The Washington Redskins will open their 2012 NFL season on Sunday against the New Orleans Saints in one of the most difficult places to play in all of sports. Drew Brees and Company are waiting to welcome Robert Griffin III to the NFL and one thing is for certain, the Saints’ fans in the Louisiana Super Dome will be amped up and ready to go. It is no secret that the noise will be deafening. The Redskins coaching staff knows this and they have prepared the team for what’s in store. This week the team has been practicing inside the newly built indoor facility and practiced with extremely loud noise in an effort to simulate what they will hear on Sunday.
Due to the “Bounty Gate” suspensions, the Saints will be without head coach Sean Payton and offensive coordinator Joe Vitt. Interim head coach Aaron Kromer (the team’s offensive line coach) will try to lead the Saints to an opening day victory. His challenge? Robert Griffin III and the new-look Washington Redskins. The Redskins have spent the entire offseason revamping their offense with a new starting quarterback, a deeper, more explosive wide receiver group, zone-scheme running backs and an offensive line that looks to continue their cohesion as a unit.
The task of taking on the Saints in New Orleans is not an easy one, but it is something head coach Mike Shanahan and the rest of the team have been preparing for since the regular season schedule came out in mid-April. Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett is assigned the duty of slowing down Drew Brees and the Saints’ high-octane offense. They have weapons at their disposal, with 6’7” tight end Jimmy Graham, 6’5” wide receiver Marques Colston, a stable of running backs that includes the all-purpose Darren Sproles, and an offensive line that includes 3 Pro Bowl starters.
Here is a look at the match-ups that will determine the outcome of Sunday’s game:
Drew Brees and the Saints’ passing game vs. the Redskins’ defense
2011 was a banner year for Saints’ quarterback Drew Brees. He broke Dan Marino’s 27-year old record for most single-season passing yards with 5,476 yards, single-season record for highest completion percentage (71.2%), most 300+ yard passing games (13), and most completions in a season (468). If there’s one thing for certain, it is that the New Orleans Saints offensive is potent and can score points on any defense.
While daunting, the Saints offensive players are not immortal, they can be stopped, or at least, slowed down enough to win. The Redskins’ defense, particularly the front-7, must contain the running and short-passing games of the Saints. They have to force the Saints into obvious passing down and distances and be able to put pressure on Brees. He is one of the best quarterbacks in the league at getting the ball out of his hands before the pressure gets to him. The best way for the Redskins’ defense can put pressure on him will be up the middle with their 3 down-linemen. Barry Cofield, Stephen Bowen, Adam Carriker, and reserve Jarvis Jenkins have to win the battle in the trenches in order to get Brees out of his comfort zone. Brian Orakpo, Ryan Kerrigan, and reserves Rob Jackson and Chris Wilson will have to force pressure onto Brees from the outside linebacker positions. Getting 3+ combined sacks out of this unit will be a huge plus.
Another important facet will be how the Redskins’ secondary will do in this matchup. They will be without both projected starters at safety; Tanard Jackson was suspended by the league for violating the substance abuse policy and Brandon Merriweather is out 2-4 weeks in a mild knee sprain. Replacing them will be free agent acquisition Madieu Williams and 2nd year man Dejon Gomes. Reed Doughty will also figure to get some playing time. On Thursday, D-coordinator Jim Haslett gave a vote of confidence to the guys that will be in uniform on Sunday, “We’re not concerned. We have good players on the back end. The guys that are going to play for Brandon will fill in and do a good job. Last year they did a nice job for us and they are more experienced.”
Darren Sproles and Jimmy Graham vs. the Redskins’ linebackers
Sproles is arguably one of the most dynamic offensive players in the entire league. Last year, he combined for over 1300 yards from scrimmage and 9 touchdowns, and had a total of 86 receptions, which ranked 7th in all the NFL. He has the ability to turn a small gain into a huge play and the speed to score from any distance on the field. Whether it’s London Fletcher spying or Orakpo and Kerrigan in the flats, the Redskins linebackers have to limit Sproles ability to make big plays.
Adding to the linebackers concern is 6’7” Pro Bowler Jimmy Graham. Graham burst onto the scene in 2011 with 99 receptions (3rd in league), 1310 yards and 11 touchdowns. His huge frame and deceptive speed poses an extremely difficult task for any defense. Fletcher and Perry Riley will have their hands full with Graham, especially in the redzone. They must find a way to be “in his hip pocket” and eliminate the separation Graham can easily create.
Robert Griffin III and the offense vs. the Saints’ defense
If there is one thing Coach Shanahan did NOT do this preseason, it was putting his new toy on full display. Griffin ranked 75th of all NFL quarterbacks this preseason with only 31 pass attempts. While running a vanilla offense with little-to-no game planning, Griffin did display his ability to read defenses, go through progressions and avoid pressure within the pocket.
Since there is no real “tape” on Griffin in the NFL, Shanahan can go with a “shock and awe” approach on Sunday. We know that the Redskins will run their zone running scheme with stretch runs to the outside, zone reads by the backs, play-action bootlegs, and even some naked bootlegs. But what else will Griffin be doing? His ability to throw the ball down the fields with ease and accuracy opens up a dimension in the offense that the Redskins have not had in a long time. Add to that Olympic-caliber speed and there’s really no telling what Mike and Kyle Shanahan have installed for this week’s game plan.
Saints’ coaches have already admitted to using a spy during portions of the game. Griffin’s speed has already altered the opposing team’s game plan. By using one guy on the defense to spy Griffin, there should be a lot more space for guys like Fred Davis, Pierre Garcon, Santana Moss, Joshua Morgan and Leonard Hankerson to make plays. As previously mentioned, the Saints will be without defensive end Will Smith (2nd on the team in sacks in 2011). Their ability to put pressure on Griffin will depend solely on whether or not the Redskins’ offensive line can win that match-up. One other key factor will be the ability of the Redskins’ young running backs to perform in pass protection.
Prediction: There are not many people out there that are predicting the Redskins to go to a hostile environment in New Orleans and beat them (actually I have yet to see a single one). But one thing that I’ve learned about the NFL is that it truly is “any given Sunday.” Any team can win any game they play. The NFL is about match-ups and how coaches adjust and exploit those match-ups. With that being said, my prediction for week 1 (and for all games) will be one that talks about how the Redskins can win.
1. Minimize impactful penalties: The Redskins cannot afford to have costly penalties that overturn or reverse big plays. For any visiting team to the Superdome, momentum is vital and the Redskins will need to capitalize off all their big plays. With the replacement referees in place for week 1, the Redskins cannot afford to have a penalty overturning a sack-fumble, an interception, a kick/punt return or a big play on offense.
2. Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers: The Redskins must strive for ZERO turnovers and force the Saints into a few turnovers. The perfect equation for an “upset” win in a hostile environment. Yes, I know Robert Griffin III is making is professional debut in one of the loudest stadiums in all of sports, but they must do everything possible to protect the football. Incompletions are better than interceptions, punts are better than turnovers. If the offense can limit their turnovers, and the defense can force the Saints’ offense into a couple/few turnovers, then an upset could begin to brew in the “Big Easy.” In 3 of their 4 losses last season (@ TB, @ STL, @ SF), the Saints had a total of 11 turnovers. While their offense is as explosive as any other in the league, the Saints do tend to turn the ball over. The Redskins defense must force the issue and take advantage of every single opportunity they get.
3. The Redskins MUST run the ball effectively: This will not only control the time of possession, but putting the offense in 2nd and 5, 2nd and 6, 3rd and shorts will help alleviate some of the pressure on the offense. In those same 3 losses that I previously mentioned, the Saints gave up 183 yards against the Rams, 117 against the Bucs, and 143 against the 49ers. The Saints will be without their defensive Captain, Jonathan Vilma, and the team’s best defensive lineman, Will Smith. It is imperative for the Redskins’ offensive line to open up running lines for the stable of running backs they have.
4. Score Points: I know what you’re thinking, “of course they have to score points, duh!” What I’m specifically referring to is the ability for the offense to take advantage of opportunities they are on the Saints’ side of the 50-yard line. When they get inside the 40-yard line, they must come away with at least three; when they get into the redzone, they need to score touchdowns. However, a barrage of field goals will not go a long way in pulling off the upset, the Redskins must score touchdowns and not squander any opportunity to score.
5. Coaching: The fact that the New Orleans Saints will be without head coach Sean Payton, and even offensive coordinator Joe Vitt, CANNOT be discounted. No matter how experienced the team is and how much of a leader Drew Brees is, coaches are needed for a reason and this will be the perfect opportunity for the Redskins’ coaching staff to show it. Mike and Kyle Shanahan must put Griffin III in situations that he can succeed, they have to “call the perfect game” in regards to the play-calling. Jim Haslett must devise a game plan that will be able to prevent big plays by the Saints offense all while staying true to the attacking philosophy of his 3-4 defense. Haslett would also benefit from leaning on new defensive backs coach Raheem Morris, who last season was the head coach of the Tampa Buccaneers. Last season, in two games against the Saints, Tampa Bay went toe-to-toe with the Saints splitting the two match-ups a game apiece. They managed Brees to only 3 touchdowns combined for the two games and forced him to throw a total of 4 interceptions. Morris’ expertise will be counted on greatly this Sunday.
6. Special Teams: It is said that in order to win a football game you must win 2 of the 3 “phases” of football. One area that I think the Redskins will have an advantage in all season will be on Special Teams. Newly acquired kicker Billy Cundiff must deliver on his opportunities when kicking field goals. The Redskins cannot afford to have any drives end in a missed field goal and in essence, a missed opportunity to put points on the scoreboard. Cundiff must also display his powerful leg with touchbacks, on every kickoff. Do NOT give Darren Sproles an opportunity to give the Saints ANY momentum in the return game. The same goes for punter Sav Rocca. He must use his powerful leg to try to pin the Saints deep into their own territory. Rocca must do this all while being cognizant of Sproles, who will look to give the high octane Saints’ offense good field position every time he touches the ball. Also, Brandon Banks needs to make his presence felt on this game. Providing the Redskins’ offense with good field position will be a huge bonus. Banks has big play ability and, like Sproles, is capable of scoring every time he touches the ball. A couple of big returns and possibly a touchdown would go a LONG way in helping the Redskins pull of this upset.