4 Downs: Eagles @ Redskins

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Updated: September 9, 2013
Redskins v. Eagles

This inaugurates a new article here at DC Pro Sports Report, 4 Downs. I’ll be doing it before each game to examine the four issues that are most important to the Redskins. You’ll get only unvarnished truth and opinion here, no punting allowed. Don’t forget to check out the Random Stat of the Week at the bottom!

First Down RefFIRST DOWN: RETURN OF RG3

You may have heard of this RG3 guy — Robert Griffin III. He’s the starting quarterback of the Washington Redskins. Griffin has been running fast and cutting hard in practice so apparently the speed and athleticism are back to 100 percent. The question is whether or not Griffin’s confidence in his knee is back to 100 percent. We won’t know that until we see him run on it and probably take a few hits, as well. The real danger for the rest of the league is not so much Griffin’s knee, but his mind. Always a keen student and a quick learner, Griffin has spent the offseason immersed in film study and is likely to emerge as one of the smarter quarterbacks in the NFL.

Griffin has said his return to the field will be emotional for him and the greatest danger for the Redskins is that the young signal-caller will be too pumped up to start the game and do something uncharacteristically dumb, like forcing a pass into double coverage, in his rush to become a big playmaker again.

Meanwhile, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan has indicated he has no intention of abandoning the read-option offense, which the Shanahans believe [correctly, in my view] protects the quarterback more than it puts him in harm’s way.

Griffin had enormous success against the Eagles last year, leading the Redskins to a season sweep with victories of 31-6 in November and 27-20 in December. In the first game Griffin had a perfect 158.3 passer rating after completing 14 of 15 passes for 200 yards and 4 TD passes. Griffin also led the team with 84 yards rushing in that game, which began Washington’s exciting march to the division championship. In the December game, which was Griffin’s first after his knee injury against Baltimore, RG3 had a passer rating of 102.4, but ran only when absolutely necessary, picking up four yards on two carries. He proved in that game, though, that he could win a game with his arm alone, in case anyone had any doubts.

Griffin will have one more advantage: a healthy offense — at least, so far. Griffin had a healthy offense for only the first eight plays from scrimmage last year. Going into tonight’s game, Griffin has a healthy Pierre Garcon, a healthy Fred Davis and a healthy Roy Helu. These are all things he could have used last year, but didn’t have.

Second-DownSECOND DOWN: CHIP KELLY’S OREGON OFFENSE

The Eagles have the advantage of knowing what offense they will run on Monday night. The Redskins have to guess, based on what they saw new Eagles coach Chip Kelly do at the University of Oregon. The Redskins have been using backup QB Pat White to simulate Eagles QB Michael Vick in practice, but Kelly loved to run the ball at Oregon and he has quality running backs in Lesean McCoy, Bryce Brown and Chris Polk. Expect Kelly to run the ball from unusual formations and do whatever necessary to get McCoy into space so he can make plays with his rare quickness.

The Eagles have speed elsewhere on offense, notably WR Desean Jackson, but they are missing WR Jeremy Maclin, who had a big game against the Redskins last December. That helps the Redskins because Washington is likely to start two rookies in their secondary today — FS Bacarri Rambo and CB David Amerson. [Expect Amerson to start outside and Josh Wilson to move inside to cover the slot receiver because the Eagles will be playing a lot of 3-WR sets.]

Of course, when people talk about the Chip Kelly offense, they’re talking first about the tempo. The Oregon Ducks ran plays about six seconds faster, on average, than the fastest NFL team, the New England Patriots. Expect the Eagles to try to hurry their offense up, hoping to wear down the Redskins defense and get defenders out of position because they’re not ready to line up properly. The Redskins have two weapons in this part of the matchup: ILB London Fletcher and their own offense. Fletcher, one of the smartest and most experienced defensive players in the NFL, will be responsible for diagnosing the Eagles offense and making snap decisions based on what he sees. In addition, the Redskins defense practices against the Redskins offense, which means they see lots of exotic backfield looks every day. Kelly will have to whip up some real magic for the Redskins defense to find themselves up against something they can’t understand.

Third DownTHIRD DOWN: REDSKINS PASS DEFENSE

Washington had the 30th-ranked pass defense in 2012 and only one team gave up more touchdown passes. Fixing that mess was a top priority for the Redskins this offseason and the team drafted three defensive backs to help out. Two of those backs will be starting in week one [see above] and the third is gone for the season with a Lisfranc injury. However, the biggest boost to the Redskins pass defense is the return of OLB Brian Orakpo, who is the team’s fastest and most-feared pass-rusher.  Orakpo has not been an elite pass-rusher in his career so far, but he has a tremendous impact on his teammates, who benefit greatly from the attention offenses pay to Orakpo. The Redskins rarely got any pressure from four-man rushes last season because Orakpo wasn’t around to draw a double team. In 2011, players like DE Stephen Bowen and DE Adam Carriker got plenty of sacks thanks to Orakpo’s presence on the field. Carriker is gone again, but the rest of the defense is there and defensive coordinator Jim Haslett should be able to get more pressure with four and five-man rushes, allowing him to drop more guys into coverage.

Bowen and Orakpo work well together and Bowen should see his sack numbers rise as he gets more one-on-one blocking. Expect OLB Ryan Kerrigan to also benefit from the return of Orakpo, as Kerrigan will no longer be the focal point of offensive concern when it comes to the pass rush. As Kerrigan gets fewer double teams, he’ll get to the QB more often. In addition, Kerrigan’s good instincts and tireless motor make him excellent at grabbing the passer after someone else collapses the pocket. Orakpo will help enormously there. Expect Haslett to get very creative with his outside linebackers, lining Orakpo and Kerrigan up all over the field and even moving them inside on obvious passing downs so he can get Darryl Tapp and rookie Brandon Jenkins on the field to create even more pass-rushing havoc.

A healthy SS Brandon Meriweather would help a lot, too. Meriweather has been injured and is listed as questionable for the Eagles game. Meriweather played only slightly more than one half of football last season, that coming against the Eagles in November. In that game, Meriweather had eight tackles, including two for loss, and intercepted a pass. His presence also allowed the Redskins to blitz their cornerbacks, something Haslett likes to do to keep quarterbacks off balance.

4th-downFOURTH DOWN: RUNNING THE FOOTBALL

The Eagles couldn’t run the ball against Washington last year, but this will be a different offense. For starters, LT Jason Peters, one  of the best in game, is back after missing last season. At right tackle is Lane Johnson, the team’s promising and impressive first round pick earlier this year. The offensive line should be much better and Kelly, unlike former coach Andy Reid, actually likes running the ball. Expect the Eagles to try to establish the run early and often. If the Eagles are able to control the game on the ground, the Redskins will be forced to commit extra defenders to the run, allowing Philly’s speedy receivers to get one-on-one coverage against a young and suspect Redskins secondary.

The Redskins want to run the ball this week and every week. Philly actually did a good job against RB Alfred Morris last season, but this is a different Eagles defense that has moved to a 3-4 alignment. The Eagles had major problems handling the run in preseason, giving up over five yards per carry. Eagles NT Isaac Sopoaga has not looked good in preseason and a 3-4 defense without a stout nose tackle is in trouble against the run. The Redskins could soften up feared pass-rusher Trent Cole, who has moved from DE to ROLB, by running at him frequently, trying to wear him down and force him to think more about the run than getting to RG3.

The Redskins return the same offensive line as last year, which should help with continuity. Washington’s wideouts are good blockers and the return of a healthy Roy Helu should allow the Redskins to pressure the Eagles even when Morris is out of the game. Helu is not the patient and punishing runner Morris is, but Helu’s superior speed and explosion make him a threat to break off a big run at any time.

RANDOM STAT OF THE WEEK

Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan is 15-4 in season openers and with one more win he will match former Dallas coach Tom Landry for most season-opening wins by a coach since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger.