Redskins-Falcons: Five storylines to follow

October 5, 2012

Pierre Garcon (left) and Robert Griffin III aim to snap Washington’s seven-game home losing streak Sunday. (Margaret Bowles/The Associated Press)

The Washington Redskins on Sunday face their stiffest test yet when they host the Atlanta Falcons, who have gotten off to a 4-0 start.

Washington plays it’s second home game of the season, but FedEx Field hasn’t provided any sort of advantage of late as the Redskins have lost seven consecutive games on their own field.

 The Redskins’ offense is much improved this season, averaging 422 yards and 30.8 points a game. But Robert Griffin III & Co. will have to be at their best to match the Falcons, who enter the game as three-point favorites and boast an offense that averages 31 points a game and thanks to quarterback Matt Ryan and his abundant weapons, Julio Jones, Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez and Michael Turner.

 The Redskins have two major weaknesses. On offense: third-down efficiency — they have made only 13 of 51 conversion attempts. On defense: pass coverage — the unit has surrendered 1,305 passing yards (31st in the league) and 13 passing touchdowns (a league-high). The Redskins will need to put themselves in more manageable third downs by executing better on first and second down. On defense, they will try again to find a solution to the struggles that have plagued their secondary thus far.

 Meanwhile, Atlanta ranks among the best in the league against the pass, having surrendered only 828 passing yards and four passing touchdowns through four games. The Falcons also have racked up seven interceptions (second-most in the NFL). 

 Here are five storylines to follow Sunday:

 1.) Secondary performance – The Redskins did well in pass coverage for a little more than two quarters last Sunday against the Buccaneers, but then reverted to their old ways and let Tampa Bay strike gold on big plays. On average, the Redskins are giving up roughly four pass plays of 25 yards or more per game. Those plays either wind up as touchdowns, or put opponents in manageable scoring positions. Look for the Falcons to go downfield often with two major threats in White and Jones, who are averaging 15.3 and 13.7 yards per catch, respectively. The safeties also will have their hands full with Gonzalez, who also averages more than 10 yards a catch. The Redskins could be in for a long day. They’ll need to be assignment- and technique-sound to limit Atlanta’s passing attack.

 2.) Washington’s rushing attack — The Redskins have the second-most potent rushing attack in the league, averaging 171 yards a game. They have rushed for a league-leading eight touchdowns. They’re gearing up to face a Falcons defense that has given up 146.3 rushing yards a game (fourth-worst in the league). Not only will an ability to run ensure continued balance on offense for Washington, but it will also help the Redskins chew up time on the game clock while keeping Ryan and the Falcons’ offense off the field.

 3.) Pass rush – The Redskins defensive backs come under a lot of scrutiny, but their teammates up front can help ease some of the pressure on them by getting to Ryan so he doesn’t have time to make big plays downfield. Washington has only seven sacks on the season. The defensive linemen and linebackers haven’t consistently gotten into the backfield, but opposing quarterbacks also are getting the ball out of their hands quickly. The Redskins have to find a way to cause more disruptions to the passing game, whether it’s sacks, hits on the quarterback or batted balls at the line. The front seven also must remain stout against the run as it has much of this season. Michael Turner is a powerful runner capable of wearing down a defense out, and that will slow down Washington’s pass-rushers as well.

 4.) Cundiff’s performance – The Redskins stuck with place kicker Billy Cundiff despite three missed field goals in last Sunday’s game. Nailing the game-winner earned him another week. How will he do this weekend? In a game that figures to be a high-scoring affair, the Redskins can’t afford to squander scoring opportunities, whether they’re touchdowns or field goals. Cundiff must be accurate. Otherwise, the Redskins could have another kicker next week.

 5.) Griffin’s next test – So far, Griffin has given his team a chance to win every game he plays. Now he faces the best secondary he has seen to this point, and a unit that boasts an aggressive pass-rush. How will Griffin handle the pressure? Which chapters of the playbook will Kyle Shanahan dip into to help position his rookie for success? If Atlanta takes an early lead, Griffin will be forced to air it out a lot. He showed last week that he can lead a game-winning drive, but how will he perform if required to play catch-up for an extended stretch of the game?

Mike Jones covers the Washington Redskins for The Washington Post. When not writing about a Redskins development of some kind – which is rare – he can be found screaming and cheering at one of his kids’ softball, baseball, soccer or basketball games.
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