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Redskins-Patriots: Which key players will swing the game?

From the players to the matchup, a look at both sides of Sunday's Redskins-Patriots contest.

by Aidan Curran, Special to Breaking Burgundy

On Sunday, the Redskins travel to Foxborough, MA to take on the undefeated New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium. On paper, as Jay Gruden admitted in his press conference earlier this week, this looks like a win for the Pats. Washington is +14 underdogs according to Las Vegas, and quite frankly, that seems like a conservative estimate based on how New England has steamrolled its opponents so far, in its quest to get revenge on the NFL for the DeflateGate mess. So what players are going to ultimately determine the outcome of this Week 9 game? I took a look below

Washington Redskins:

Kirk Cousins: It has been an up-and-down season for Cousins thus far. The quarterback on any team is always a key player and Cousins is no exception here. Washington is 3-0 when Cousins throws no interceptions in a game, and that will have to stay the same against a New England team that scored on all three turnovers that the Miami Dolphins committed in their Week 8 game against the Patriots that ended in a 36-7 win for New England. The offensive line will have to keep Captain Kirk clean all game long; Cousins has a -7.3 grade according to Pro Football Focus when under pressure. Six of his interceptions have come when he is under pressure. Chandler Jones, tied for the league lead in sacks at 8.5, could be a problem for this ragtag Washington offensive line.

Ryan Kerrigan: The key question for Kerrigan, who underwent hand surgery during the bye week, is health. The productive outside linebacker is tied with Chris Baker for the team lead in sacks (4) but has seen a sharp dip in his performance since Week 4. Against the Buccaneers two weeks ago, Kerrigan only played 19/66 snaps. Hopefully the bye week helped him recover or it is going to be even tougher to generate a pass rush that will disrupt Tom Brady. Kerrigan most likely will be lined up across from New England RT Cameron Fleming, who is filling in for Sebastian Vollmer, who moved to left tackle when Marcus Cannon was injured against Indianapolis in Week 6. Fleming has a -12.8 overall grade so far according to PFF, and Kerrigan must win this matchup if the Redskins’ defense is going to have any shot of stopping Brady and this high-powered offense.

Bashaud Breeland: The entire Washington secondary is going to have to have the game of their lives on Sunday to have a shot. And that is a pretty discouraging statement from Washington’s perspective because Breeland is the only defensive back on the team with a positive grade in pass coverage according to PFF. It will be interesting to see who Joe Barry has Breeland cover. My guess would be Edelman, but Breeland primarily covered Mike Evans in the Tampa game, and Mike Evans and Julian Edelman are two very different types of players. Whoever it is, he will have to limit them, to at least take one option away from Brady. Breeland had a rough game against the Buccaneers however, allowing a 118.8 passer rating and six catches for 97 yards on 7 targets. He will need to pick it up this week or this defense has no shot.

Jamison Crowder: Without DeSean Jackson on the roster, Crowder has gotten more snaps than one would have expected at the onset of the season. Arguably Washington’s most dynamic receiver that is on the active roster, Crowder will most likely draw Malcolm Butler or Logan Ryan in coverage. There’s always one receiver on every team that kills the Patriots, who choose to eliminate one player on the other team’s offense by having safety help over the top of that player. If Desean Jackson is good to go this week, look for Butler to be on Jackson with safety help over the top, leaving Crowder with single coverage. New England cornerbacks have struggled versus smaller, shifty players like Crowder, so he could be poised for a big game. 

Jordan Reed: Reed is the best tight end the Pats have faced this season. After missing two games with a concussion, Reed came back against Tampa and proceeded to score two touchdowns. New England will cover him with a combination of safeties Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung, both of whom are excellent in coverage. He has become a trusted target for Cousins and will have to show up on Sunday and continue to be a strong red zone presence for Washington to win.

New England Patriots:

Dion Lewis: OK Pats fans, raise your hand if you thought this guy would become the most dynamic pass-catching running back in the NFL. Lewis has gone from a training camp afterthought to a key cog of this New England offense. If you want an example of how elusive he is, just google last week’s game versus Miami when Miami LB Koa Misi tried to tackle Lewis; didn’t work out so well for him and his ankles. The 5’7” Lewis is tied for the league lead in missed tackles forced with 16 coming on runs and 21 forced when he is a pass catcher. Against Miami he averaged a whopping 14.2 yards after catch per reception, and is averaging 8.6 on the season. I don’t envision any Washington linebacker being able to cover him, so it will be interesting to see if Washington copies Miami and puts a cornerback on Lewis when he splits out wide as a receiver.

Patrick Chung: One of two safeties that will draw Reed in coverage. Chung has been a completely different player since returning from a one-year stint as a Philadelphia Eagle, and is having his best year currently, and is well-deserving of a Pro Bowl nod to this point. Chung has not received a negative grade from PFF since Week 4 and NFL QBs have an average passer rating of 83.1 when targeting him this season. If Chung can keep Reed under control, New England will cruise.

Rob Gronkowski: Does there really have to be an explanation here? The best tight end in all of professional football is yet another matchup problem for Washington. If Washington doesn’t bother to even jam him at the line of scrimmage like some teams have this season (Looking at you, Colts and Steelers) then the Redskins have already lost this battle. Gronk is averaging 7.7 yards after catch per reception (have fun tackling him Washington!) and has gained more than 90 yards receiving in five out of seven games so far, to go along with 7 touchdowns. 

Brandon LaFell: After a rough first game of the season against the New York Jets, where Lafell dropped six passes, the vertical threat rebounded against Miami and caught 4 of seven targets for 47 yards, including a 29-yard catch. If Lafell can get back to the player he was last season for this offense, I see absolutely no way any defense in this league can stop this offense. A vertical threat like him will stretch the field and allow Edelman and Amendola more space to operate in the short passing game. 

Dont'a Hightower: Jamie Collins gets all the attention for his flashy playmaking ability, but it’s Hightower that is the true catalyst for this defense. He is a beast against the run and is a top-notch pass-rusher who loves to blitz up the A Gap and has four sacks on the year. Against the Jets in Week 7, Hightower posted a 4.0 grade against the run and a 3.7 for pass-rushing. If Washington is going to get their run game going like they’ve been talking about, they’re going to have to pay special attention to Hightower.

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