The Washington Redskins play their third consecutive game against an NFC division leader Sunday and hope to do better against the streaking New Orleans Saints, who have won their past seven, than they did in last week’s 38-30 loss to the Minnesota Vikings. Here are five story lines to follow:
Run the ball: With starting running back Rob Kelley (knee, ankle) on injured reserve, the spotlight shifts to powerfully built rookie Samaje Perine. While the Saints’ defense is vastly improved, it’s just 16th against the run, suggesting that there’s an opportunity for the Redskins to show more balance on offense, take some pressure off quarterback Kirk Cousins and, ideally, limit the opportunities for quarterback Drew Brees. Don’t be surprised if Byron Marshall, signed this week from Philadelphia’s practice squad, makes an appearance, too. He’s a capable receiver out of the backfield and should complement third-down back Chris Thompson, who was well-defended by the Vikings.
Stop the run: While Brees is a first-ballot Hall of Famer, what has made the 2017 Saints so effective is the balance provided by its third-ranked running game, which accounted for 298 yards in last week’s 47-10 pummeling of Buffalo. Leading the attack is Mark Ingram, who’s averaging 4.7 yards per carry and is complemented by rookie Alvin Kamara. They’ll challenge a Redskins defense that has suffered significant blows to its interior, losing first-round pick Jonathan Allen and middle linebacker Mason Foster to season-ending injuries. The Redskins hope to get back lineman Matt Ioannidis, who took limited part in practice this week with a huge, club-like cast on his broken hand. It’s equally essential that middle linebacker Zach Brown (Achilles), their leading tackler, is in the mix, as well.
Better secondary play: The Redskins’ secondary that was such a strength in the season’s early going had a rough game against the Vikings, making backup quarterback Case Keenum look Pro Bowl-worthy as he torched cornerback Josh Norman and Breeland for backbreaking completions of 51, 49 and 38 yards. Norman insisted this week it was a fluke — just a bad game — and not a sign of backsliding. Sunday brings a golden opportunity to back that up when the 38-year-old Brees get to work. He’s completing nearly 72 percent of his passes (tops among NFL quarterbacks heading into Week 11) and has thrown 13 touchdowns and just four interceptions. Norman and Breeland are reasonably healthy, but safety Montae Nicholson (shoulder) likely will be questionable.
Seizing opportunity: It would be easy to pin the loss to Minnesota on a Redskins defense that gave up a season-high 38 points. But the offense had a major hand in it, too, leaving too many points unscored inside the 20. The Vikings scored touchdowns on all five trips to the red zone, while the Redskins did so just twice on four attempts. Kicker Nick Rose salvaged field goals from both futile drives, but the eight-point difference (six, as opposed to 14) would have forced overtime. Against the Saints, the Redskins can’t squander scoring opportunities on freakish events, such as Josh Doctson’s stumble in the end zone, or dropped touchdown passes. Jamison Crowder and Thompson, who combined for just seven catches on 18 targets, must do better. And Gruden should involve 6-foot-3 Mo Harris more.
Limiting turnovers: With the Saints favored by more than a touchdown, the Redskins will have no shot if they lose the turnover battle at the Superdome. In loss after loss this season, the Redskins have surrendered the momentum in the final two minutes of the first half and the first two minutes of the second half. Either the offense turns it over (Cousins’ interception against Minnesota last week is but one example), or the defense gives up a score. It’s a glaring weakness that falls at Gruden’s feet, and Week 11 is late in the season to address it. With the offensive line still playing hurt (four of five starters were either limited or unable to practice this week), protection issues are also a worry Sunday. Defensive end Cameron Jordan has seven of the Saints’ 25 sacks.