The Washington Redskins on Sunday brace for the tall task of stopping the 9-3 New England Patriots, who boast one of the top offenses in the league and a defense that despite giving up yards rather freely, is hard to score against.
It’s been a drama-filled week for the Redskins, who on Tuesday officially learned they will have to go without star tight end Fred Davis and franchise left tackle Trent Williams for the remainder of the season thanks to drug suspensions.
Here are five of the top story lines to follow in this game:
1.) The replacements – Whether the Redskins go with eight-year veteran Sean Locklear or the bigger, slightly more athletic, yet unproven rookie Willie Smith at left tackle, there will be a lot of pressure on Trent Williams’s replacement. One of that player’s top responsibilities will be fending off former Redskin Andre Carter, who boasts nine sacks this season and will be gunning for Rex Grossman. And at tight end, Logan Paulsen – known mainly for his blocking – must take on a larger role in the offense as he tries to fill the shoes of Davis, Washington’s top pass-catcher. Fullback-tight end Mike Sellers could see some action as well.
2.) The rest of the supporting cast – Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan points out that all of the weight can’t fall on the replacement players’ shoulders, and that the rest of the offensive players must raise their games as well to compensate for the losses of Davis and Williams. Wide receivers Santana Moss, Jabar Gaffney and Anthony Armstrong must have a productive day although the Patriots’ defense will zero on them even more now that Davis is out. But their routes must be crisp, and they must be sure-handed. Washington won’t have a chance otherwise. The Redskins need another strong game from rookie running back Roy Helu, who already contributes both in the ground and passing games.
3.) Pass rush – Washington’s outside linebackers and defensive lineman were embarrassed by their sackless outing against the Jets and are determined to produce a much better result against Tom Brady and the Patriots. They’ll need to. Brady ranks among the best in the game – both today and all-time – and he’ll pick apart the Redskins all day if the defense isn’t able to generate pressure. Brady is darn near unflappable, but not invincible. The hope to follow the blueprint laid out by the Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Giants, who sacked Brady three and two times, respectively, (both forcing him to fumble once) in back-to-back defeats of the Patriots earlier this season.
4.) Pass coverage — Brady has a dangerous collection of weapons. Leading the way is Wes Welker, who has 93 catches (twice as many as Jabar Gaffney, Washington’s top active pass-catcher) for 1,253 yards and eight touchdowns. And then there are talented tight ends Rob Gronkowski (65 catches, 928 yards, 13 touchdowns) and Aaron Hernandez (54 catches, 523 yards, five touchdowns). Oh, and don’t forget Deion Branch, who has 48 catches for 665 yards and four touchdowns. A tall task faces Washington’s secondary, which is banged up at the safety position to make matters worse. Cornerbacks DeAngelo Hall and Josh Wilson will have their hands full with Welker and Branch, and safeties Reed Doughty, DeJon Gomes and Oshiomogho Atogwe, as well as linebackers, must help with coverage on the tight ends, who hold significant size advantages over them.
5.) Field position and big plays – The Redskins have the No. 1 kickoff coverage unit and a punter who routinely pins opponents inside the 20-yard line. Forcing the Patriots into unfavorable field position will help their efforts in slowing Brady & Co. – slightly. Meanwhile, the Redskins’ offense needs great field position as often as possible, because scoring will be challenging enough. If the Patriots, who average 30.2 points per game, get rolling, Washington, which averages 16.8 points per game, won’t have time to dink and dunk its way down the field and must try to find a way to keep up and strike quickly. But Washington hasn’t exactly had a lot of big plays this season. Bottom line, if you’re the Redskins, it doesn’t look good. As DeAngelo Hall said, “It’s definitely going to be tough to go out there and get a win.”