Sitting a 2-2 and first place in their division, Washington is at a pivotal point early in their season. They've played some good ball, and some not-so-good ball, and this Sunday's game against Carolina will be a chance for the team to prove it's a playoff contender, by matching up with one.
Carolina is 3-1, with all of their games being decided by one score. Its defense has been solid in some areas, but has allowed teams to score in the fourth quarter and make games a lot closer than they needed to be. The strength of their team this season has been the offense, with playmaking quarterback Cam Newton and second-year star running back Christian McCaffrey.
"He doesn't come off the field very often," defensive coordinator Greg Manusky said of McCaffrey. "A very good football player; has great vision, sightlines in the hole, he can speed it, he can beat the post safety and he has great sightlines. It's a real good offense for him as a running back. It's a read option team but overall a very physical football team and we've got to get after them."
Manusky is right about McCaffrey not coming off the field, as he's played 94 percent of offensive snaps. Most of those have come lined up in the backfield, but he's spent time in the slot and out wide in each game as well.
McCaffrey has averaged over 130 yards from scrimmage a game this season, registering both a 100-yard rushing performance and a 100-yard receiving performance, and has been leaned on heavily due to a lack of playmakers in their receiving corps.
Unfortunately for Washington, Carolina might be getting a key piece to their offense back this Sunday. Three-time Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen may be making his return after missing the last three games with a fractured foot. The injury was a holdover from last year, which limited Olsen to career-low seven games. On Week 1 of this season Olsen re-injured his foot, keeping him out presumably until this week.
Olsen has been a thorn in Washington's side, collecting nine receptions for 139 yards and a touchdown over the past two times the teams have met. Carolina won both matchups, one in 2015 and once in 2016. In fact, Carolina has won the past five meetings between the two teams, dating back to 2009.
But the biggest threat on Carolina remains their run game. So far this season each of Washington's opponents have been bottom-half in rush yards per game league wide. They've managed to average only 85.9 yards per game on the season.
The Panthers are a different beast, rushing for 154 yards on average each game. They've done it with McCaffrey and Newton leading the way, with McCaffrey averaging over 82 yards and Newton over 40. Their rush offense is versatile, but a big reason for their success has been their use of the zone read.
Head coach Jay Gruden told reporters Wednesday that they're well aware of Carolina's versatility in the run game.
"Well it's the same as last week, we had [Alvin] Kamara. This week we have McCaffrey and [Panthers wideout Curtis] Samuel and [Panthers wideout] DJ Moore and Cam Newton," Gruden said. "Each week there is a different challenge and McCaffrey is a special guy. He can run between a tackle, just like Kamara, he can run outside and he can catch the ball so you've got to know where he is...not to mention the legs of Cam Newton, who is 6-5, 260. It will be a great challenge for our guys. Our eyes have got to be in the right place and we've got to fly to the football without a doubt."
Check out these photos of the Redskins' preparing for their Week 6 game against the Carolina Panthers Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018, at the Inova Sports Performance Center at Redskins Park.
But Newton's legs weren't the problem for Washington in 2015 and 2016 where he averaged only eight rushing yards per game. Linebacker Mason Foster explained how a defense can try to limit Newton's running ability.
"You just got to swarm on him, he's a big dude, great athlete, runs that offense well. So, it's going to come down to us playing hard and swarming him, man," Foster said. "Being on top of our keys, executing, get your eyes right. They have a lot of misdirection, a lot of stuff like that. So, you got to keep your eyes in the right place and make your plays when they come to you."
The Redskins did a good job containing his rush attack by having their backside edge defender dedicated to stopping Newton from keeping the ball on zone reads. Depending on the formation it was usually a safety or corner playing close to the line of scrimmage. They stayed patient and forced Newton to hand the ball off to his running back.
The downside of that is that Carolina's lead rusher in those games, Jonathan Stewart, went for over 100 yards each time. This is what has made Carolina deadly on the ground for years; teams are often forced to give up something when they make the choice to take an element of their rush attack away.
But the Panthers ran a different scheme in 2015 and 2016 than they do this year. Their former offensive coordinator, Mike Shula, called an average of 12 runs from the I-formation the last two times the Panthers played Washington. In 2018, the Panthers average fewer than five rushes out of I-formation per game, instead relying on shotgun and singleback to get McCaffrey free against defenses.
Carolina's versatility in the run game is best stopped by playing simple, disciplined football, Foster said. He added that it can be tempting to make the play for someone else, but that against a team like Carolina reading your keys and playing off them is the method for success.
"Be physical, swarm to the ball," Foster said. "You've got to limit their big plays because they've got big time players, but at the end of the day you gotta go out there and be physical. It's going to be a game in the trenches but that's the way we like it man, they're going to try to run the ball and we want to be physical and stop them."