After taking on and taking down two straight AFC East rivals, the Patriots face an unfamiliar foe when the Washington Redskins come to town Sunday for the first time since 2007.
Interestingly, the stakes are similar this time around. Eight years ago, the Skins got thumped, 52-7, by an unstoppable 7-0 Patriots team. This year's Patriots are similarly 7-0, have the league's No. 1 offense, and are winning by an average of 16.6 points per game, best in the league. The Redskins are, well, still the Redskins.
The teams aren't completely unfamiliar — the Patriots spent three days practicing with the Redskins in training camp in 2014 — but Patriots fans probably don't get to watch many Redskins games, and may not have seen much of the team under coach Jay Gruden and quarterback Kirk Cousins, who took over for Robert Griffin III in training camp and has led the Skins to a 3-4 record.
The Redskins are coming off a bye week, and hope to get a few key players back from injury. For a better understanding of what they like to do on each side of the ball, we flipped on the coaches tape of their last two games — a 34-20 loss to the Jets and a 31-30 comeback win over the Bucs.
■ The Redskins have been a Jekyll-and-Hyde team, particularly with the running game. After averaging 139.5 rushing yards in their first four games, they have averaged just 45 in their last three, compiling their lowest three-game rushing total in the last 45 years, according to the Washington Post. The Redskins have talked for the last two weeks about wanting to reestablish the running game with their two-headed monster of Alfred Morris (302 yards, 3.3 average) and Matt Jones (249 yards, 3 touchdowns, 4.0 average).
The Skins should be boosted by the return of speedy wideout DeSean Jackson, who doesn't have a catch this year and has been out with a hamstring injury since Week 1. A healthy Jackson, paired with the physical Pierre Garcon, quick slot receiver Andre Roberts, and athletic tight end Jordan Reed, gives the Redskins a nice complement of weapons.
■ The Redskins utilize a zone blocking scheme, and their offense revolves a lot around the one-cut, stretch run play, similar to the Dolphins run game. The Patriots defense will have to make sure it has a player covering the back side of the run play at all times, because Morris and Jones can be dangerous with their cutbacks.
The Redskins call play-action passes off that stretch run play a lot. Against the Bucs, they ran a play-action rollout for Cousins at least six or eight times, with a deep receiver, short receiver, and back-side receiver providing three good options.
It was by far their most productive play, as Cousins made several nice throws on the run and hit a touchdown to Ryan Grant.
■ Cousins isn’t bad. He’s very good throwing on the run, and you have to account for his feet; he scored an 8-yard touchdown against the Bucs on a designed quarterback keeper.
He stands tall in the pocket, he's not afraid to let it rip down the middle of the field or the seams, he'll deliver the ball under heavy pressure, and he showed a lot of moxie against the Bucs, leading his team back from a 24-0 deficit and throwing the winning touchdown with 24 seconds left.
But there are a lot of "buts" with Cousins as well. He's very streaky with his accuracy, missing high or wide on some makeable throws.
He can be slow to process defenses, has a tendency to lock onto his primary receivers, and misses some big plays by delivering the ball too late.
And like Andrew Luck, Cousins sometimes tries too hard to be the hero instead of taking a sack or throwing the ball away, which leads to interceptions (eight in seven games).
■ So how should the Patriots defend the Redskins? Their primary focus should be stopping the running game and forcing them into third-and-long situations. Not only do the Redskins want to put Cousins in manageable positions with early positive runs, but that play-action rollout is effective only if the running game is going.
The Patriots also need to do a lot of zone blitzing, mixing up the coverages and disguising the pre-snap looks. Cousins definitely can be fooled into making bad throws and bad decisions, and the Patriots have the versatility in the front seven to give Cousins a different look each snap.
■ The Redskins occasionally play four-man fronts, but for the most part play a fairly traditional 3-4 defense, with both outside linebackers usually playing up on the line of scrimmage. The Redskins do a good job of disguising their rush — you know four of the five are probably going to rush the quarterback, but it can be difficult to identify the four — and they are very active pre-snap, constantly moving pieces around and liberally blitzing linebackers and safeties.
They play a lot of zone coverage, particularly when they blitz, but they can definitely match up in man coverage, and won't just keep each cornerback on one side of the field. But when the blitz doesn't get to the quarterback in time, they leave large chunks of the field wide open and are susceptible to big plays.
■ The defense has been banged up of late, particularly the secondary, where the Redskins were forced to sign Will Blackmon off the street and start him against the Bucs, and they even used Quinton Dunbar for a few snaps; he didn’t switch from wide receiver to cornerback until training camp.
But they might get both starting corners — Chris Culliver (knee) and DeAngelo Hall (toe) — back for this game, which will help Blackmon and Bashaud Breeland against the Patriots' main weapons.
Outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan, a team leader who has 3.5 sacks this year, might not play after breaking his hand against the Bucs and having surgery last week.
■ The Redskins have a stout defensive front of Chris Baker, Terrance “Pot Roast” Knighton, and Jason Hatcher, and didn’t allow 100 yards rushing in their first four games. But like the offense, the defense has been Jekyll-and-Hyde in the run game as well, allowing the Falcons, Jets, and Bucs to run all over them the last three games, to the tune of 196 yards per game. Yes, you read that right.
Inside linebackers Keenan Robinson and Perry Riley have been fairly awful in the run game, missing their assignments and missing tackles.
The pass rush hasn't been much better. The Redskins' 13 sacks this year are tied for 22d in the NFL. Starting outside linebacker Trent Murphy has four solo tackles and one sack in seven starts this year.
■ The secondary will play a lot of Cover 3, but got burned pretty badly (particularly Blackmon) on several deep balls from Jameis Winston to Mike Evans.
The Redskins have just three interceptions this year, tied for the fewest in the NFL.
■ Expect running backs Dion Lewis and LeGarrette Blount to be plenty active, as I expect the Patriots to keep feeding the ball to those two until the Redskins prove they can stop the run. The Patriots also have a significant advantage with Lewis and Rob Gronkowski against the Redskins linebackers, and both should have big games. The Redskins play a lot of “off” coverage, so expect Julian Edelman and Brandon LaFell to be active on slants and quick hitters as well.
■ The Redskins allowed a punt-return touchdown to Jarvis Landry in Week 1, but Rashad Ross does have a 101-yard kickoff-return touchdown this year. And expect the Patriots to be prepared for the surprise onside kick, which the Redskins pulled off successfully in the third quarter against the Bucs.