Redskins vs. 49ers: Five story lines to follow Monday night

November 22, 2013

Robert Griffin III will try to rebound from a trying week. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

The Washington Redskins will host the San Francisco 49ers at 8:40 p.m. Monday on ESPN and try to snap a two-game losing streak and take a step toward finishing their season on a respectable note.

It’s a game that features two similar teams with two of the league’s young star quarterbacks in Robert Griffin III and Colin Kaepernick, and two of the top running backs in Alfred Morris and Frank Gore.

But their records differ greatly. Washington enters the game  at 3-7 while San Francisco is a 6-4.

The Redskins trail the series with a 9-15-1 record and have lost the last two meetings – the last of which was a 19-11 defeat at FedEx Field in 2011.

Like Washington, San Francisco is coming off two disappointing losses, 10-9 to Carolina and 23-20 to New Orleans.

Both teams will try to get back on track this week. Here are five story lines to follow:

1. Griffin under pressure – The Redskins quarterback has found himself under more pressure and scrutiny than at any point during his career, and this week he had to answer questions not only about his on-field performance (particularly his ability to read pass coverages), but his leadership skills. And the topic was raised by one of his teammates.

The usually upbeat Griffin had a degree of surliness to him this week but said he remains focused on improving and turning around his team’s season. His goal: “Keep chopping wood. You’ve got to keep pushing forward. Once again, never change who you are.” Can he rebound from the shaky performance against Philadelphia and prove for this week that he can indeed still make game-winning plays with his arm, and display strong leadership skills as his team faces a formidable opponent? Griffin will not be able to do it alone, however. His offensive line has struggled with consistency, as have his play-makers. The quarterback needs their support as he faces a stingy San Francisco defense.

2. Rushing attacks – These teams are similar in that they both like to run the ball to set up their passing attack. Washington leads the league with 155.2 rushing yards per game, and San Francisco ranks fifth with 141. Both teams use the pistol formation to set up many plays, and both use the read option and their mobile quarterbacks as a change-up to their ground games. The difference is how they do it. Washington’s rushing attack uses more outside zones and inside cutback lanes while San Francisco focuses heavily on a power running scheme. The teams will try to impose their wills on each other with strong running games, which will pave the way for balanced play-calling.

3. Containment – Washington and San Francisco’s defenses have similar philosophies as well. They will first attempt to stop the run, and they will try to contain Griffin and Kaepernick, keeping them in the pocket and forcing them to use their arms to carry their teams. The Redskins and 49ers know that will be key because this year, neither young passer has been as effective as last season. After ranking among the league leaders both in completion percentage (both better than 62 percent) and passer rating (both better than a rating of 98), Griffin has completed just 59.7 percent of his passes (21st in the NFL) this year with 14 touchdowns and 10 interceptions and a quarterback rating of 83.6. Meanwhile, Kaepernick has seen his completion percentage dip to 56.2 (31st) and his rating to 81.8 as he has thrown 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Both have struggled at times to read coverages , and so the defensive coordinators will probably use some creativity and give multiple looks to confuse each passer and force him into mistakes.

Neither team has managed a particularly strong pass rush this season. Washington has managed just 25 sacks (20th in the league) and San Francisco only 21 (27th). But the 49ers have limited teams to 220 passing yards per game (10th in the NFL) while the Redskins have had their struggles, yielding 274.9 passing yards per outing (26th).

4. Morgan, Davis return – Because of a season-ending injury to Leonard Hankerson and the uncertainty of the concussed Jordan Reed’s availability, demoted wide receiver Josh Morgan and tight end Fred Davis are expected to return to action against the 49ers. Morgan is expected to start, and Davis will likely dress, but it remains to be seen where he will figure into the game plan. The Redskins will miss the consistency  Hankerson provided over the past several games. Morgan will have to step up. The knock on him is that he isn’t always the most precise in his route-running, and that he doesn’t consistently catch the ball. He will be highly motivated, however, after watching in street clothes last week. Reed didn’t pass a concussion test given to him on Thursday, so his chances of playing appear bleak. His absence means Griffin will be without his biggest and most versatile target. Davis can do a lot of the same things as Reed, but coaches haven’t seen him as consistent a pass-catcher. He aims to prove them wrong. “I only need a little bit of an opportunity,” he said.

5. Field position – The Redskins have consistently had some of the worst starting field position in years because of poor play by their kickoff return and punt return units. Things appear to be improving with Niles Paul on kickoffs, but the jury is still out on rookie Nick Williams, who struggled last week in his NFL debut. Now with the jitters out of the way, the U-Conn. product believes that he will do better. More favorable field position will help ease the pressure on Griffin & Co. Meanwhile, if Washington’s coverage units can pin San Francisco deep, it helps a defense that has struggled to consistently stop both the run and the pass.

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:

● Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan speaks to reporters today as well

More on the Redskins:

Trent Williams unlikely to face discipline over incident with official

Redskins vs. 49ers: Five story lines to watch

D.C. Sports Bog: Debating Wilbon’s take on Redskins dramaMore

Fletcher hasn’t decided if he will retire following the season

Griffin deals with a new opponent: criticism | QB  says he wasn’t taking shots

Boswell: Shanahan’s poor defenses with Redskins, Broncos speak volumes

Redskins: No split in the locker room | Joe Jacoby a Hall of Fame semifinalist

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

The Post Sports Live crew discusses quarterback Robert Griffin III's performance in the Redskins loss to Philadelphia and whether there's any reason back-up Kirk Cousins should start instead. (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 22, 2013

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