Before the Redskins take on the Titans at Nissan Stadium, Redskins.com's Jake Kring-Schreifels and Dante Koplowitz-Fleming provide the storylines and matchups to follow on Saturday.
1. Stop Derrick Henry
The Titans team the Redskins will face Saturday is hitting its stride at the most optimal time of the year — the playoff push.
The emergence of former Heisman-winning running back Derrick Henry has been a massive boost to the Titans offense — and team identity.
Over the last two games Henry has run for 408 yards with a ridiculous average of 8.2 yards per carry. Nearly a quarter of that production came on one 99-yard run against Jacksonville that included numerous broken tackles and two impressive, nightmare-inducing stiff arms.
Henry has become the key cog in a Titans offense predicated on the run, but for the two months of the season his future with Tennessee was in doubt. Prior to these last two games Henry had 474 yards on the ground over 12 games and was averaging 3.7 yards per carry.
Redskins head coach Jay Gruden was asked to give his impression of Henry during a press conference Wednesday.
"Well, he's a big man and he can run through tackles, he's been doing it for a while. He's got an excellent offensive line playing for him, their scheme is very sound. Then, you've got a hat on a hat and he's running through tackles in the hole and then making big plays because of that," Gruden said. "So, you have to stay home and when you stay home and he gets to the second level, that's when he's the most dangerous. Then when he falls forward, he gets four yards, because he's 6'4". Very good weapon to have, very good offensive line and they're playing with a lot of confidence."
The Redskins haven't faced a back with Henry's stature this season (not that there are any other 6-foot-3, 247-pound running backs), but they have faced some of the league's best. Most recently Saquon Barkley had his way with the Redskins defense, but that was only after being held to 38 yards on 13 carries in their first meeting. Washington needs to replicate their early-season dominance in the trenches in order to stop Henry, and defensive coordinator Greg Manusky told reporters that starts and ends with whistle-to-whistle tackling.
"He's a big cat you know. We understand that, we got to make sure we swarm this guy, get around him. We got to have multiple hats on [him] because I always tell the guys don't assume that he's down because he could always break tackles," Manusky said. "He does a great job, he's got a good stiff arm, he makes plays in space [and] he's a good jump cutter. He's a phenomenal back. He's a good back, so we got to make sure he's taken care of."
2. Be creative on offense
Despite the fact that the Redskins have lost more than a third of their opening day roster to the Injured Reserve list, they're still hurting at some key positions this weekend.
Wide receiver Josh Doctson is questionable for Saturday's game with lower back spasms, as are wide receiver Maurice Harris and tight end Vernon Davis with concussions. The Redskins are already without tight end Jordan Reed with a foot injury meaning quarterback Josh Johnson's offensive weapons are going to be sparse.
That's where head coach Jay Gruden will need to be creative with the playmakers he does have available.
Without Reed, and potentially without Doctson, Davis and Harris, Gruden may need to use Thompson in the slot while Byron Marshall lines up at running back, utilizing his pass catchers out of the backfield in a variety of ways.
"I think whenever you get Chris Thompson, you're talking about pass situations and you don't ever want to take Jordan Reed out for another back," Gruden said. "There's no reason to. You want Jordan Reed on the field at all times. Now that Jordan is out, you have to come up with different ways and if Vernon [Davis] is out, you have to come up with different ideas to try to get different people on the field. So, that's really the only reason."
The Redskins haven't shown much trickeration this season but that might need to change now. It's challenging to run creative screens with the constant flux of guards over the last several weeks, but Washington will need to rely on its weapons to overcome any of those deficiencies.
Turning to wide receiver Jamison Crowder will be another option, especially after the game-changing catch he made last week. They'll need just about everything from everyone to get this offense going.
"We know that he's a great weapon for us," Gruden said of Crowder. "How we get him the ball, when we get him the ball is not his fault, but we've just got to try and get him more involved in the offense somehow. He had four catches I believe last week, but I think that number has got to go up for this offense, especially with Jordan Reed being sidelined, Jamison has to be a major, impactful player for us in the passing game."
3. Win time of possession
The Redskins formula for winning games in the first half of the season relied on establishing the running game, jumping out to an early lead and managing the clock for the remainder of the contest. The offense sustained long drives, the defense benefited and the team played its best football.
After a four-game losing streak, the Redskins re-established that formula despite the much different roster it fielded Sunday in Jacksonville. The Redskins won the time of possession battle, holding the ball for 33 minutes and six seconds, a good seven-minute difference that was a testament to the defense getting off the field when needed and the offense wearing down the Jaguars.
In the third quarter, the Redskins' field goal drive went only 60 yards and yet the offense managed to take off seven minutes and 28 seconds. The next touchdown drive lasted five minutes and 29 seconds.
This is not to say that quick scoring drives are bad. Far from it. The Redskins could stand to use some explosive plays on Saturday, especially considering they may not have many explosive players on the field. But when facing a team that likes to milk the clock themselves, at home, with a resurgent run game, keeping the ball out of Marcus Mariota's hands as long as possible and keeping the defense fresh and prepared to run him down will prove to be vital.
"I think we know we can play football. We just got to make sure we're gap sound across the board in the run game," defensive coordinator Greg Manusky. "In the passing game, we did a great job getting a pick at the end of the game which was a huge situation for us. Just playing team defense is the biggest thing and then playing together as a unit from an offensive standpoint, special teams and then on defense."
In their last three games, the Redskins have averaged just 27 minutes in TOP, three minutes below their season average, which ranks 11th best in the league. To crack the Top-10 in that category, they'll need another game like Jacksonville, in which they can establish the run, pick up key third downs and force the Titans off the field early into their drives.
"I think you have to be balanced in what you do," Gruden said. "I don't ever want to go into a game saying we're going to hand it to Adrian [Peterson] 40 times. I think that's unrealistic. I think we've got to be balanced, mix in some different types of schemes in the running game, mix in some quick passes and some bootlegs and options and all that good stuff. The more success we have on first, second down, the more successful we'll be."