frame, Washington has allowed an average of 6.35 yards per carry on runs up the middle. They can't stop the run.
When the Patriots pass the ball
Washington's linebackers are really bad in coverage. Their nickel defense is two cornerbacks (Bashaud Breeland, Will Blackmon) and three safeties (Trent Robinson, Dashon Goldson, Kyshoen Jarrett).
Dion Lewis and Rob Gronkowski are going to win every single one-on-one match-up the entire day. Washington doesn't have enough quality depth to defend Brandon LaFell as the 4th option on offense. Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola will run all over the defense with yards after the catch.
Recent teams haven't really had to rely on throwing the ball because of the success of their rushing attacks, but drops and inaccurate throws seemed to be the only way Washington ever stopped a drive. This isn't to say that opponents haven't passed (big outside receivers like Mike Evans, Julio Jones, and Brandon Marshall were open at will), but that they haven't had to pass.
Washington likes to rush four, drop three into the underneath coverage, and then have four defensive backs run with the receivers down the field. This means that passes underneath are going to represent a gold mine for the Patriots if they want to exploit the opportunity.
My big concern is that both Robinson and Goldson play like Brandon Merriweather. They want the big hit and they'll approach the receiver recklessly. Gronkowski should sit out as soon as this game is in hand.