GAME 9: PANTHERS PREVIEW

Photo © Brian Murphy/Homermcfanboy.com

For the first time in 2012, the Washington Redskins are coming off a game in which they were never really in the game. The Steelers handed the Redskins their largest defeat of the season with a decisive 27-12 victory. With the assistance of 10 dropped passes, the Steelers defense was able to limit the Redskins’ running game to under 100-yards (for the first time all season), and were able to limit the Redskins’ offensive output to only 255 yards and one- touchdown. This week’s game is Redskins Homecoming and is the last game for the Redskins before their bye week next week.

Head Coach Mike Shanahan said that this week’s game against the Carolina Panthers is “a must win.” The players echoed the same sentiment this week in the locker room, explaining how important it is to head into the bye week with a win and not another disappointing loss. Standing in their way, will be the Cam Newton-led Carolina Panthers. The Panthers have really disappointed this season starting out 1-6, including five straight losses.
The game on Sunday will be of two teams in desperate need of a win. The Panthers’ season could be all but over after last week’s heartbreaking loss to the Chicago Bears. The Redskins on the other hand are facing a reeling Carolina team, get to head into the bye week and still have five of its six divisional games remaining. Five of their eight remaining games are at home. While the Redskins have not experienced much of a home-field advantage under Shanahan, the Redskins’ fan base has been extremely supportive of this year’s Robert Griffin-led team. In order to stay in any type of playoff contention, the Redskins (as the Head Coach stated) MUST win this week. Heading into the bye week 4-5 and having two weeks to prepare for a home game versus the dysfunctional Philadelphia Eagles could keep open the small window of opportunity the Redskins have to stay in the playoff hunt.

The Redskins are in “bounce-back” mode this Sunday after being man-handled by the Steelers. At no point of last week’s game were they “in the game.” They quickly fell behind 10-0, and while they were able to score a touchdown on the next possession to make it 10-6 (the extra-point was blocked), the Redskins could not slow down the Steelers as they trailed 20-6 at halftime. Facing a 27-9 deficit after three quarters, the Redskins were all but finished as nothing seemed to work on offense. The Redskins’ defense, specifically the secondary, is a mess, they are one of the most-penalized teams in the NFL, and their season will be on the line against Carolina. How the Redskins respond this week will ultimately determine how the 2012 season shapes up.

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

Redskins’ Offensive line vs. Panthers’ Front-7
A surprising bright spot for the Redskins this season has been the play of their offensive line. Let by Trent Williams, who is playing at an All-Pro level, the offensive line has continued to protect Robert Griffin III and open up running lanes for Alfred Morris. The Redskins only rushed for 86-yards as a team against the Steelers and are no longer the NFL’s rushing leader falling to #2 behind the San Francisco 49ers. With that being said, the Redskins need to get back to running the ball effectively. This needs to start with their first drive of the game. The offensive line will have their hands full with an aggressive front-7 led by Defensive End Charles Johnson and rookie Linebacker (and front runner for Defensive Rookie of the Year) Luke Kuechly.

The Panthers got six 1st half sacks last week against the Bears and forced two fumbles by Jay Cutler. Their “attack” game plan will remain the same this week. Defensive End Greg Hardy gave some insight on the Panthers’ defensive plans, “if you put him on the ground, you hit him in the face, I feel like he’s going to go into his shell a little bit, and he’ll have to this about it. He’s a quarterback, that’s what they do.” So while the Panthers’ feel that they can beat up Robert Griffin III and “shake” his confidence, the play of the Redskins offensive line will be the perfect counter plan. The Redskins have only allowed 14-sacks so far in 8 games, and after allowing 41 in 2011, this has been a marked improvement. The improved play of the offensive line needs to continue this Sunday in order for the Redskins to get a win.

Smith, LaFell and Greg Olson vs Redskins’ Secondary
In 2012, the Redskins secondary has had the innate ability to make average passing attacks look superb. Their defense ranks worst in the NFL, allowing over 314 passing yards per game. The Panthers do not possess one of the NFL’s most dynamic passing attacks. However, they are led by veteran Steve Smith who has enjoyed a resurgence in his career last season during Cam Newton’s rookie campaign, and has continued this into 2012. Although, he has yet to score a receiving touchdown, Smith is still capable of scoring at any time, at any point on the field.

The trio of Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell and Tight End Greg Olson are consistently among Cam Newton’s favorite targets. Those three have accounted for 84 of Newton’s 121 completions and 1306 of Newton’s 1701 yards. The Redskins have struggled all season with explosive Wide Receivers (see Julio Jones, AJ Green, Victor Cruz, Danny Amendola) and big play Tight Ends (see Jimmy Graham, Tony Gonzalez, Jermaine Gresham, Heath Miller). This Sunday will be just another test for the Redskins’ pass defense, but will provide a new opportunity for them to step-up.

Panthers’ Running Game vs. the Redskins’ Front-7
The Panthers are no slack when it comes to rushing the ball. They average over 114-yards per game and have a trio of more-than-capable ball carriers. The combination of Cam Newton, DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart has proven to be effective and capable of dominating a football game. The Redskins do not have to look far to find an example of this. In last season’s week-7 loss in Carolina, the Redskins surrendered 175 rushing yards and 2-rushing touchdowns.

There should be no surprises in this Sunday’s match-up. The Panthers offensive has been relatively the same ever since they drafted Cam Newton last season. 2012 has been a different story for Newton and the Panthers offense. They have struggled to score points and the offense seems to be reeling. Everyone could see the frustration in Cam Newton two weeks ago after their embarrassing loss to the Chicago Bears. It was in that post-game press conference that Newton said, “the past couple of games have been the same script, by the same director. It’s kind of getting boring. This taste, this vibe—I’m not buying it man. And I don’t know what it is, but something’s going to have to change…I’m going to leave this room and I’m going to bring in a suggestion box and I want your suggestions to be in that suggestion box because I sure don’t know.” This is not the words of the confident Cam Newton that burst onto the NFL scene in 2011. Instead, it reveals an extremely immature and frustrated quarterback who would love to break out this Sunday against the Redskins.

Redskins’ Wr’s and TE’s vs. the Panthers’ pass defense
The Redskins’ receivers dropped 10 potential receptions in last week’s loss to the Steelers. They had only 7 total in the first seven games of the season. Regardless of the cause (weather, lack of concentration, etc), the Redskins playmakers must put last week’s game behind them and step-up against the Panthers. With the absence of Pierre Garcon, the Redskins are looking for anybody to step up and fill his void. All have shown flashes of –play- making ability, but all have shown their issues with consistency.

The bottom-line is that whoever is on the other end of a Robert Griffin pass needs to catch the ball first and foremost. Then worry about making a play or getting yards after the catch. The Redskins cannot afford to not convert a 3rd down or to miss out on “gimme yards” while on offense. Leonard Hankerson, Santana Moss, Aldrick Robinson all need to step up and help fill the void left behind by the injured Garcon.

Prediction: If there was ever a must win in a week 9 of an NFL season, this is it for the Redskins. A loss would send a disappointed, deflated team into their bye week with a 3-6 record and plenty of unanswered questions to contemplate over two weeks. A win on the other hand, will give a much needed confidence-boost to a team that is looking for any type of positive things to build on for the rest of the season. It will make the 2-week preparation for the Philadelphia Eagles in week 11 much easier. Here is how the Redskins can win this Sunday.

What a difference a year makes: Almost one year ago to the day, Washington visited the Panthers with John Beck as the starting quarterback. In that game, the Redskins gave up 407 yards (including 175 rushing) and had 4 turnovers. This season, the revamped Redskins’ offense features this season’s dynamic rookie quarterback, a surprisingly productive 6th-round running back, and an offensive line that has protected the quarterback and opened up running lanes. While the defense has given up yards and points at a historically torrid pace, the offense is night-and-day from the 2011 version. In order for the Redskins to win on Sunday, that revamped offensive needs to be on full display. They must get back to “pre-Steelers” production and efficiency.

Where is the D?: Regarding that porous Redskins’ defense, they remain dead-last in the NFL in passing yards allowed. They are the 5th worst defense in the NFL in points allowed, giving up over 28 points a game. The defense CANNOT keep relying on the offense to “save the day” for the Redskins. While the offense is ranked 7th in the NFL averaging over 26 points a game, the defense must do everything possible to get off the field and give the offense more opportunities to score.

3rd down defense: 3rd down defense has been something that has continued to plague the 2012 Redskins. They are tied for 4th-worst in the NFL in 3rd down conversion percentage allowed, allowing 44% of 3rd downs to be converted. This is a sign of a “bend, but don’t break” defense. The only problem with this is that the Redskins defense is also breaking, giving up way too many points. The defense is overmatched almost every single week, especially in the secondary, and getting off the field on 3rd down giving the offense the ball would be beneficial to both sides of the ball.

Run the Football: The Redskins’ running game has been the most surprising aspect of 2012’s offensive revival. Surprisingly, they are ranked 2nd in the NFL in team rushing yards per game (falling behind the 49ers after last week’s game). Alfred Morris has been a pleasant surprise as a 6th-round running back selection and currently ranks 3rd in the NFL in rushing yards with 717. A 1000-yard season seems inevitable, but adding another 100-yard rushing efford

Discipline: Uncharacteristically for a Mike Shanahan-coached football team, the Redskins are the 3rd most penalized team in the NFL. Teams that commit penalties usually end up on the losing side of games, and in order to get a win, the Redskins will need to minimize their penalties. This is something that has been brought up week after week, and if it continues, it will haunt the Redskins’ 2012 season.