Before the Redskins take on the Panthers at FedExField, Redskins.com's Jake Kring-Schreifels and Dante Koplowitz-Fleming provide the storylines and matchups to follow on Sunday.
1. Communication will be key
The buzzword at the Inova Sports Performance Center at Redskins Park this week has been communication.
"From our standpoint there was a lack of communication on the field and we didn't get it done," defensive coordinator Greg Manusky said Thursday, which accurately sums up the several variations of how that word was used over the last couple days.
After the team's loss to the Saints on Monday, in which the defense allowed seven plays of more than 20-plus yards, including a 62-yard touchdown pass that gave Drew Brees the all-time passing yards record.
That play specifically stands out because of the blown coverage – a mental error on cornerback Josh Norman, and one of a few that the Redskins secondary had on Monday. It mostly leads back to communication issues, which the team is determined to solve this week against the Panthers.
"It's communication, everything is communication, something being busted is communication," Norman said. "And that's something that I take ownership of, that's something to get my guys prepared for it, I have to be more ordered in my steps and what we are able to do and what we are being processed from you know the coaches to the players and that's something I've got to take ownership of and get better as my unit go out there on the field because they look at us to perform and prepare in the way we're supposed to as pros and we've got to do that."
Linebacker Mason Foster, who said the team started correcting all of the issues on the flight home from New Orleans, knows that as the Mike linebacker, a lot of the communication issues come back to him and safety D.J. Swearinger Sr.
On a couple plays on Monday, they weren't on the same page and the Saints either took advantage, or missed a big-play opportunity.
"We all just got to echo, get the calls out, everybody has to echo them," Foster said. "Hand signals, you know, dummy calls, whatever it may be it has to be across the board. We know that, you've seen what happens when we don't do it, so echoing calls, hand signals, everybody getting the calls, listening for the calls, and executing. That's all it is man, you can't have those miscues and those miscues will cost you big in this league, we've seen it before, we've seen it plenty of times."
Head coach Jay Gruden took ultimate responsibility for the miscues and knows those will need to be limited this week dealing with quarterback Cam Newton, running back Christian McCaffrey and the Panthers' run-option trickery.
"Well it starts in the film room, film study, and then we go out and practice for a reason," Gruden said. "Give them different looks, as many different looks as we can, and communicate and it carries over on the field. There's only so much we can do. There's only so many looks we can give them. We're always going to see something new."
Added Foster: "We're too talented of a defense, too talented of a team to make those kinds of mistakes that cost us big like that. Everybody knows it, everybody's out there working extra doing what they've got to do to make sure it doesn't happen again."
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.
2. Know who has the football
Imagine you're a linebacker lining up against the Carolina Panthers. Going into the game you know your main goal is to stop their rushing attack, which is a tall task given that their quarterback is the most talented runner at that position in the league and their running back is a future All-Pro.
But the hardest thing about stopping Carolina? Knowing who to tackle. For example, say they come out in an I-formation with a tight end to the left side, another tight end lined up at fullback and then two wide receivers split out. The line gets set, you're ready for a power run behind their lead blocker, but then they motion the tight end out of the backfield out to the right. You try to tell your defensive line to shift but the Panthers are already motioning their wide receiver across the formation, and suddenly the ball is snapped.
You're not sure if the quarterback is keeping it, or if he's handing off to the linebacker or if the wideout is getting the sweep. Your feet aren't moving but your eyes are, and next thing you know you're wrapping up the running back, who didn't have the ball. The wide receiver did, and he's getting tackled downfield by the safety on the other side of the play.
That's what happened in Carolina's Week 2 loss to Atlanta, with wide receiver DJ Moore getting the ball.
Carolina has a number of ways to get their playmakers involved, but the jet sweep is one of their favorites. Here's a variation they ran against the Giants in Week 5.
On this play, Carolina snaps the ball, hands it off to McCaffrey who then tosses it to DJ Moore (gold circle) for the reverse and a gain of 18 yards on first down. The ball could realistically go to any of the players in the red circle, or the gold circle on this play, which makes tackling the right player even more important.
Knowing who to tackle, or eye-discipline as it's sometimes called, is crucial against a team like Carolina that uses so much pre-snap motion. It's the difference between a three yard gain and a big time play.
Linebacker Mason Foster said it's crucial for each defender to play within their role, because big plays happen when defenders try to do someone else's job.
"You've got to read your keys, see a little see a lot. You can't be trying to make plays that aren't your's, you've got to read your keys and play what your key does," Foster said. "Go make them play man, play off of each other and go tackle the man with the brown thing. Read your keys and play fast, trust your eyes and go play."
3. Establish the run game early
Washington has had two different types of games this season: The kind where they run well and win, and the kind where they can't run and they lose.
There are some obvious reasons why teams have more rush yards in games they win (hint: it's because teams run the ball more when they're up and stop running when they trail), but it will be important for Washington to avoid getting in third and longs, and running the ball well will help that.
In games that Washington has won (at Arizona, home vs. Green Bay), they've run the ball 21 times in the first quarter for 115 yards, an average of 5.5 yards per carry. That sets a team up for success by creating manageable down and distance right off the bat.
To contrast that, in games Washington has lost (home vs. Indianapolis and away at New Orleans) they've run the ball 11 times in the first quarter, managing 31 yards at a 2.8 yard average per rush. That gets you behind the sticks quickly, which has led to Washington playing from behind and abandoning the run.
So against Carolina, it will be a good sign if Washington is moving the ball effectively on the ground right off the bat. Luckily for them, Carolina is surrendering 4.5 yards per carry on first down to opposing teams, making this a good opportunity for the Redskins to stay away from third and long.
If we're going to look at this more from a glass-half-empty point of view, it's prudent to look at how Carolina's rush defense has performed in the first quarter of games. ESPN's John Keim pointed out on Twitter that Carolina is only giving up around 2.0 yards per carry to opposing teams in the first quarter.
It's also important to note that Carolina will be with their starting linebacker Thomas Davis, who is returning Sunday from a four game suspension. Davis, along with All-Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly, make up a dangerous tandem that severely limits opponents' ability to run on them.
Left tackle Trent Williams made sure to let reporters know Thursday just how good Davis and Kuechly are at football.
"I mean, for one: They're both two of the smartest players in the NFL when it comes to football IQ," he said. "They're both two of the most physically gifted linebackers in the NFL, and then you surround them with a front that protects them, you know in a great defensive scheme, they're going to flourish. And I mean they will flourish without it, so with it they're 10 times better. If you had your own genie you probably wouldn't wish for a better linebacker combo."