Redskins vs. Eagles: Five story lines to follow Sunday

November 15, 2013

In their first meeting of the season, the Redskins allowed LeSean McCoy to rush for 184 yards. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

The Washington Redskins on Sunday return to action after a 10-day layoff following last week’s Thursday night loss at Minnesota. Facing the Philadelphia Eagles at 1 p.m. at Lincoln Financial Field, Washington will try to pick up its fourth win of the season and avenge a season-opening loss to Philly.

The Eagles, who enter the game as 4 1/2-point favorites, have struggled at home, losing 10 straight there.

At 5-5, Philadelphia sits in a tie with Dallas for first place in the NFC East. With the Cowboys idle this week, a victory would give the Eagles sole possession of first place. Meantime, despite owning a 3-6 record, the Redskins are only 1 1/2 games back, and a win would greatly improve their position.

Here are five story lines to follow in this week’s game:

1. Performance under pressure: Here they are again: Nine games in the books, owners of a 3-6 record and in need of a 7-0 run to reach the postseason. If a sense of urgency hadn’t already set in for Mike Shanahan & Co., it should have this week. How will this fragile group hold up under the circumstances? Can they kick things up a notch and execute with pinpoint precision, or will they continue to commit the same transgressions that have gotten them to this point? Three good quarters will not get the job done. No lead is safe. Last season, when Shanahan and his charges had their backs against the wall, we saw them respond by producing their best football of the season. The offense became more potent, the defense more aggressive and the ball bounced the right way in a number of situations. Everyone within the organization says publicly that they believe they can do it again. We’ll see.

2. Familiarity: Defensive players say that in their first game against the Eagles, they felt like guinea pigs as they became the first team to face Chip Kelly’s up-tempo spread offense. Coaches admit that they had to do a fair amount of guess work because of the uncertainty over how much of Kelly’s playbook at Oregon would manifest itself on the next level. The lack of preparedness showed as Washington got gashed for 322 yards and 26 points on 53 plays in the first half alone. The Redskins improved in the second half and appeared to play with more aggression, but the result was still ugly. By the end of the night, Michael Vick had thrown two touchdown passes and rushed for another, and running back LeSean McCoy had gained 184 yards and a touchdown on 31 carries. Washington’s players say they expect a better result this time, now that they have not only first-hand experience but also plenty of film on Philadelphia’s offense. “It’ll help us immensely,” cornerback DeAngelo Hall said. The Eagles have lost some of their potency as the season has progressed. This marks the second rematch of the season for the Eagles. They beat the Giants 36-21 in Week 5, but three weeks later, familiarity seemed to serve New York well in a 15-7 victory.

3. Foles’s impact: Not everything will be the same this time around, however. Vick remains sidelined by injury, and second-year pro Nick Foles has taken over, and he’s doing quite well. In seven appearances this season (four starts), Foles has completed 63.2 percent of his passes while throwing 16 touchdowns and no interceptions. Foles isn’t the speedster that Vick is, but the Eagles still are using him for read-option plays here and there. He has 21 rushing attempts for 76 yards and a touchdown. “I think Nick’s doing a heck of a job within in the scheme,” defensive coordinator Jim Haslett said. “And then they’ve got a good offensive line, they’ve got good receivers, and a great running back, so I think that helps. Obviously I think Nick is playing about as good as he can play.” The Redskins haven’t generated consistent pressure, and teams have gone with quick-hitter passes to get the ball out of the quarterbacks’ hands more quickly and keep Washington off-balance. But the defenders will have to do everything in their power to rattle the young quarterback. One addition that could help Washington’s efforts is safety Brandon Meriweather, who missed the season-opener with injury. His coverage skills and aggressive style should help on the back end. “They’re definitely a different secondary now,” Kelly said when asked about Meriweather’s impact.

4. Faster start, sustained success: It took Robert Griffin III and Washington’s offense 2 1/2 quarters to get clicking in their last game against the Eagles. Slow starts hampered their efforts in other games as well. The Redskins can’t afford to stumble out of the gates this week. However, the problem as of late for Washington has been finishing on a strong note. The Redskins couldn’t protect second-half double-digit leads in losses to Denver and Minnesota, and after allowing a lead over San Diego to evaporate, they needed overtime to win.  The Redskins must be prepared to match the Eagles’ offense blow-for-blow and give their defense a lead to play with. Statistically, the teams are very similar. The Eagles average 413.4 yards a game (fourth in the NFL) and Washington generates 410.4 (fifth). The Eagles average 260.3 passing yards and 153.1 rushing yards while the Redskins pass for 259.2 and rush for 151.2. Philly averages 25.2 points a game, and Washington 25.6. It’s no secret that balance is key for Washington’s success. Kyle Shanahan said he hopes a fast start this week will enable his unit to stick with their game plan and deliver a well-rounded attack, and a victory.

5. Returns game: Niles Paul is expected to return kickoffs for a second straight game. He appears to be the Redskins’ best option at that spot after Chris Thompson and Josh Morgan failed to produce. There’s a strong likelihood that rookie Nick Williams, who was just promoted from the practice squad, will take over as punt returner. Morgan had struggled in this capacity as well, and Mike Shanahan said he would continue to experiment with punt returners. Williams said he expected to receive some opportunities. He excelled in this role at UConn, but this is a different level. Still, the 5-foot-9, 184-pounder appears to have the tools required to produce. He has good hands, decent speed and good shiftiness. In his lone punt return of the preseason, Williams took the ball back 29 yards. Poor field position has hindered Washington’s offense all year. Can the rookie provide a spark?

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 Tuesdays.

What’s ahead:

● Injury report for Sunday’s Redskins-Eagles game.

More on the Redskins & NFL:

Redskins try to jump-start return game

D. Hall limited in Thursday’s practice | Should Redskins emulate Chiefs?

Griffin says he has thick skin | Morgan can’t explain his reduced role

Eagles’ Foles sees opportunity | Outsider: How Foles, Vick attack differently

D.C. Sports Bog:

Ron Jaworski says the RGIII we saw last season may never return

RGIII clowns G. Paulsen |  Green on state of Redskins | More

Follow: @MikeJonesWaPo | @MarkMaske | @Insider | Insider on Facebook

Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Nick Foles is putting up very impressive numbers this season. The Post Sports Live crew plays GM and chooses between Foles and RGIII. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)
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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Mark Maske · November 15, 2013

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