Before the Redskins take on the Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium, Redskins.com's Jake Kring-Schreifels and Dante Koplowitz-Fleming provide the storylines and matchups to follow on Sunday.
1. Make them one dimensional
The Buccaneers have done a pretty good job of making themselves one dimensional this season, as they hold the most passing yards per game on offense but are 30th in rushing yards per game.
But, Atlanta came into FedExField last week averaging 83 yards per game and they piled up 154 against the Redskins vaunted rush defense, and they did it averaging 6.4 yards per carry.
Strangely enough, the Redskins' worst performances on run defense have come against the Colts and the aforementioned Falcons, neither of which are top rush offenses. To compound that they've held the Panthers, the Cowboys and the Giants, teams with high-volume rushing games, to season lows on the ground.
This week, they'll need to avoid playing down to their opponent. The Falcons took advantage of the Redskins focusing on stopping the pass last week, hitting them for runs of seven and eight yards when the Redskins were focused on stopping the pass.
D.J. Swearinger Sr. was upset the Redskins were in two-high safety looks for most of the game, which took a defender out of the box and made them easier to run on.
"When you don't make a team one dimensional it's gonna be hard to beat them. We didn't make them one dimensional, I think the first time all year we didn't stop the run," Swearinger said. "So, you don't make a team one dimensional, you don't stop the run, it's hard to beat them. It's hard to stop them when they go play-action, bootlegs and all that. So we gotta stop the run, make teams one dimensional. If we gotta load the box let's load the box. I don't like playing half-field, truthfully. I had zero tackles playing half-field."
Making a team one dimensional usually starts with stopping the run, and forcing the other team into passing situations, and not the other way around. For what looked to be such a lopsided Falcons offense going into last week's matchup, Manusky said he thought they could get away with a heavy focus on stopping the pass.
"I think with the guys that they had overall from a receiver standpoint, tight ends and even the running backs, we tried to play a little bit of a light box at times and they kind of took advantage of it," Manusky said.
It will be particularly interesting to see what the Redskins do on defense this week, against a team that is arguably more lopsided on offense than Atlanta was. Will they bring Swearinger back into the box more often? Will they have linebackers Mason Foster and Zach Brown closer to the line of scrimmage? Or, will they focus on stopping the Buccaneers' league-leading passing attack? Regardless, they'll need to make sure Tampa doesn't get their ground game rolling this week, or else their goal of becoming a top-five defense will be in the rearview mirror.
2. Get off the field on third down
This one is a key every week...and it's obvious how damaging it is to a defense when this doesn't happen.
Last week against Atlanta, a team that came in as the top third-down converter in the league, Washington couldn't get off the field on defense. The Falcon's went 8 for 8 on third down in the first half, building a 21-7 lead over the Redskins.
That performance on third down led to a 38-14 defeat at home. There was definitely ample opportunity to get the Falcons off of the field, as they had faced third down 13 times. But, allowing them to walk away with a 76.9 percent conversion rate was not the result the Redskins were looking for.
Ryan Kerrigan said the Redskins knew third down would be a battle, as the Falcons were already the best in the league at converting them.
"I mean we couldn't get off the field for anything and that's, when you allow a team to extend drives and continue to move the chains like that when you have a chance to get off the field, you're putting yourself in a tough position," he said.
Atlanta was able to use pick plays out of bunch formations to convert third downs, forcing Washington into playing man coverage on receivers who were able to win 1-on-1 matchups. This lead to crossing routes, which turned into big plays. On their eighth consecutive third down conversion of the game, Atlanta hit rookie receiver Calvin Ridley on a slant, which he turned into a 40-yard touchdown because of the successful pick that receiver Mohamed Sanu set for Ridley.
Washington will need better communication, and awareness, on pick plays in those situations against Tampa. The Buccaneers have a similarly intimidating set of pass catchers, and third-year offensive coordinator Todd Monken has done a great job of getting them involved, and open.
Mason Foster acknowledged that giving up conversions on third down can spiral into a bad day on defense quickly.
"They were on the same page, they had a good plan. It was a lot of things that they did, quick quick throws, switching it up, we just have to play a lot better than that," Foster said. "You give them a couple of third downs and get their momentum rolling, keep giving them chances, keep giving them looks they're going to catch on later with a good quarterback like Matt Ryan."
Tampa's passing game can be nearly as destructive as Atlanta's when they're rolling. Ryan Fitzpatrick has helped them put up some gaudy numbers on offense, as profiled in this week's Know Your Opponent.
Head coach Jay Gruden told reporters Thursday they need to learn from their inefficiencies on third down from last week in order to contain Tampa's offense.
"We had some pretty good third down situations for us to get some pass rush and we didn't really take advantage of those situations," Gruden said. "If we're going to play man-to-man, clear up some of our combination coverages and go from there. But it's going to be a great challenge. [Mike] Evans is a heck of a receiver. Obviously, DeSean [Jackson], [Chris] Godwin and O.J. [Howard], so we [have to] cover them up, mix in some zones and rush the passer."
The pass rush has had some strong games this year (seven sacks against the Giants, four against the Cowboys) but it has been inconsistent as well. Last week against Atlanta it sacked Ryan twice with nine total pressures. Those numbers will need to improve this weekend in order for the Redskins to get off the field on third down against the Buccaneers.
3. Protect the quarterback
Midway through his Friday press conference, head coach Jay Gruden listed another potential obstacle for the Redskins' makeshift offensive line.
"I think playing in 83 degree heat for the first time could take its toll on them, but we'll have some other guys available if it is an issue," he said. "We have to wait and see, but I'm optimistic that they've picked it up mentally. That's half the battle. Now physically on a 7-, 8-, 10-play drive, we'll see where they're at."
As you're well aware, the Redskins signed three offensive linemen on Monday, and at least one of them will start on Sunday against the Buccaneers All three of them – Luke Bowanko, Jonathan Cooper and Austin Howard – haven't played on a team this season, so the transition has been expedited significantly.
Gruden has said that he's been impressed with their catchup abilities, noting just one false start during team drills on Thursday. But with a makeshift line – with Tony Bergstrom and potentially Cooper at the guard positions – there will be plenty of challenges. First and foremost, will be the need to protect the quarterback.
Alex Smith will be without Paul Richardson Jr. for the rest of the season and could be missing Crowder again, too. For the offense to start clicking into gear, especially in the passing game, Smith will need to stay upright and have time for his receivers to find open spaces.
Another key aspect of the transition process this week has been learning Smith's cadences. Aside from remembering protections and assignments, aiming to give running back Adrian Peterson the rushing holes he's used to, the linemen will need to be on the same page with the snap count.
The offensive line committed several holding penalties against the Falcons, which killed drives and forced the team to pivot away from the run. The Redskins hope that the experience of their new veteran linemen will be enough to transcend some of these obstacles.
"Yeah, we don't really know," Gruden said. "We're hoping the experience that Jonathan [Cooper] has will help and [Tony] Bergstom's played a lot – obviously Chase [Roullier] – and hopefully we get Morgan [Moses] and Ty [Nsekhe] back. So that's still pretty solid if you ask me. When you're out there on the field, you'll get a better gauge of how they're doing. How we're protecting. How we're run blocking. How they're handling the heat and the drives and the communication. Time will tell. I'm anxious to see it."