The Washington Redskins are dangerously close to letting yet another season of big expectations stumble into one of grand disappointment. And the season is only two games old.
If this isn’t a must-win for them, it’s awfully close. The Detroit Lions need a win after a close loss to Arizona -- and to rebound from their disappointing season a year ago. A 1-2 start will not help restore confidence in the Motor City.
Should we mention that Detroit has never won in Washington? The Lions are 0-21 in the nation’s capital (and its suburbs).
ESPN Redskins reporter John Keim and ESPN Lions reporter Michael Rothstein break down the key elements to this matchup.
Keim: Why don’t we start up front defensively because that seems to be the Lions strength. The focus on Suh often centers on his extracurricular activities, but how well has he played and why is this unit strong up front?
Rothstein: John, he's been nothing short of dominant thus far. While he may not have the statistics to back that up, his disruption has been the reason for both of linebacker DeAndre Levy's interceptions and he commands a presence in the middle of the defensive line that must be accounted for. Unfortunately for Suh, even in talking about his dominance, his other transgressions pop up because he negated one of Levy's interceptions going for a touchdown with his block on John Sullivan that resulted in a six-figure fine. But the Redskins will have to double-team Suh or he'll cause major havoc for Washington's offense.
Sticking with that, the biggest question around Washington is with Robert Griffin III. Considering Suh's dominance, how mobile is RG III these days and will a dominant defensive line cause him major issues?
Keim: Everyone says he’s mobile (and healthy), but we haven’t seen it -- the mobility that is. Maybe it’s the brace. Green Bay did a terrific job pressuring him up the middle with blitzes and keeping him contained on the outside. He’s seeing five-man or more rushes on 42 percent of his drop-backs compared to 21 percent a year ago. The interior of the line is not built to handle big, strong defensive tackles, and that’s where Washington could have a problem. This group is better on the move. If the Lions can pressure him with just the front four, the Redskins are in trouble. The question will be whether the Redskins can get their run game going against this group. They’re so much better when they can then use play-action passes.
Speaking of which, it sounds like the Redskins aren’t the only team with defensive backfield issues. Why have the Lions struggled in the back end?
Rothstein: They've struggled back there -- kind of. A lot of the focus has been on rookie Darius Slay, who has been replaced in his first two NFL games by veteran Rashean Mathis. So there are some problems when Slay is in, but with a rookie, that should be expected. The rest of the defensive backfield has been decent. Chris Houston is playing well thus far opposite Slay/Mathis, defending three passes, making 11 tackles and not being beaten much by opposing receivers. Bill Bentley has had some issues at nickel, though, and it wouldn't be shocking to see teams go at him if Mathis plays more to see if they can lull him into a pass interference call or two.
Speaking of defense, what is going on with Washington? More than 1,000 total yards allowed in the first two games? That almost has to be more concerning than anything related to Griffin, right?
Keim: Very much so. The offense will come around and showed legitimate signs of life last week, despite the lopsided score. The same can’t be said of the defense. It misses too many tackles, and it's not sound against the run. Linebacker London Fletcher is not getting off blocks to make tackles, and the defense surrenders too many big plays. Other than that? Things are terrific. The Eagles and Packers forced the Redskins into a lot of nickel looks, and they're struggling to stop the run. Teams are also forcing the Redskins to prove they can tackle in space, and thus far they’ve failed. They start two rookies in the secondary (assuming they open in nickel), and that’s led to breakdowns in communication or technique. Corner David Amerson takes his eyes off his work at times. I like his talent, but he’s still growing as a player. Safety Bacarri Rambo would not have started if they had a legitimate option at free safety. He’s made mistakes too. But at least they can improve. I’m surprised how bad this group has played. I thought with Brian Orakpo returning they would do better (playing fine down the stretch last season). They need to get a lot of pressure from their four-man rushes or else risk exposing a weak secondary.
I’m guessing the Lions offense is excited to face this group. How dangerous can this group become, and what has Reggie Bush added?
Rothstein: If the Lions can hold on to the ball -- currently the league leaders in drops with eight -- they are extremely effective. Adding Bush to the team gives Detroit two players who can score any time they touch the ball along with Calvin Johnson. The question for this week is whether Bush will play. If he is able to come back from a helmet to the knee against Arizona on Sunday, Washington will have some major problems. If not, the Skins will likely do well to focus on Johnson and make Joique Bell and the other Lions options beat them. It will be interesting to see how Washington handles Detroit if Bush is healthy. Thus far, opponents have dropped deep against Johnson and given Bush space, but I'd imagine as he continues to be effective, that'll change.
I'll close with this question: What's the vibe around the Washington locker room? I'd imagine there is a bit of surprise of the predicament the team is in. To put it succinctly, is this team just struggling or does it have a dominant performance in it?
Keim: Michael, the vibe is that they’ve been here before, having gone 3-6 a year ago only to win seven straight. But if they’re honest with themselves, they would admit this is a lot uglier because they haven’t been in either game and the defense could have given up 50 last week. Last year, there was only one game in their first nine that they didn’t have a chance to win (Pittsburgh). They are surprised, but I think they understand how to handle this situation. It was a resilient group a year ago, and it needs to prove it again now. I think the offense has a dominant performance in it. I’m not sure what the defense has, other than a desire to not face a high-powered offense. As long as Griffin keeps getting his game back, the offense will be fine. There’s no simple solution for the defense. It needs to create turnovers and get lots of help from the offense. So one side of the ball is struggling mightily, the other side is working through some rust.