Any opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the team.
The Washington Football Team is heading into the New Year with a home matchup against the Philadelphia Eagles, its fourth straight NFC East game. Here are three keys to the game, presented by Van Metre.
1. Stop the run.
It's an obvious statement, but it needs to be said: Washington must have a better response for the best rushing attack in the NFL in order to come away with a win.
The trio of Miles Sanders, Jordan Howard and Jalen Hurts tore through the Washington defense in the 27-17 Week 15 game with a combined total of 238 yards -- the most allowed by an opponent in four year. It was a deep cut to a unit that had normally been exceptional defending the run. Despite going down 10-0 in the first quarter, the Eagles, which has rushed for at least 125 yards in nine straight games, continued to rely on its ground game and finished with a 5.8-yard average on 41 carries.
"I think they've got a big, strong offensive line and they've done a real nice job with their approach, so we're getting prepared for it," said defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. "We did not play up to our standard last time out. They got the better of us and two weeks later we're looking forward to competing."
The Eagles will be without Miles Sanders, who has the second-most rushing yards in the NFC over the last two weeks, in their second matchup with Washington. That doesn't mean they will be crippled, though; Jordan Howard has rushed for at least 60 yards in five of the last six games, and Hurts is one of the top rushing quarterbacks in the league this season.
Washington hasn't held a team to fewer than 100 rushing yards in a month. Doing so against the Eagles with a slim chance at the postseason would be the ideal time to buck that trend.
2. Get Terry McLaurin involved early.
Third-year wideout Terry McLaurin is 101 yards away from getting back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. It would be the first time that a Washington player has achieved the feat since Henry Ellard in the 1994-95 seasons.
The numbers are clear: when Washington gets McLaurin the ball, it works out for the offense. The team is 3-1 this season when he crosses the 100-yard mark. McLaurin only has 13 targets in the last three games, though, and that's a problem offensive coordinator Scott Turner wants to fix.
"We gotta do a better job," Turner said. "I have to do a better job of finding ways to get Terry the ball. We had him on some plays, targeted. We did early in the game, that maybe obviously aren't necessarily high percentage deals, but you know, get some stuff where the ball gets in his hands."
There are several reasons why McLaurin has gotten the ball less, whether it's the offense running the ball more or the progression of the play forces Taylor Heinicke to take other options. McLaurin still receives more targets than other players, but Turner still believes Washington needs to give his targets a boost.
McLaurin finished the game against the Dallas Cowboys with 40 yards, but his first catch didn't come until the fourth quarter, when Washington's 56-14 win was essentially secured. Expect that to change against the Eagles, who have given up big games to McLaurin in the past.
3. Keep the momentum rolling.
Washington jumped out to an early lead in the first matchup against the Eagles, thanks to two turnovers forced by the defense. Once things settled, though, the Eagles' offense began to soar with 20 unanswered points, while Washington sunk deeper and deeper into a deficit.
The Burgundy & Gold began to fold at the start of the second quarter, when Garrett Gilbert and the offense were not gifted with a short field. Washington punted after eight yards on three plays, which became a trend for the team. It punted on three of its following four drives and could only muster 28 yards.
It was a frustrating result, considering that Washington still had a chance to win in the fourth quarter. Fortunately, Washington has both of its top options at quarterback off the COVID-19 list in Round 2 against the Eagles, which should give it a better chance to string together some longer drives.
And with Washington needing a win to keep its playoff hopes alive, it needs all the momentum it can get.