Redskins.com's Andrew Walker breaks down the key players and matchups to keep an eye on during Thursday's Redskins-Patriots preseason showdown at FedExField.
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*GRIFFIN III BACK IN THE SADDLE *Thursday will mark 242 days since quarterback Robert Griffin III has taken a snap in an actual game for the Redskins.
Griffin III will, no doubt, be ready to go against the Patriots in front of his home crowd after the way the season unfolded for him and the team last year. First, the 2012 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year underwent major knee surgery and, due to his recovery, missed the entire offseason and the preseason slate of games. Then he had to play catch up from there, and it took a while for him to get his bearings. Then, after the team's home loss to the Kansas City Chiefs on Dec. 8, former head coach Mike Shanahan elected to sit Griffin III the remainder of the year in favor of backup Kirk Cousins.
Although first-year head coach Jay Gruden said the Redskins' starters will play about 10 plays against the Patriots, look for Griffin III to try to show a little bit of everything in those limited opportunities. Can he make a successful five-step drop and deliver a crisp, clean pass? Can he make the right reads with one or more defenders in his face? Will he know when the time is right to tuck the ball and run, or when to simply throw the ball away and live to play another down? These are all questions that Griffin III hopes to answer, starting tonight.
Cousins, meanwhile, is also returning for his third season with the Redskins, and will likely get a lions' share of the snaps under center, along with third-stringer Colt McCoy. With receiver Pierre Garçon already listed as out for the first preseason game – and with an ankle injury putting DeSean Jackson's playing status in question – both Cousins and McCoy will have plenty of opportunities to get in sync with the team's younger receivers, like Ryan Grant, Cody Hoffman, Lee Doss, Rashad Lawrence, Aldrick Robinson, Rashad Ross and Nick Williams.
PUTTING 'SPECIAL' BACK IN SPECIAL TEAMSIt's not hard to look at the Redskins' failures of the 2013 season without first mentioning the team's performance in special teams. The Redskins ranked last – or near the bottom – in just about every special teams statistical category last year, including kick coverage and kick return.
Once Gruden was brought on board, he hired Ben Kotwica as his special teams coordinator to make an immediate impact on those figures. Then, the team used the offseason to further show its dedication to special teams improvement, signing free agents like Jackson, Adam Hayward, Tracy Porter, Andre Roberts, Darryl Sharpton and Akeem Jordan, each of whom bring talents to their respective positions, but also have proven track records as special teams contributors. The Redskins also utilized the draft this year to add special teams depth, taking players like Trent Murphy, Bashaud Breeland, Ted Bolser and Zach Hocker.
The Redskins' two kickers and punters, meanwhile, will also try to begin the process of winning their respective positional battles tonight. At kicker, incumbent starter Kai Forbath faces a challenge from Hocker, an Arkansas product that was the only kicker taken in the NFL Draft this year. At punter, free agents Robert Malone and Blake Clingan will try to show the coaches how they can make an impact in the field-position game
STAY HEALTHYThe Redskins already have a few key players battling nagging injuries. Compounding the problem with injuries sustained in games that don't even count would be much worse.
Already missing the preseason opener Thursday will be Garçon and safeties Ryan Clark and Phillip Thomas, each of whom have minor hamstring injuries. Jackson could very easily join them on that list with a bum ankle suffered during a freak play in Wednesday's joint practice with New England.
But, so far, the team hasn't had any major contributors go down with season-ending injuries at this point of the preseason like it did at this time last year, when both Adam Carriker and Keenan Robinson had been lost for the year. The team hopes to continue this trend and get to the 0:00 point Thursday evening as healthy as possible.
With Clark and Thomas out, look for second-year safety Bacarri Rambo to step in and try to prove he's developed as a playmaker in the Redskins' secondary. Also, rookie Grant has had an impressive training camp thus far, and could potentially put up some big numbers against the Patriots' second and third stringers.
NO MORE FLETCHHow do you replace the heart and soul of your team – a Hall Of Fame-bound linebacker who wore his captain patch with so much pride the past seven seasons?
Well, you don't. You can't.
But you can begin to put the pieces back in place to establish the next leader(s) of your defense.
London Fletcher's retirement following the 2013 season ended a brilliant 15-year career, one in which the undrafted free agent out of tiny John Carroll University won a Super Bowl ring with the St. Louis Rams, pushed his game to new heights in five seasons with the Buffalo Bills, and then became a beloved leader and, finally, a Pro Bowler in Washington.
He ended his career as one of only four players in NFL history to play in more than 250 consecutive games, and is the NFL's Iron Man at his position.
Taking Fletcher's spot in the middle of the defense Thursday will be the aforementioned Keenan Robinson, a youngster gaining praise from his coaches for his athleticism whose in-game leadership skills are the great unknown. But Robinson spent the first two years of his career learning from Fletcher, himself, and knew one day he'd get this opportunity.
Let's see what Robinson does with it.
REDSKINS ON TV: Don't forget to catch all the action between the Washington Redskins and the New England Patriots at 7:30 p.m. Thursday on NBC-4 and Comcast SportsNet!