There have been few teams more difficult to gauge than the Washington Redskins. They currently have a record of 4-3-1, but, like the Vikings’ 5-3 record, it’s not the record itself that matters, it’s how they got there that is important.
Washington started the season 0-2, losing at home to Pittsburgh and Dallas, but then rattled off four straight wins, including road wins against the Giants and Ravens and a critical home win against Philadelphia.
With their season appearing to be on track, the Redskins have lost on the road to Detroit and tied with Cincinnati to drop their record to 4-3-1. Which team will the Vikings see Sunday? Nobody knows, which is part of the mystery surrounding the 2016 Redskins.
Offensively, the Redskins have about as much talent at their disposal as just about any team in the league. When head coach Jay Gruden named Kirk Cousins the starting quarterback over Robert Griffin III, he had his share of skeptics. But he knew Cousins could run his offense better than RG3, which wasn’t necessarily the case with former head coach Mike Shanahan.
The risk paid off and Cousins led the Redskins to the NFC East title last year. Given the franchise tag and a year to prove he could be a long-term answer at quarterback, Cousins has been as streaky as the Redskins’ win-loss record and there is a connection. He is among the league leaders in passing – on pace to the more than 600 passes, completing 400 of them and almost 5,000 yards. But he has had at least one interception in six of eight games and fumbled six times when pressured. The Vikings’ front four is going to have to dominate the Redskins because, when protected, Cousins can be dangerous.
The Redskins offense has good balance and they get production from many different sources. The running game has been a work in progress, but has been nothing but successful. Matt Jones has been the primary back – at least to start the season, but when he suffered a knee injury in Week 8 against Detroit, he was replaced in a significant way. Against the Lions, third-down back Chris Thompson replaced Jones and ran 12 times for 73 yards. Last week, rookie Rob Kelly took the featured back spot and rushed 21 times for 87 yards and a touchdown. Head coach Jay Gruden announced that Kelly will be the starter and, although he is healthy, there is the potential that Matt Jones will be a healthy scratch this week. All three of the primary running backs have averaged 4.6 yards a carry or better and have been key in keeping the Washington offense balanced.
When it comes to passing, few quarterbacks have more weapons than Cousins. Tight end Jordan Reed has been the team’s leading receiver, catching 42 passes for 415 yards and three touchdowns, despite missing two games due to injury. With Niles Paul lost for the season, former All-Pro Vernon Davis has made a much bigger impact. In his last two games, he has been targeted 11 times, catching all 11 of them for 172 yards. The tight end production is impressive, but the wide receivers are equally dangerous. Veterans Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson have established careers that they brought with them to Washington and nothing has changed since arriving to the Redskins. The biggest surprise has been second-year man Jamison Crowder. He is second in receptions (40) and leads the team in receiving yards (498) and touchdowns (4). His most productive weeks have been the last two – catching 16 passes for 215 yards and a touchdown. With Jackson likely to miss the game and Captain Munnerlyn a question mark with knee and ankle injuries, Crowder will likely be leaned on heavily to carry a lot of the receiving load.
What will be the critical matchups will be in the trenches? The Redskins have one of the youngest offensive lines in the league. Center Spencer Long and right tackle Morgan Moses are both third-year players drafted in the third round and right tackle Brandon Scherff was Washington’s first-round pick in 2015.
But their best offensive lineman isn’t with the team. Left tackle Trent Williams was suspended four games and 31-year old second-year pro Ty Nshekhe is starting in his place. If there was ever a game where Everson Griffen could change the outcome, it is this one.
The Redskins defense has been its undoing in recent years, despite being dotted with exceptional talent. The biggest problem has been stopping the run. The Redskins are allowing almost five yards a carry and they are on pace to allow 2,000 rushing yards and 24 touchdowns. While the Vikings have been one of the worst rushing teams in the league all season, there may be an opportunity to make some noise on the ground, which would open up the entire offense.
There is talent at all three levels of the Redskins defense, but consistency has been a problem. Up front, the 3-4 defense of the Redskins has included a lot of imports, including nose tackle Ziggy Hood and defensive ends Ricky Jean-Francois, Chris Baker and Cullen Jenkins. They haven’t consistently stood tall and stopped the run, which has created numerous problems for the defense.
But the linebackers have been terrorizing quarterbacks all season. Washington has 22 sacks – 13 of them coming from Ryan Kerrigan (seven) and Trent Murphy (six). The linebackers are active but also inconsistent in allowing splash plays in their zone. They have a lot of positives going for them, but the big plays they give up are troubling and can be exploited.
Washington has consistently been known for making big free agent signings and this offseason was no different. They signed the plum of the free agent market in cornerback Josh Norman, but the rest of the secondary has its question marks.
Third-year man Breshaud Breeland has been abused much of the season, Greg Toler has struggled, and safeties Will Blackmon and Donte Whitner are past their prime. The arrival of Norman has forced some teams to avoid throwing his way, but that is a double-edged sword in that it has exposed the deficiencies of the other players in the secondary.
The Redskins are a team that, like the Vikings, can look like world-beaters one week and marginal the next. Which one will the Vikings see Sunday? The hard part of that question is not only don’t the Vikings know. The Redskins may not know either.