Photo © Brian Murphy/

Two weeks into this young NFL season, the Washington Redskins have experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. After shocking the entire NFL by going into New Orleans and beating the Saints in week 1, the Redskins went to St. Louis and wasted a golden opportunity to begin the season with a 2-0 record. After leading the Rams for much of the game, the Redskins ultimately relinquished their lead and allowed a more physical Rams team to pull out a 31-28 victory. The game was very physical and at times, was chippy back-and-forth between the two teams. There was a lot of hard-hitting by both teams and plenty of after-the-whistle activity. The Rams’ strategy was evident throughout the game, be more physical and try to intimidate the Redskins. Their plan worked. Overcoming a 21-6 early deficit, the Rams gained over 450 yards of total offense and took advantage of 11 Redskins’ penalties (none more costly than Joshua Morgan’s unsportsmanlike penalty at the end of the game.

The Redskins must quickly turn the page on week 2 as the Cincinnati Bengals head to FedEx field this Sunday. Fresh off a victory over the Cleveland Browns, the Bengals are coming in on a high note. They scored 34 points and racked up over 400 yards of offense in the win. The Bengals were a surprise playoff team in 2011, and came in this year with even higher aspirations. Led by Redskins’ former defensive coordinator, Marvin Lewis, the Bengals are hoping to build off 2011’s playoff campaign and push deeper into the playoffs this season.

Their defense was ranked 7th in overall defense last season, but this year has been quite the contrary. So far in two games, the Bengals have given up 434.5 yards per game and a league’s worst 7.2 yards per play! Good thing for the Bengals, their offense can be explosive. With 3 young Pro Bowlers, (quarterback Andy Dalton, wide receiver A.J. Green and tight end Jermaine Gresham) the Bengals’ offense are capable of moving the football on any defense. Add to Pro Bowl nucleus, former New England Patriots’ running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis and wide receivers Brandon Tate, Andrew Hawkins, and Armon Binns, and the Redskins’ defense could have their hands full this Sunday.

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

The Bengals’ offense vs. the Redskins’ secondary

The Bengals are capable of explosive plays and have shown the ability to move the ball against any team. Quarterback Andy Dalton has plenty of weapons at his disposal and has the ability to take advantage of match-ups that favor the Bengals. This Sunday, the Redskins defense must execute a game plan that will limit the Bengals’ big play ability.

After being scorched by Sam Bradford, Danny Amendola and the Rams last week, Redskins’ defensive coordinator Jim Haslett knows that his defense will be under a lot of scrutiny if history repeats itself this Sunday. In week 1, the Redskins were able to limit big plays from the Saints by playing aggressive man-to-man coverage. But in week 2, the strategy against the Rams was different. Instead, the secondary sat back in a zone defense and allowed the Rams’ smaller, faster wide receivers to run freely through the zone and to produce big plays after the catch. In order for the Redskins to win on Sunday, this must change. They cannot afford to fall behind early nor see a lead of their own vanish with a big play. There will be a lot of pressure on the defense in general this Sunday, but even more so, on the secondary.

Redskins’ pass rush vs. Bengals’ offensive line

Last week, the Redskins’ defensive lost two of their key defensive-contributors for the entire season. Brian Orakpo tore his pectoral muscle (different area from last year’s injury) and Adam Carriker suffered a torn tendon in his quad. There is no question that their leadership and production will be extremely difficult to replace, but they will try to with a handful of guys. Opportunities to step in and produce have opened up for reserve linebackers Rob Jackson and Chris Wilson, and defensive linemen Jarvis Jenkins and Chris Baker. They will see their playing time increase dramatically and they must take advantage of it.

Every player on the defense will need to elevate their game in an attempt to make up for the lost production. The Bengals’ offensive line could make that attempt a little easier. In two games, Bengals’ opponents have sacked Andy Dalton 10 times, including 6 last week by the Browns. To win this game, the Redskins defense must generate enough pressure to make Dalton uncomfortable and get him moving around/outside the pocket, where he is less effective. Forcing a couple of turnovers, as they have all season, will go a long way for the Redskins who would love to put last week’s embarrassing loss behind them.

Redskins’ offensive vs. the Bengals’ defense

Believe it or not, the Redskins’ offensive is ranked 4th overall and 2nd in scoring in the NFL. Take a second, read that line again because it’s true. The affect Robert Griffin III has had on the Redskins’ offense is blatantly obvious. His ability to be a running threat, avoid pressure and sacks, and extend plays has kept opposing defense off-balance during this young season.
The Bengals defense is ranked 30th in the NFL and has given up an average of 35 points per game. Last week against the Browns, the Bengals allowed rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden to go 26-37 for 322-yards and 2-touchdowns. The Bengals’ secondary is already without 1st round pick, Dre Kirkpatrick, but could also be without stand-out cornerback Leon Hall (sore calf), who was limited in practice on Wednesday and missed practice Thursday and Friday.

The Redskins will need to take advantage of the Bengals’ porous defense and continue making the big plays they have all season. With Pierre Garcon likely to miss his 2nd straight game, look for Leonard Hankerson to play a much bigger role and also for a motivated Joshua Morgan to get some targets. Also, it would be nice to see Fred Davis get involved in the offense. The Bengals give up 9.4 yards per pass attempt. This is an area where Griffin III and the offense should look to take advantage.

Prediction: Week 2’s loss to the Rams was a huge disappointment for the Redskins. A win this Sunday against the Bengals will all but erase what happened in St. Louis. Here is how the Redskins can win this Sunday.

• 3rd down defense: This is one of the most underrated stats in all of football. Third-down conversions have a vast influence on which team is able to win the battle for time of possession and ultimately, which team is able to control the game. In week 1, the Redskins defense held the Saints to an uncharacteristic 2-11 on 3rd-down. However, in week 2, the Rams were 7-12 on 3rd downs. In order for the Redskins to win on Sunday, the defense needs to “get off the field” and give Griffin III and the offense as many chances to score as possible. This does not necessarily mean turnovers, but it does mean forcing punts. Through 2 weeks, the Redskins’ offense has proven that they can score. Increased opportunities will be welcomed with open arms.

• Eliminate the penalties: The Redskins currently lead the NFL in total penalties with 23. This is NOT a stat they should want to lead the League in and this must stop. The replacement refs may be the cause for an increase in penalties, but not enough to lead the league. The Redskins must be more disciplined and eliminate any penalty that can have a major impact on the game, i.e. last week’s unsportsmanlike penalty on Joshua Morgan.

• Special Teams: For the 2nd week in a row, the Redskins have allowed a punt to be blocked. To put this in perspective, there were 9 total blocked punts during the entire season in 2011. Of those 9 blocks, all were done by different teams, none by the same team. So what the Redskins have been able to do is unordinary, but quite frankly, intolerable. They MUST not allow this to happen again. Know your assignment, make sure your man is blocked until the ball is kicked, then go down field and cover. With that being said, the Bengals have dynamic kick and punt returners in Adam “PacMan” Jones and Brandon Tate. This is not the game to allow a big, game-changing return.

• Let’s get Physical: It was evident from the opening kickoff against the Rams that the game plan was to be more physical and impose their will on the Redskins. And it worked. The Redskins need to learn from last week’s loss and return the favor this week to the Bengals. From the opening kickoff, the Redskins need to establish the tone for the game. The effort needs to stay at a high level, tackles need to be finished, and the Redskins need to protect their own. Do not let the Bengals out-physical them.

• Protect the home field: Home field advantage has been lacking for the Redskins. In two seasons under Mike Shanahan, the Redskins are 4-12 at FedEx field. Without sugar coating it, this is pathetic. Redskins’ fans have been quick to claim that with Robert Griffin III comes a “new era” in Washington Redskins football. This Sunday could be the start of that “era” by protecting the home field and establishing dominance at FedEx field. There is one thing for sure; the crowd will be extremely loud and raucous. The Redskins need to feed off of that energy and give the fans a reason to be even louder. The Redskins need to make it a difficult challenge for visiting teams to come into Washington and win.

• Effective running game: During the offseason, one of the biggest concerns for Washington Redskins was the offensive line and the running game. Through two games, the Redskins rank 4th in the NFL with an average of 164.5 yards per contest. Alfred Morris has been a pleasant surprise and Robert Griffin III’s ability to run has been the reasons for the unexpected production. Whatever the offensive line has been doing, they need to continue doing it against the Bengals.

• Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers: Uncharacteristically, the Redskins rank 2nd in the NFL in turnover margin with a +2.5 margin. While this did not work last week, winning the turnover battle is usually part of the winning formula. The Redskins need to continue this trend by protecting the football on offense, and doing everything possible to take away the football on defense. If the Redskins remain among the league leaders in turnover margin, the results should be positive.

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