GAME 2: RAMS PREVIEW

St. Louis Rams running back Steven Jackson. Photo © Eric Espada/HailMagazine.com

By Shaahin Bahmani
@shaahin_hailmag
shaahin@hailmagazine.com

Back in early-March, the Washington Redskins surprised the NFL world with the announcement that there was an agreement in place with the St. Louis Rams for the Redskins to acquire the #2 overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft. The trade (a swap of 1st round picks, the Redskins’ 2012 2nd round pick, and both 2013 & 2014’s 1st round picks) would lay the path for the Redskins to solve their quarterback conundrum and ultimately draft Robert Griffin III. While the Rams landed what seems to be the largest “package” of picks for their 2nd overall pick, the Redskins can look back on that day and say that it was all worth it.

The Washington Redskins will look to follow up their shocking win over the Saints with a week 2 visit to St. Louis to take on the Rams. Robert Griffin III had an historic performance in the Redskins’ 40-32 upset victory over the Saints. His 139.9 QB Rating was the highest ever posted in the NFL by a rookie. Griffin III was also the first player in NFL history to compile 300-plus passing yards, two or more passing touchdowns and no interceptions in an NFL debut.

Week 1 was not as kind to the Rams, as they suffered a dramatic loss on the road at Detroit. Their defense had dominated the Lions during the 1st half, intercepting Lions’ quarterback Matthew Stafford three times, including one that was returned 31-yards for a touchdown by Cortland Finnegan. In the 2nd half, the teams exchanged scores but the Rams found themselves holding on to a slim 3-point lead with just under 2-minutes remaining in the game. However, the Rams were not able to hold on as Stafford connected with running back Kevin Jones for a 5-yard touchdown pass with only 10 seconds remaining. The Lions would go on to win 27-23 and handed the Rams a loss in week 1.

Week 1’s effort by the Rams is the perfect example of the toughness and fight new head coach Jeff Fisher hopes to instill in his young team. With 10 new draft picks, including a league-high 6 of the 1st 96 selections, the Rams have quickly reshaped their roster. Of the 53 players to make the Rams’ roster, 33 are new compared to the 2011 roster.

The Rams have one of the NFL’s most productive running backs, Steven Jackson. Jackson, who is coming off his 7th straight 1000+ yard season, sets the pace for the Rams offense. When he gets going, the rest of the offense seems to play better. This will go a long way for 3rd-year quarterback, Sam Bradford as he tries to erase last year’s 17-10 loss versus the Redskins from his mind. In last season’s week 4 match-up, the Redskins’ defense intercepted Bradford twice, sacked him seven times and forced pressure on him throughout the game. After seeing last week’s performance against the Saints, Bradford is well aware of the ferocious defense he will be facing this Sunday.

Here is a look at the match-ups that will determine the outcome of Sunday’s game:

Robert Griffin III and the passing game vs. the Rams’ defense
The element of surprise is something that the Redskins obviously took advantage of against the Saints. The Saints’ defense had no idea what was coming at them on the next play. It will be interesting to see what changes in the offensive game plan this Sunday. Now that there is “tape” on Griffin III, teams will not be able to better prepare on how to stop the Redskins offense. This could be both a positive and a negative for defensive coordinators. While there is now tape, there are also the distractions of all that Griffin III is capable of.

Game plans change from week to week. Mike and Kyle Shanahan will be able to keep teams off balance with different formations and unique personnel packages. This week will be a test against an improved and underrated Rams’ defense. They spent a lot of money to bring in free agent cornerback Cortland Finnegan and also used their 2nd draft pick on cornerback, Janoris Jenkins. With an improved secondary, the Rams intercepted Pro Bowl quarterback, Matthew Stafford, three times last week. The Rams have an aggressive defense. This could work in their favor like last week, or against them when facing a dynamic quarterback like Griffin III.

Steven Jackson vs. the Redskins’ front-7
Steven Jackson is looking for his eighth-consecutive 1000-yard rushing season this year. He is one of the NFL’s most versatile and productive running backs. Jackson can be viewed as the motor of the Rams’ offense. His rushing ability forces defenses to bring extra men in “the box” and ultimately, opens up things for Sam Bradford and the passing game. If the Redskins defense can slow him down, they should be able to put pressure on Bradford.

Redskins’ offensive line vs. the Ram’s front-7
The Redskins’ offensive line played extremely well in week 1. A duplicate performance will go a long way in order for the Redskins to start the season 2-0. The Rams have a formidable pass rush with defensive ends Chris Long and last year’s 1st round pick, Robert Quinn. Couple this with middle-linebacker, James Laurinaitis, and the Rams’ front-7 can put pressure on the opposing team’s quarterback.

Last week against the Lions, the Rams only sacked Matthew Stafford one time, but did force him into three 1st-half interceptions. Their offseason commitment to improving the secondary seems to have paid off with Cortland Finnegan (10 tackles, 1 interception returned for a touchdown) and rookie Janoris Jenkins (6 tackles, 1 interception).

The Rams also gave up only 83-yards rushing to the Lions. The Redskins know that they need to run the ball successfully in order to be productive. It will alleviate some of the pressure on the passing game. Opening up running lanes for the backs and protecting Robert Griffin III be keys for Sunday’s game plan.

Prediction: After week 1’s shocking win over the Saints, the Redskins now have a large majority of the “experts” selecting them to win in week 2 against the Rams. The league and the national media have been abuzz this week over Griffin and the Redskins, quickly changing the team’s outlook for the season. But the Redskins pay no attention to that, instead, they go game-by-game and focus on the week’s new opponent. Here is how the Redskins can win this Sunday.

1)  The Redskins MUST coral Steven Jackson: Steven Jackson is a brute force in the running game with the skills to run by you or through you. As Jackson goes, so does the Rams offense. He only averaged 2.5 yards per carry on 21 rushes for 53 yards, which led to the Rams’ having only 250 yards of total offense. Tackling Jackson one-on-one is difficult, so when a defender makes contact, the rest of the defense needs to join in and gang-tackle Jackson. Hitting him in the backfield and slowing him down will be a great place to start. Forcing the Rams into must-pass situations, will allow the Redskins defense to “pin their ears back” and get after Bradford. This leads me too…

2)  Pressure Sam Bradford: The Rams placed starting Center Scott Wells on IR this week after breaking a bone in his left foot against the Lions. Starting Left Tackle, Roger Saffold was taken off on a stretcher during the Lions’ game with a neck injury, and while he returned to practice on Thursday, the likelihood of him playing on Sunday is doubtful. Also, starting Left Guard, Rokevious Watkins has spent the week on crutches, and is also doubtful to play this Sunday. How does this impact Sunday’s game? Well, last season, the Redskins defense was able to harass Sam Bradford, sacked him seven times and forced him into two interceptions. This Sunday should be no different for the Redskins defense as they play to take the next step and become one of the NFL’s elite defenses. This Sunday against the Rams will provide the perfect opportunity for them to do so and they must get after Bradford for the 2nd straight season.

3)  Protect Robert Griffin III: The Redskins’ offensive line gave up only two sacks against the Saints, one of which came when Griffin III tripped and fell to the ground and a defender jumped on top of him. The Rams have a very underrated defense and will look to create pressure with defensive ends Chris Long and Robert Quinn and also stud middle linebacker, James Laurinaitis. The secondary has been upgraded with Finnegan and Jenkins. The improved secondary will allow the Rams defense to dial up some pressure packages to try and get Griffin III off of his game.

4)  The Surprise Factor: The Redskins seemed to have the Saints’ defense on their heels for the entire game in week 1. Whether this was an anomaly or some foreshadowing, the “element of surprise” will be a weapon for the Redskins all season. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan called a brilliant game and will have an opportunity this Sunday to prove that the victory over the Saints was no fluke. Last week, we saw a shotgun spread-look that the Redskins were in the majority of the game. There was some pistol formations, 3 tight-end looks, designed-quarterback runs, speed options; you name it, they ran it. Mike and Kyle Shanahan need to continue to take advantage of this surprise factor for as long as possible.

5)  Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers: The Redskins won the turnover margin 3-0 in last week’s win against the Saints. The Rams also won their turnover margin against the Lions 3-0, but they lost. Last week, was only the 3rd time the Redskins have not committed a turnover in a game under coach Shanahan. In fact, Sunday against the Saints, was the 1st time they had zero turnovers in 31 games. With a rookie quarterback and a border-line elite defense, limiting turnovers will be a season-long goal for the Redskins.

6)  Minimize penalties: Last week against the Saints, the Redskins committed 12 penalties for 127 yards. While this would normally make it extremely difficult for teams to win, there was never that single penalty that overturned a touchdown, a turnover, or another big play. I’m sure the coaching staff has made it a focus to eliminate these penalties, because teams cannot win week after week AND commit double-digit penalties.

7)  Special Teams: This week, the Redskins placed long snapper Nick Sundberg on the new conditional Injured Reserve. Sundburg broke his arm in the 1st half of last week’s game, and although he finished the game, he will not be able to play for at least the next six weeks. To replace him, the team signed former Indianapolis Colt, Justin Snow. Not only will the Redskins have a new long snapper, but they must resolve their blocking assignment issues. They cannot afford to give up another punt-block, even more-so if it goes for a touchdown. Billy Cundiff proved his worth as he went 4-4 on his field goals against the Saints, but he must continue to do so. Throughout the season, points will be at a premium and Cundiff will need to make sure that points are never “left on the field.”