Believe it or not, the Washington Redskins have a game this weekend. They will travel to Atlanta to take on the Falcons, who also are a disappointing 3-10 a year after an impressive playoff run, at 1 p.m. on FOX. Turnover woes on offense, third-down struggles on defense, youth and inexperience have largely been to blame for the Falcons this season. But unlike the Redskins, they do not seem to be a team in turmoil.
The Redskins find themselves on a five-game losing streak while the Falcons two weeks ago ended a five-game skid with an overtime win over Buffalo but then lost 22-21 to Green Bay last week. Which of these struggling teams does enough to pull off the victory?
Here are five story lines to follow Sunday.
1. Cousins’ takeover: After serving as the loyal backup for the past two seasons, Kirk Cousins gets his chance to showcase his skills. Despite serving as the backup, Cousins has prepared each week as if he owns the starting job, coaches and teammates say. Confident in his abilities, his teammates say nothing changes with their approach. Kyle Shanahan said the offense will largely look the same, although there likely will be less of the read-option. But the basic schemes that he and his father have otherwise run for years will be in play. For Cousins, not only is this a chance for him to get to play this season, but it also serves as an audition for the future as potential trade partners will be keeping an eye on his performances down the stretch this season.
2. Morris’ workload: In Cousins’ last start — Dec. 16 in Cleveland — the Redskins leaned on Alfred Morris to help ease the pressure on the rookie passer. Morris carried the ball 27 times for 87 yards and two touchdowns. Meantime, Cousins did well, completing 70 percent of his passes for 329 yards, two touchdowns and one interception in a 38-21 win. Look for the Redskins to again ride Morris as they face the Falcons, who allow 133.6 rushing yards per game (third-most in the league).
3. Offensive line play: Supposedly, Mike Shanahan made the move to shut down Griffin for the remainder of the season because the offensive line had surrendered so many sacks — 24 in the past five games, to be exact. Not all of those sacks were the fault of the line. But the unit has indeed struggled this season. How will the linemen do protecting a less mobile quarterback? There is some belief that Cousins, who ran a pro-style offense in college, will get the ball out of his hands more quickly than Griffin, however, and that could help ease some of the pressure on his team’s offensive front. Meantime, it’ll be interesting to see how Atlanta Falcons right tackle Jeremy Trueblood holds up against Ryan Kerrigan. Trueblood spent training camp and the preseason with the Redskins and struggled mightily. Kerrigan regularly got the best of him in practices. Kerrigan has been stuck at 6.5 sacks for six weeks now. Is he due for a big day this week?
4. Pass coverage: In his last game against the Redskins, tight end Tony Gonzalez had 13 catches for 123 yards and a touchdown. Washington’s linebackers couldn’t match up well enough to limit the future Hall of Famer as he caught all but one pass that came his way. Look for Jim Haslett to use a combination of players on Gonzalez. If he has recovered from the bruised sternum that sidelined him last week, safety Brandon Meriweather could also find himself matched up with Gonzalez. Roddy White has been limited in practice this week by a knee injury, but if he can play, cornerback DeAngelo Hall figures to draw the tall task of slowing him. White is coming off of his best two outings of the season (10-catch, 143-yard performance vs. Buffalo and eight-catch, 74-yard outing vs. Green Bay).
5. Special teams: There have been many disastrous showings from Keith Burns’ special teams units this season, but none worse than last week when the Redskins surrendered a punt return for a touchdown, a kickoff return for a touchdown, and also gave up two other long punt returns. If the Redskins expect to have a chance, they must do a better job. Their defense routinely found themselves backed up in their own territory as they started series against the Chiefs. Weather conditions won’t be a factor this week as they possibly could have been to blame against Kansas City. But the Redskins have struggled in the kick/punt coverage game regardless of if they’re playing indoors, outdoors, under sunny skies or cloudy skies.
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