The Redskins return to FedEx Field to host the NFC North-leading Minnesota Vikings. It’s the second of three consecutive games against division leaders for the Redskins, who stemmed a two-game slide with last week’s upset in Seattle. Here are five story lines to follow Sunday:
1. Protect Cousins: With no running game to speak of, the Redskins’ offense hinges almost exclusively on quarterback Kirk Cousins’s arm. And Cousin has endured a pummeling since the offensive line lost four of its starters to injuries. He has been sacked 14 times in the past three games (that’s 4.7 sacks per game, compared to 1.4 per game in 2016). And he has been hit 29 times in the past three games (the Redskins’ defense, by contrast, has registered 18 quarterback hits in the same span). Now comes Minnesota’s fierce defensive front, led by Everson Griffen, who has 10 sacks alone. With left tackle Trent Williams not close to returning from a knee injury that ultimately will require surgery, and backup Ty Nsekhe limited in practice, third-stringer T.J. Clemmings likely will square off against former teammate Griffen.
2. Crank up the run: Minnesota boasts the NFL’s third-ranked run defense, allowing just 81.4 yards per game. Nonetheless, the Redskins must get their running game going to help fend off the pass rush and create chances for one-on-one matchups downfield for Cousins and his receivers. The Redskins have faced a string of stout run defenses: Philadelphia, Dallas and Seattle, which held them to 51 total rushing yards and limited Rob Kelley to 18 yards on 14 carries. Coach Jay Gruden conceded that handling movement up front has been tough for his patched-together offensive line. “We’ll keep working on it,” Gruden said, “and hopefully when we get some of our starters back like Trent [Williams] and Brandon [Scherff] and Shawn [Lauvao], we’ll pave some bigger holes for our guys.”
3. Doctson’s evolution: There’s not a weak link in Minnesota’s defense. The Vikings rank among the NFL’s top five in five major defensive categories and are seventh against the pass. But as this past Sunday’s victory over Seattle proved, just a handful of deep completions can turn a game. That’s what Cousins managed in the final 90 seconds, hitting Brian Quick for a 31-yard gain as he was being knocked to the ground and following with the 38-yard heave that second-year wide receiver Josh Doctson spectacularly grabbed. All that remained was a 1-yard carry to the end zone to clinch the upset. Cousins told Doctson immediately afterward, “Let’s make sure this isn’t a one-and-done thing.” A boatload of offensive concerns will be solved when Doctson’s big-game potential translates to game-day consistently.
4. Stop the run: Amid a glut of injuries, Thursday’s news that Redskins Zach Brown was sitting out because of a sore ankle was a major cause for concern. Brown’s 86 tackles lead the entire NFL by a 10-tackle margin. Since Week 1, he and safety D.J. Swearinger have supplied the muscle of a defense that has lost rookie tackle Jonathan Allen and inside linebacker Mason Foster to injury. A healthy Brown will be essential to keeping Minnesota’s running game in check Sunday. Despite losing their talented rookie running back Dalvin Cook to a torn ACL, the Vikings have continued to run the ball well. Their 120 rushing yards per game ranks ninth. The Redskins allowed Seattle 148 rushing yards and Dallas, the week prior, 169.
5. Crowder’s return: Wide receiver Jamison Crowder may be the lightest player on the Redskins’ roster, at 177 pounds, but he leaves a big-time hole in the offense when he’s not on the field. Though he was limited in practice this week because of a hamstring strain, Crowder indicated that he expects to play Sunday after missing last week’s game at Seattle. Having Crowder in the slot would be a big help to Cousins, who frequently turns to him when pressured, particularly if tight end Jordan Reed, another trusted target, misses a second consecutive game because of a hamstring injury. With Crowder out last week, Gruden tapped 33-year-old DeAngelo Hall to field punts in his first game back a season-ending knee injury 14 months ago. He hadn’t fielded punts since 2012 but acquitted himself well.
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