- John Keim, ESPN Washington Redskins reporter
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After all the losing and the issues that arose last week, it’s imperative the Washington Redskins play well Monday night. Obviously this is no longer about the playoffs, it’s about finishing well and proving that you, indeed, are headed in the right direction as a franchise. The Redskins have not played a complete game this season. Because of that, their record is not a fluke. And that can’t continue, not if you want fans to buy into the idea that one good offseason will magically cure what ails this franchise. They need to show a lot of life over the next six weeks.
I’m really curious to know what owner Dan Snyder thinks and I know he won’t be talking anytime soon. But if I’m him, I’d also want to see how this season finishes before making any sort of statement (unless you absolutely know you want to keep things the same regardless. If that’s the case, say it.). This organization will be tested down the stretch so even though they’re not playing for the postseason, there’s a lot at stake for many. You want to change the narrative? Change the performance on the field.
Robert Griffin III never has been the life of the locker room -- a presence, yes, but not a loud one -- but he was definitely more low key last week (don’t blame him) and came across as either humbled, wounded or deflated by what transpired during the week off of Santana Moss’ comments. Griffin could use a strong game on national TV against a top defense. He, too, needs a strong next six games. He’s still a young, developing quarterback but he absolutely still has a lot to learn.
San Francisco’s defense will be the best Washington has faced this season by far. San Francisco ranks seventh in total yards (fourth in points); the Redskins have not faced another defense that currently is in the top 16 in yards allowed (though San Diego entered Sunday 11th in total points). The 49ers are put together well, with fast linebackers behind a strong front three. It’s why they don’t need to use a lot of eight-man boxes to stop the run -- the Redskins do better when teams use more eight-man fronts, allowing their play-action to work more. This is a very sound, fundamental defense that does not miss many tackles. The 49ers are plus-six in turnover differential; needless to say Washington must avoid turnovers if it wants to pull the upset.
Here’s what Redskins tight end Logan Paulsen said, “It’s hard to run against them, but we do have an advantage in that they only play a seven-man front. They don’t like playing eight in the box. So it’s advantageous to us.”
The 49ers’ inside linebackers, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, do an excellent job at either avoiding or shedding blocks. Willis stays a little crouched, allowing him to explode into blockers and play with power. The key for Washington will be winning one-on-one battles in the front; if they can then there will be running lanes. One key player up front will be 49ers end Justin Smith. He plays with excellent leverage and might not make a lot of plays, but will certainly mess them up. The Redskins' guards will be tested against Smith and Ray McDonald on Monday night. The 49ers don’t try to fool offenses up front. “San Francisco is very confident in what they do,” Paulsen said. “They play what they play and dare you to run on them. They say we’re better than you at these positions and we’d like to see you try.”
The Niners will align Smith in various spots in passing situations. I’ve seen him stand up and rush from over the middle, on the outside and from a three-point stance inside. Aldon Smith is dangerous because of his long arms. It helps Washington that left tackle Trent Williams is long-armed as well, but it’s still a challenge. Ahmad Brooks’ speed will present problems on the other side (I did see an occasional time where Brooks rushed from the right and Smith the left). Smith also rushed inside sometimes.
Griffin is not the only young quarterback enduring growing pains. San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick is as well, though his struggles more often than not have occurred against top-10 defenses. Still, it’s for some of the same reasons: He does not always anticipate throws or throw receivers open, too often waiting until the cut to see if he’s open before unloading. Yes, his receiving corps isn’t great and he could use Michael Crabtree. But Kaepernick also was definitely late on throws to open targets. Other times, like Griffin, he would opt to run rather than throw. I saw times Kaepernick passed up open targets to run (like Griffin does), whether from not feeling confident or just from knowing he could get 10 yards with his legs.
Seems to me the way to play San Francisco is with a lot of eight-man fronts and more man than zone. The problem is, too much man and it opens up potential running lanes for Kaepernick. (He’s carried the ball seven times or more in five of his 10 starts, but only hit that number twice in the past seven games).
The 49ers do have weapons on offense, with tight end Vernon Davis and running back Frank Gore. Receiver Anquan Boldin has strong hands, but should not be a downfield threat. Davis is -- and they’ll send him long from a split position or from a three-point stance. They’ll also use Boldin to screen for Davis. Gore is just a patient, hard-nosed runner. The Redskins have committed to stopping terrific backs in recent games (Adrian Peterson, LeSean McCoy). The Niners use a power offense and will pull their guards (losing Mike Iupati for Monday’s game doesn’t help them). Yes, they run the zone read-option but they use more inside zone than Washington out of this set. They will use some similar pass plays from this alignment.
After all the losing and the issues that arose last week, it’s imperative the Washington Redskins play well Monday night. Obviously this is no longer about the playoffs, it’s about finishing well and proving that you, indeed, are headed in the right direction as a franchise.