Redskins vs. Chargers: Five story lines to follow Sunday

November 1, 2013

Robert Griffin III hopes to rebound from a disappointing showing against Denver. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

The Washington Redskins look to bounce back from a missed opportunity in Denver last week when they welcome the San Diego Chargers to town on Sunday to kick off a crucial three-game stretch.

San Diego enters the game with a 4-3 mark while Washington is 2-5. But the offensive production is similar: the Chargers average 24.0 points per game; the Redskins, 24.7. San Diego averages 403 yards per outing (294 passing, 109 rushing); Washington, 394 (257 passing, 137 rushing).

The difference shows on defense, however, where the Chargers limit opponents to 20.6 points per game (allowing 379 yards per outing) while Washington surrenders 32.7 points and 397 yards.

San Diego has won three straight meetings against Washington and enters the game as a 1-1/2-point favorite.

Here are five story lines to follow in this game.

1.)  Which Griffin shows up – The Redskins returned from the bye and it appeared that second-year quarterback Robert Griffin III had turned the corner, recapturing the explosiveness and elusiveness against Dallas, and passing with great efficiency while also continuing to run vs. Chicago, when he passed for 298 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 84. But then he regressed vs. the Broncos, completing only 50 percent of his passes while throwing a touchdown and two interceptions, and mustering only seven rushing yards on five carries. The Redskins aren’t constructed well enough to win despite bad days from Griffin. They need him at his best just to have a chance. Griffin said he needs “to do more to help this team win,” but didn’t go into specifics. “Be better” was all he would offer despite prodding. Can he display greater confidence both in his own abilities and his line and receivers and play at an aggressive and high level this week? Or will the uneven play continue?

2.) The supporting cast – Much of the blame for the passing game struggles fall on Griffin because he is the quarterback. But his receivers are not faultless. Pierre Garcon has been clutch, averaging seven catches and 73 yards. But no other wide receiver has managed even three catches per game. At times, the receivers have struggled to get open. Other times, Griffin hasn’t spotted them, and other times still, they have dropped passes (Washington ranks seventh in the NFL with 17 drops). The Redskins need another pass-catcher to emerge besides Garcon and tight end Jordan Reed. Playing time has fluctuated for Santana Moss, Leonard Hankerson, Josh Morgan and Aldrick Robinson. Coach Mike Shanahan said he knows he has a No. 2-caliber receiver on his team, but doesn’t know who that player is. Someone needs to capitalize on whatever opportunity he receives, and force his way into consistent playing time with solid contributions.

3.) Play-calling – The other factor in Griffin’s struggles centers on the play-calling, which has been uneven throughout much of the first seven games. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said that against Denver he “didn’t do a good enough job” of calling the right plays and predicting the right coverages that his unit would face – particularly in the second half when Washington allowed 38 unanswered points and had five turnovers. “When I look back at it and I look at myself hard, obviously I didn’t do a good enough job,” Kyle Shanahan said. “When you turn it over five times in the fourth quarter, I mean, that’s all of us. But it starts with me.” His job is to mask deficiencies and put his players in prime positions for success. Can he do that this week?

4.) Pass defense – A week after facing Peyton Manning, the Redskins gear up for another elite passer in Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers. In his 10th NFL season, Rivers has gotten off to the finest start of his career, completing 73.9 percent of his passes (tops in the league) for 2,132 yards, 15 touchdowns and just five interceptions. He does a good job of getting the ball out of his hands quickly and can put the ball in tight windows. Rivers’s favorite target is tight end Antonio Gates, who boasts great size, strength, speed and athleticism. Gates has 42 catches (second-most among NFL tight ends) for 497 yards, but only two touchdowns. He could prove a nightmare matchup for Washington’s linebackers and safeties. DeAngelo Hall normally doesn’t match up with tight ends, but the cornerback said that he expected to at times draw the assignment of chipping in and helping limit Gates.

5.) Pass rush – For the second time this season, outside linebacker Brian Orakpo didn’t record a sack, quarterback pressure or tackle when he faced the Denver Broncos. Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett and  Mike Shanahan will both tell you that Orakpo impacted the game in other ways (including a fumble recovery). But the Redskins do need more out of the player billed as their top pass-rusher. Ryan Kerrigan has 6.5 sacks from his position on the left side of the line, but Washington needs Orakpo (three sacks in seven weeks with two coming against Oakland) to bring the pressure on Rivers as well. The Chargers’ leading rusher, Ryan Mathews, has been just average, rushing for 4.1 yards per carry. If the Redskins can stop the run and then get after Rivers, the chances for turnovers increase and this game should play out favorably for them.

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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