Redskins.com's Andrew Walker breaks down the key players and matchups to keep an eye on during Sunday's Redskins-49ers 2014 Week 12 showdown in Santa Clara, Calif.
"Redskins-49ers: 4 Keys To The Game" is presented by Papa John's. Every Monday, fans can order a large cheese pizza for only $9.99, plus for each touchdown that the Redskins score, fans get one free topping. And with a Redskins victory, fans get double the toppings.
BE A CONTROL FREAK[
Yes, the 49ers have several weapons down the field in Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree, and Brandon Lloyd, but one thing they do better than just about every team in the league is control the clock. In 2014, they are possessing the ball an average of 33:07 per game, third in the league behind the Indianapolis Colts (33:44) and the Pittsburgh Steelers (33:22), and just less than three minutes more than they were holding the ball in 2013 (30:21).
The 49ers are especially selfish with the ball at Levi's Stadium, where they have an average possession time of 36:09 per game, ranking second-best in the NFL behind Indy's 36:32 at Lucas Oil Stadium.
To help ensure San Francisco doesn't milk precious seconds and minutes off the clock on Sunday, the Redskins are going to have to continue to play well against the run. Their 104.2 rushing yards allowed per game average is 11th in the league and best in the NFC East.
But that's easier than said against a running back like the 49ers Frank Gore. Simply put, when San Francisco is able to constantly feed Gore – who ranks 10th in the league with 648 rushing yards this season – they are almost guaranteed a victory. When the 49ers have ran the ball 30 or more times under head coach Jim Harbaugh, they are 33-1-1.
So not only will the Redskins need to have a huge performance from their own running backs – Alfred Morris and Roy Helu Jr. – but they will need to stop Gore, Colin Kaepernick and Co. from gaining huge chunks of yards on the ground Sunday and controlling that clock.
TAKE CARE OF BORLAND
San Francisco has, indeed, brought a consistent offensive attack each and every week under Harbaugh, but its stout defense has been the team's identity – and what has led it to the past three NFC Championship games.
The 49ers have been able to get Pro Bowl-level play across every defensive position, making it extremely difficult for their opponents to get much of anything going offensively. But that doesn't happen by accident. The organization has done a tremendous job finding players – whether it be in free agency or via the draft – and developing them into studs at their various positions.
The most recent example of this trend? Linebacker Chris Borland. The 49ers took the Wisconsin product with their third round (77th overall) pick in this year's NFL Draft, and he has been thrown into the fire due to some major injuries to guys like Navarro Bowman and Patrick Willis.
The past three weeks, Borland has responded by simply being the best tackler in the league. Over that span, the rookie has averaged more than 15 tackles per game. Oh, and he also picked off New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning twice last Sunday in the 49ers road victory, earning NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors for his efforts.
There's no doubt Borland will be all over the field Sunday against the Redskins, who must do a sound job maintaining their blocks to ensure he doesn't get another 15-plus tackles on the day. If Kory Lichtensteiger and crew can accomplish this feat – and if Alfred Morris can squeeze out of a few tackles, as he is prone to doing – then Washington should be in much better shape.
WE'VE ONLY JUST BEGUN
Quarterback Robert Griffin III and the Redskins' offense probably couldn't have scripted a worse start to their game last week against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
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On their very first play, Griffin III's low pass under pressure was bobbled in the air by tight end Niles Paul and intercepted by Tampa Bay linebacker Danny Lansanah, giving them the ball at the Washington 29-yard line.
On the ensuing Redskins drive – which ended without much of anything offensively – left tackle Trent Williams was knocked out of the game after defensive tackle Gerald McCoy fell on his right leg. Williams – who wouldn't return – was later diagnosed with a sprained MCL and ankle, and, as of Wednesday, it was unknown if he would be able to go Sunday against the 49ers.
The theme continued on Washington's third drive, when Griffin III's pass was batted at the line of scrimmage and picked off by cornerback Johnthan Banks, who returned it 19 yards for a touchdown.
After the extra point, the Redskins quickly found themselves down 10-0 with 4:04 remaining in the first quarter.
These mistakes can't happen in any game, but they simply cannot repeat themselves Sunday when the Redskins take on the 49ers in their brand new home, Levi's Stadium. Griffin III and the Washington offense will try to ensure they do whatever they can to take the crowd out of the game.
If that ends up happening, then you know it likely means nothing but positives for the visiting team.
CLEAN IT UP
Simply put, the Redskins struggled in all three phases against the Buccaneers. If any of those same mistakes begin popping up again Sunday against a team like the 49ers, then it'll probably be a long plane ride home for Washington.
Redskins head coach Jay Gruden said it'll be up to both the players and the coaches to turn in a solid week of practice so they can eliminate the mental mistakes, like false starts, illegal formations, and blown coverages and blitzes.
"It's a combination of a couple of different areas where we're struggling for some reason. You can't do that," Gruden said. "We're not good enough to struggle, have mental mistakes, have penalties, have false starts [and still win the game]. We blew two coverages in the second half that gave them an easy touchdown, didn't blitz a guy who was supposed to blitz in the A-gap… there was too much confusion. If we have to simplify our stuff to let our guys play fast, then we'll have to do that."
More specifically, on offense, Gruden said focusing on altered snap counts will continue to be a point of emphasis against a talented defensive front like the San Francisco's.
"We have to change the snap count offensively," he said. "Gerald McCoy and Michael Johnson and those guys, if they get a bead on your snap count -- and this week it's Justin Smith and Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks -- if they get a beat on your snap count, you have no chance to block them. So if we don't change up the snap count, we're asking our linemen to do the impossible."
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