At 0-4, the Washington Redskins have little to feel excited about at this point in the season. The team has had some major inconsistencies on the defensive side of the ball, and has looked bad on offense two weeks in a row — with a 24-3 defeat against the New York Giants as the low point so far. Now, the club will have to go against a New England Patriots team that is undefeated after four games and again looking like the NFL’s gold standard.
What stands out in particular about the Patriots is a defense that has allowed only 13 total points during the first quarter of the season, and leads the league in most meaningful statistical categories. Needless to say that Washington’s offense, which ranks just 28th among the NFL’s 32 teams with an average of 16.5 points scored per game, will have its hands full against New England’s top-ranked defense.
So what can be expected of the unit? Pats Pulpit spoke with Hogs Haven’s Andrew York in order to find out, and to get a clearer picture about which players need to be kept an eye on on Sunday. Judging by his comments, one man in particular stands out: a rookie that is not the highly-touted quarterback that was selected 15th overall by the team. Wide receiver Terry McLaurin instead had to wait until the third round to hear his name called.
“McLaurin has looked like one of the steals of the draft. He is a deep threat with 4.35 speed, but is also a polished route runner and good blocker, showing more physicality than most would expect from a deep threat wide receiver,” Andrew said about the 6-foot-0, 210-pound wide receiver who missed last week’s game due to a hamstring injury but is still the team’s leader with 257 receiving yards and three touchdowns on 16 catches.
“I think they will definitely take away McLaurin, who has been our biggest offensive weapon this year and changes the dimensions of our offense with his speed,” he added before digging deeper into what the Patriots defense will have to prioritize in order to come away victoriously for the tenth Sunday in a row — as least somewhat: “Other than that, it’s hard to think of much our offense has been doing right that is worthy of ‘taking away.’”
This point of view is rather unsurprising. Washington has had its fair share of issues to move the ball through the air and on the ground. Andrew did point out, however, that he thinks New England’s defense should try to put pressure on the team’s offensive line by running tackle-end stunts because especially the right side — tackle Morgan Moses and guards Brandon Scherff and Wes Martin — has been bad at picking them up.
As with any offense, however, the quarterback plays a big role as well. Even though Redskins head coach Jay Gruden has yet to officially decide on a starter, the Patriots should be able to make life hard for whoever lines up under center: “If Colt McCoy starts (as I expect), the Patriots would do well to bring the defensive backs close to the line of scrimmage and focus on defending the short and intermediate areas of the field, because he can’t throw it deep effectively,” said Andrew.
“If Dwayne Haskins starts at quarterback, they should exploit his inexperience by using lots of disguised coverages and blitzes,” he added when talking about that 15th overall draft pick already shortly mentioned above. “If Case Keenum starts at QB, they should shift coverages right before the snap, because he determines who he’s going to throw to pre-snap far too often and stares his intended receiver down.”
One other player that needs to be mentioned among those the Patriots need to watch is running back Chris Thompson, who plays a big role in Washington’s passing game and just last week took a screen pass 39 yards for his team’s biggest gain against New York. In fact, the former fifth-round draft pick is currently the team leader in receptions: he has caught 20 passes during the first four games, gaining a combined 251 yards.
As impressive as his receiving numbers are, however, Thompson’s output on the ground has been mostly underwhelming as he has carried the football 16 times for just 46 yards. The 28-year-old is far from the only issue Washington has on the ground, though, as the team as a whole has gained only 199 total yards by running the football (31st in the NFL) for an average of just 2.9 yards per carry (31st).
Why is that the case? Andrew names various reasons: “First, the running game has never been integrated very well with the passing game. Head coach Jay Gruden is largely credited with designing the passing offense, but he relied on offensive line coach Bill Callahan to design the running offense, and for a long time the two were never very successfully integrated (ie, the run plays often looked different formationally than the passing plays, which was a bit of a “tell” that defenses could key in on).”
“This hurt the run game more than the passing game because the passing game still presented multiple options for where the ball could go, whereas the run plays generally had a designated direction to run the ball,” he continued. “New offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell did a lot of work to integrate the run and pass game this offseason as well as integrating more play action into the offense to force defenses to respect both the run and the pass, but it’s possible there are still tells.”
“I’ve also heard the run scheme criticized for being too complex and using too many different O-line blocking formations, which makes it difficult for the offensive linemen to be especially good at just a few,” added Andrew when talking about the running game’s inefficiency. “In addition to that, Gruden is the offensive play-caller and has some obvious tendencies, calling runs on 1st down more than any other team (59% of the time in 2018).”
“However, those were all issues last year as well,” he said. “Unique to this year, we have been missing left tackle Trent Williams to a holdout, and he is easily the best player on the O-line. In addition to that, starting running back Derrius Guice suffered a serious knee injury Week 1, forcing Adrian Peterson to take over as the primary between-the-tackles rusher. Guice was a more versatile player, whereas Peterson struggles out of shotgun, forcing the team to run out of I-formation more of the time.”
“It’s also partly to do with the teams we’ve played,” continued Andrew. “The Eagles and Bears have two of the top run defenses in the NFL, and the Cowboys and Giants ran up the score on us early, causing us to abandon the run game. Also, our starting center [Chase Roullier] and right guard [Brandon Scherff] were unable to play last week due to injury, which makes it harder to run up the middle.”
New England’s defense has looked good at defending the run over the first three weeks of the season, but has had a tougher time to contain the inside hand-off against Frank Gore and the Buffalo Bills. Washington’s ground game, meanwhile, presents an opportunity to bounce back — while the passing game should have a hard time moving the ball effectively against the NFL’s premier secondary. All in all, the matchup between New England’s defense and the offense it will face on Sunday appears to be a lopsided affair, at least on paper.