Nonetheless, here are five keys for Washington if it hopes to beat New England:
Make the big plays
It sounds simple, but there have been several times when the Redskins had open receivers who probably would have scored if quarterback Case Keenum had gotten them the ball. Had they connected on all of those passes, they might be 3-1 or 2-2 rather than 0-4. It’s tough to get receivers that open against New England; it is fundamentally sound and leads the NFL in total defense and scoring defense, among other stats. But if and when downfield chances emerge, new starter Colt McCoy has to hit his receivers. This team can’t afford to miss on any potential big plays. The task will be slightly easier if rookie wideout Terry McLaurin returns from his hamstring injury.
Get to Brady
Tom Brady does not like to be hit; indeed, most quarterbacks don’t. But a theme in many of the Patriots’ losses over the years is that the defense put significant pressure on their quarterback. Brady combats this by firing quick passes to his receivers better than almost anyone. The Redskins have struggled to generate a pass rush, but if the Patriots have something that can be considered a weakness, it might be their offensive line.
Protect the quarterback
The Patriots have been able to overwhelm opponents with a zero-blitz scheme in which they leave their cornerbacks in man-to-man coverage and rush almost everyone else. It can be an extremely effective tactic as long as the cornerbacks stay solid in coverage — which New England’s can. It also leaves the quarterback desperate, helpless and often running scared. The Redskins will be thin on the offensive line, with guard Brandon Scherff out and center Chase Roullier fighting a knee injury, and they will be further hampered by the absence of tight ends Jordan Reed and Vernon Davis, both of whom are suffering from concussion symptoms. They will have to find ways to give McCoy time despite New England’s all-out pressure.
Despite the 0-4 start, Redskins Coach Jay Gruden has tried to open his playbook as much as he can to get around the absence of key playmakers such as Reed and running back Derrius Guice. The system has worked at times, but the skill-position players often haven’t executed. With an even more limited selection of offensive players Sunday, Gruden is going to have to be more imaginative if he hopes to move the ball against the league’s top-ranked defense. That means more jet sweeps, more plays that put the ball in the hands of the team’s fastest players and more creativity. There’s no risk not worth taking at this point.
Win special teams
For the first time in more than eight years, the Patriots will have a kicker other than Stephen Gostkowski, who was placed on injured reserve this week. Mike Nugent, 37, replaced him. The loss of Gostkowski and the short window for Nugent to acclimate to his new team make New England’s presumed special teams advantage a little less certain. The Patriots are excellent at coverage and usually disciplined, but Washington punter Tress Way has been terrific again. The Redskins have a chance to find an advantage in special teams, and they must make the most of it.
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