The Redskins have won their last two season openers, and aim for their fourth consecutive victory in New Orleans. With a victory, the team would improve to 16-8 all-time against the Saints. And with a win Sunday, Mike Shanahan would tie Hall of Fame coach Bud Grant for 13th on the all-time regular season career wins list with 158.
But defeating the Saints is no easy task, particularly at the Superdome, where the team boasted an 8-0 record last season. Additionally, the Saints owned the best offense in the league last season and can seemingly score at will.
“You’ve got to communicate, and it’s not easy,” says Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, who coached the Saints from 2000 to 2005. “It’s loud. Even when you’re on defense, it’s loud. So you have to do a great job of communicating, and the offense understands that. We’ve been working on it. We as a defense understand that you have to have your hand signals. You’ve got to communicate because against this type of offense, you have one mistake and that turns into a touchdown. It’s a great challenge for any football team that goes down there. Being there all those years I was down there, it’s a great advantage for the home team.”
Here are five story lines to follow Sunday:
1. Robert Griffin III’s debut – When Griffin takes the field Sunday, he will become the first rookie quarterback to start for the Redskins in Week 1 since the 1970 NFL merger, and the first since Norm Snead in 1961. Only one rookie quarterback other than Snead (Jack Scarbath in 1953) has started in Week 1 in Redskins history. Griffin will be playing in the same city that his family is from and expects to have 30 to 50 family members in attendance. Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan says he has full confidence in Griffin’s ability to run the offense. But he and Mike Shanahan will work to ensure that they don’t overwhelm Griffin in his debut and will ease him into things. No moment has seemed too big for Griffin, but he admitted he feels different as he heads toward his first official game. He said the key to his success will be relaxing, having confidence in his preparation and trusting the system and his teammates, which include new weapons Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan as well as holdovers Fred Davis, Santana Moss and Leonard Hankerson.
2. The new-look secondary – The Redskins’ safety unit hasn’t gotten off to the ideal start – losing Tanard Jackson to suspension, and Brandon Meriweather to a knee injury – but will try to make do as they brace for Drew Brees and the league’s leading passing offense. Second-year pro DeJon Gomes could get the start at strong safety while Madieu Williams gets the nod at free safety as he has since signing with Washington this offseason. Cornerback DeAngelo Hall will have an active day as he covers receivers both on the outside and in the slot. At times, he could drift back to safety as well. Cedric Griffin will join Hall and Josh Wilson versus three-receiver sets, and after struggling in the preseason, the former Viking must be on top of his game. Rookie cornerback Richard Crawford also could get in on the action.
3. Offensive line play – The Redskins didn’t have their starting offensive line on the field for a single preseason game, but finally get left guard Kory Lichtensteiger back from arthroscopic knee surgery on Sunday. Lichtensteiger is expected to start, but could rotate with backup Maurice Hurt as he eases his way back into his first NFL action since tearing his ACL and MCL last October. The Redskins’ linemen are bracing for a blitz-heavy attack from the Saints and aim to keep Griffin upright so he has a chance to get his NFL career off to a strong start.
4. Redskins’ front seven – With all of their starters returning and much more seasoned than they were a year ago, the Redskins believe the front seven of the defense will be the strength of the team. Haslett believes that nose tackle Barry Cofield can be the best at his position in the NFL. He also thinks that ends Stephen Bowen and Adam Carriker can build on their impact seasons from 2011. Outside linebacker Brian Orakpo is back to full strength after missing two preseason games with a shoulder injury, and second-year bookend Ryan Kerrigan is more savvy and versatile this year. London Fletcher again will lead the charge, with fellow inside ’backer Perry Riley on his heels. The Redskins know they must bring the pressure if they expect to have a chance. The guys up front say they can’t give Brees to carve up their work-in-progress secondary.
5. Alfred Morris’ debut – The only other member of the rookie class outside of Griffin, who is expected have a significant impact early on this season, Morris could start at running back for the Redskins. Even if he doesn’t start – say, the first play calls for a pass play and coaches opt to go with Evan Royster or Roy Helu (both better on blitz pickups), or say Shanahan wants to ease Morris in – the rookie still will receive a steady dose of carries. He runs hard, picks up the tough yards and can make something out of nothing. If Morris can settle into a rhythm, then the pressure eases on Griffin because the Saints won’t be able to pin back their ears and come after the quarterback on every play. And, a balanced attack – particularly one that features sustained, clock-chewing drives – is the best way to keep Brees off the field.