The Redskins open the season against a divisional foe, the Philadelphia Eagles, a team they have beaten in their past five meetings. Sunday, the Redskins aim to continue the streak as they seek fourth-year Head Coach Jay Gruden’s first season-opening win.
Offensive player to watch: Quarterback Carson Wentz
2016 Stats: Threw for 3,782 passing yards, 16 touchdowns, 14 interceptions while completing 62.4 percent of his passes for a 79.3 quarterback rating.
The skinny: Hoping to better equip their second-year quarterback for success, coach Doug Pederson and the Eagles brought in talent over the offseason. In addition to new wide receivers, Alshon Jeffery (big, physical and capable of hurting the defense deep) and Torrey Smith (speedy, over-the-top threat), the Eagles signed another running back, LeGarrette Blount, to help ease the pressure on Wentz. Blount’s bruising style and Darren Sproles’s speed and elusiveness should combine to keep opponents off-balance.
But their offense still will live and die with Wentz, the second overall pick in 2016, and the Eagles are ready to fall in line.
“Guys have embraced him, obviously as the starter,” Pederson said. “Went back to obviously a year ago when I named him the starter in Week 1, I’d probably say that not everyone was on board with that. Now, he is and the guys have embraced that. You see that leadership role on and off the football field. On the football field, how he handles situational football, and that’s where he’s grown tremendously, I feel — the situational part, whether it be third down, or in the red zone. Just knowing the situation is where he’s shown the most growth.”
Redskins take: “He grew a little bit in what he was doing in the first meeting to the second meeting,” cornerback Josh Norman said of Wentz. “I think experience goes into play. He was getting the ball out there a lot and making throws he wasn’t making the first time. He was smarter in things he did the second time. But this is the third matchup, so I don’t know what we’re going to get out of him.”
But it’s not just Wentz’s arm the Redskins have to be mindful of.
“He’s mobile,” Norman continued. “He’s a big guy. He’s not going to just sit up in the pocket even though he can do that. If he sees something, he’s going to take off for it and that’s kind of a stickler for the defense because you could have everyone covered up, but if the rush doesn’t get to him or get a hand on him, he can elude defenders. He can get outside the box and run for that first down and that’s a back-breaker for the defense because you could have him in third-and-freaking-10 and he gets out the pocket and scrambles, it sucks. It really does. You’ve got to play another three or four downs if that comes about and he’s able to do that because of his mobility.”
Defensive player to watch: Defensive tackle Fletcher Cox
2016 Stats: 43 tackles, 6.5 sacks, one forced fumble, two pass deflections.
The Skinny: The Eagles have a highly disruptive defensive front, and Cox leads the way.
“They’ll harass you,” Gruden said. “Their defensive ends are very strong. They line up and use wide nines and they get up field in a hurry. They have two interior players that are excellent — Fletcher Cox and [Tim] Jernigan. … They move their front a lot and make it hard to run against, and then when you do have to get in third-and-long, they have a good blitz package and they can get home with four guys.”
Regarded as one of the best interior linemen in the league, Cox — who’s coming off back-to-back Pro Bowl seasons — can do it all.
Redskins take: “He’s a great athlete. He’s big and strong and he’s got a quick first step,” Gruden said of the 6-foot-4, 298-pound Cox, who in 10 games against Washington has 39 tackles and 6.5 sacks. “He gets off the snap count extremely well. He’s one of the best three-techniques, if not the best. He can play the run equally as well as he can play the pass. That’s what we’re hoping to get around here. He’s a great player.”
Center Spencer Long offered this: “You’ve got to get your hands on him because if he gets momentum, he’s hard to stop. He’s got a mean club move. But overall, just a physical player who plays real heavy and is real hard to move. You’ve got to make sure you’re on your [stuff] and on your technique.”
And one more to look out for …
Safety Malcolm Jenkins
2016 Stats: 72 tackles, one sack, three interceptions, nine pass breakups
The Skinny: With Cox setting the tone up front, Jenkins does the same on the back end. He’s a vocal leader and the kind of player who can cause problems for an offense in a variety of ways as he enters his ninth NFL season.
Redskins take: “Malcolm is a former corner, so there’s abilities there that if you had come into the league as a safety, he would’ve never had,” quarterback Kirk Cousins says. “He’s had to cover top receivers. He’s a first-round pick, so they asked a lot of him in New Orleans. So, now as a safety, when he’s asked to cover a Jordan Reed in the slot, he’s been there, done that. A lot of safeties can’t say that.”
At 6-0, 204 pounds, Jenkins uses his physical tools well along with keen instincts and an aggressive nature.
“He has long arms, he’s smart, he studies the game and he’s physical and is willing to tackle,” Cousins added. “A lot of corners convert to safety and don’t want to stick their head in there. Malcolm is willing to go hit you. There isn’t a phase of his game where you say, ‘He’s this, but he isn’t that.’ He’s good in zone coverage. I remember we were playing him in 2014 and he intercepted me. He was the middle-high safety, and normally the other safety is there, but he was in the middle and I threw a seam down the rail to Niles [Paul] and he made the play, dove and caught it, good job of reading my eyes and breaking on the ball. All the things a good safety can do, but he can cover like a corner. Plus he’s a really good locker room leader and brings that strong veteran presence.”