Redskins.com's Andrew Walker breaks down the key players and matchups to keep an eye on during Sunday's Redskins-Vikings 2014 Week 9 showdown in Minneapolis.
"Redskins-Vikings: 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.
THIRD AND CRITICAL
](http://www.papajohns.com/)The Vikings, led by first-year head coach Mike Zimmer — a longtime former defensive coordinator in the league — have, to this point of the season, displayed an extremely tough defense, ranking eighth overall in yards allowed per game, and sixth overall in yards allowed per play.
What has been one of Minnesota's formulas for success on defense this year? A stinginess on third down. The Vikings rank fifth in the league in third-down conversions allowed at just 36 percent, as their opponents have turned just 38-of-104 plays on third down into first downs.
You've got to believe Redskins head coach Jay Gruden was already well aware of these stats. His Washington offense has simply struggled on third downs this season, converting just 32-of-96 (32 percent) of their third-down plays into first downs, ranking 29th in the league.
The Redskins were, however, able to improve that mark on Monday night against the Dallas Cowboys. By utilizing a better overall rushing attack in the second half, Washington was able to convert six of its 14 attempts on third down in its 20-17 overtime victory over the rival Cowboys in Arlington, Texas.
If the Redskins' run game — starting with Alfred Morris — can continue to improve, then there's no reason to believe that these numbers on third down can't continue to keep rising, even against a team with a tough defense like the Vikings. That's because when Morris and Roy Helu Jr. are able to do their thing, that opens it up deep for DeSean Jackson, down the seam to Jordan Reed or on a slant to Pierre Garçon. With the Redskins' success the past couple days have brought with it glimpses of what this team and this offense is capable of, and one thing it should be great at is converting on third down, which just hasn't happened yet to this point of the season.
DIAL 8 FOR PRESSURE
Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett had one primary gameplan Monday for Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo: attack, and attack often.
The end result? Five sacks by the Redskins, the most allowed by the Cowboys since Dec. 4, 2011. In fact, in the five games leading up to Monday's matchup, Romo had been taken down just five times combined.
Haslett wasn't shy to utilize his Cover Zero scheme, in which he brings the house and leaves the secondary with just one player on each receiver. In what can often be a make-or-break defense, the Redskins stood tall in these formations on Monday, and had great success bringing more potential pass rushers than the Cowboys had blockers, and not allowing an extremely elusive Romo to escape danger like he's so prone to do.
Well, if you're Haslett, does the old adage 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it' apply here? Do you bring the house on rookie Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater over and over again to see if he cracks?
The youngster out of Louisville hasn't exactly been able to avoid the turnover bug in his first season in the NFL, with five interceptions to just two touchdowns.
He managed the game much better last Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — completing 24-of-42 passes for 241 yards and one touchdown to no interceptions — and, after watching Monday's Redskins-Cowboys game, you can bet he'll be looking to get the ball out of his hands very quickly Sunday afternoon in Minnesota.
SCREEN, SCREEN, SCREEN
In last season's Redskins-Vikings matchup in Minnesota, Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III found much success by utilizing well-timed screen plays — particularly to wide receiver Pierre Garçon.
Garçon, like usual, was playing like a man on fire every time he touched the ball in that game, and had a few impressive highlight plays, including an eight-yard touchdown via the screen pass.
You can bet that whoever is playing quarterback for the Redskins on Sunday — whether it's the return of Robert Griffin III or Colt McCoy — that they'll be looking to go Garçon's way early and often. After watching the film from Monday's game against the Cowboys, they'll see that Garçon, the seventh-year veteran out of Mount Union, got himself open several times, yet ended up with just four catches for 47 yards, including a 23-yard scamper.
Gruden said Garçon — who has had an average of 4.8 targets the past five games — and his receivers were frustrated at halftime, and adjustments were made.
"It's a tough deal," Gruden said. "Everyone wants to put in time and work and help the team win. When your number isn't called or you don't get looks, they get frustrated. If I played wide receiver I'd probably have been in the same situation with them."
Garçon is still having a quality season this year for the Redskins, with 39 receptions for 443 yards and three touchdowns — and an 11.4 yards-per-catch average.
So wth DeSean Jackson on the other side continuing to burn his defenders deep week after week — and with Alfred Morris getting back on track against the Cowboys — don't be surprised if Garçon's number is called, and called lots, against the Vikings.
RACE TO FOUR-AND-BYE
The Redskins and Vikings have taken much different paths to their 3-5 records to this point of the season, but both are hoping to come away from Sunday's matchup with one more all-important victory to move to 4-5 prior to hitting their bye weeks.
ExtremeSkins.com's Brian Murphy gives you another look at the Redskins' Week 8 matchup against the Dallas Cowboys on Oct. 27, 2014, in Arlington, Texas.
The Vikings came out of the gates hot, going on the road and defeating the St. Louis Rams 34-6. Then they lost two straight — to the New England Patriots and New Orleans Saints — before again playing dominating football in a 41-28 win over the Atlanta Falcons. Then they lost three straight (Green Bay Packers, Detroit Lions and Buffalo Bills) before last week's 19-13 overtime victory against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
You just never know which Vikings team is going to come to play each week. They have won their three games by an average of 15.7 points, but then they've lost their five games by an average of 16.2 points.
The Redskins, meanwhile, have kept things more consistent this season. Their five losses, for example, have been by an average of 13 points, but if you remove the 31-point loss to the New York Giants, then that average drops to just 8.5 points.
A third-straight win and fourth overall for Washington would be huge going into its bye week. Not only would it help the franchise continue to move forward from last season's three-win campaign, but it gets the team just one game under the .500 mark, which didn't seem likely just three weeks ago, when the team was 1-5 heading into its game against the Tennessee Titans.
Gruden said he's looking forward to seeing how his team responds to its current two-game win streak, while still keeping everything in perspective after a big win over the Cowboys.
"The true quality of a good team is how you respond after wins and losses, and we are hoping that we can respond and continue to build off our success the last two weeks," he said. "We don't have time to take any steps back. We have to continue moving forward. I think our players understand the situation that we are in. As good as you feel after a big win like that, you still look at the division race, we are still in last. So we still have a long way to go."