Redskins vs. Lions: Five story lines to follow

Brandon Meriweather, London Fletcher, Eddie Lacy

The Redskins will need improvement out of a defense that ranks last in the league against the run. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

The Washington Redskins look to snap a two-game losing streak Sunday, when they host the Detroit Lions, who enter this game with a 1-1 record. Detroit has never won in 21 games at Washington. Can history rule again in the Redskins’ favor?

With a win, the Redskins can put themselves back into the mix in the NFC East, where the Philadelphia Eagles are 1-2, the Cowboys 1-1 and the Giants 0-2.

But to do so, the Redskins will have to slow a Detroit offense that averages 27.5 points a game and ranks eighth in the league in passing. The Redskins also will have to get their offense going, which has proven challenging early in games.

Here are five story lines to follow in this game

1. Griffin’s start: A fast start for Robert Griffin III – and the offense as a whole for that matter – would go a long way to reviving a unit that has been outscored 50-0 in two first halves. Griffin’s first half numbers: 11-for-24 for 160 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. He has to get into a rhythm before the third quarter, because by then, the Redskins could again find themselves in a sizeable hole. Griffin did make some improvements from Week 1 to Week 2. Said offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, “I thought he was better in the pocket. I thought he was better throwing the ball. He had an interception in that game, but the interception wasn’t his fault. It was a dropped ball that got tipped up into the air. He didn’t throw any real bad looks, so I thought he played better.” What strides will Griffin make this week? He feels the need to “bring the energy” and spark his team, and said part of that could mean tucking the ball and running. If he can do that even a couple of times early, it will cause uncertainty for the Lions defense, and that could create openings for the Redskins in the run game, and then the play-action attack.

2.  Hall vs. Johnson: The Redskins could be catching a break with running back Reggie Bush questionable for this game because of a knee injury. But they’ll still have their hands full with wide receiver Calvin Johnson. Cornerback DeAngelo Hall is expected to draw the task of matching up with Johnson, likely with a fair amount of help over the top from his safeties. Blessed with size, speed and a great football IQ, Johnson has it all. The Redskins know shutting him down is virtually impossible. “Anybody who is 6-5, 240, runs a 4.4 [40-yard-dash], he’s going to be hard to contain,” defensive coordinator Jim Haslett said. “I hope we can slow him down, limit his plays and make sure we have bodies on him all the time and someone around him to really just try to slow him down if we can.” In their last meeting, Johnson racked up nine catches for 101 yards and three touchdowns in a 37-25 victory in Detroit. A nightmare assignment like this isn’t ideal for a secondary that already has struggled mightily in its first two outings. But Hall said that he and his teammates are up for the challenge and hope to surprise some people with a strong showing.

3. Third downs: One of the keys to Griffin and the offense getting off to a better start is improved execution on third downs, on which Washington ranks 31st in the league, having converted just five of 21. To improve in this area, the Redskins need crisp execution in every facet of their offense. Pass protection has to be solid. Griffin’s instincts and mechanics must be on point. Pass catchers must run precise routes and concentrate to avoid untimely drops. “We had some opportunities and we didn’t execute them, and when you don’t execute them, you can’t stay on the field,” Shanahan said. An extended drive early in the game will do wonders for Washington. And not only will it help the psyche of the team’s offensive players and give them a better chance of scoring points, it also will ease pressure on the defense and help keep Johnson, quarterback Matthew Stafford and the Lions’ offense off the field.

4. Tackling issues: Haslett this week has stressed the importance of improved tackling while leading his unit through practice this week. The Redskins struggled mightily in this area in each of their first two games, and because of it, teams have gashed them in the run game. The same unit that ranked fifth in the league against the run last season while limiting teams to just 95.8 yards a game suddenly has turned into the NFL’s worst, allowing 201 rushing yards per outing. The Redskins must remain sound in their assignments, they must take better angles, they must shed blocks, and they must wrap up. All of this sounds simple, but it’s easier said than done, obviously. And so, Haslett took his unit back to basics this week. We’ll see if that additional work pays off.

5. Discipline: The Redskins have hurt themselves with penalties in each of their last two games. They have committed 17 for 153 yards, sixth-most in the NFL. These penalties have negated positive plays, put Washington’s offense in bad situations, and they’re bailing out the Redskins’ opponents. Mike Shanahan downplayed the severity of these penalties because he says the Baltimore Ravens won the Super Bowl despite leading the league in infractions last season. But the Redskins do have to improve in this area. They’re not strong enough in the other facets of the game to compensate for self-inflicted wounds right now.

Have a Redskins question? E-mail Mike Jones at mike.jones@washpost.com with the subject line “Mailbag question” for him to answer it in The Mailbag on Tuesday.

What’s ahead:

● The Redskins practiced at 11:50 a.m. on Friday.

More on the Redskins and NFL:

Hamilton: Suh brings reputation for dirty play to Washington

Gibbs believes Redskins will bounce back

After two whiffs, defense refocuses on its tackling

D.C. Sports Bog: Kerrigan’s Modell’s commercial | More Bog on Redskins

The Early Lead: Bush optimistic he’ll play vs. Redskins | Suh on low hits | More NFL

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