Every week during the season, Mike Reiss and Tedy Bruschi break down the New England Patriots' upcoming game. This week's breakdown is on Sunday's road game against the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field.
Mike: Let's start with the matchup on the sidelines between Bill Belichick and Mike Shanahan. These are two coaches with a lot of respect for each other. What was it like to face a Shanahan-coached offense?
Tedy: Every defense that was schemed by Coach Belichick, it seemed like Coach Shanahan had an adjustment, had a play, had a formation or a personnel grouping to give us problems. He's the same type of adjust-on-the-fly coach. He'll find what works for his team to win football games. I remember one game we played against his team, and we recognized during the game how he had chosen plays that had given us problems throughout the early part of the season. We were actually on the sidelines saying to ourselves, "Yes, that was the same play from Week 2." On the next series, it was, "That was the play that gave us problems in Week 5." That reflects how much time he puts into his game plans, and wrinkles are expected.
Mike: As good of an offensive coach as Shanahan is, it doesn't look like he has the personnel at some of the crucial positions. One statistic stood out to me -- the Redskins are tied for last in the NFL with a minus-13 turnover differential. They have turned it over 28 times, the second-highest total in the league. The Patriots have just one turnover in their current four-game winning streak, which has been a key to their success.
Patriots' defense vs. Redskins' offense
Tedy: I've seen Redskins quarterback Rex Grossman look awful, but I've also seen him play good football. So it's just a matter of which QB shows up on Sunday at 1 p.m. I think it's going to hurt him and the Redskins' offense that tight end Fred Davis isn't playing. Davis was one of their main weapons, their leader in receptions (59) and receiving yards (796). They have talent at receiver in Jabar Gaffney and Santana Moss, but is Grossman the guy who produces the results they need? I don't know. The whole thing they talk about is "Good Rex" or "Bad Rex." We'll see which one shows up.
Mike: Grossman is 183-of-316 for 2,174 yards on the season, with 10 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. I expect the Patriots to play physical against the Redskins' receivers and adopt an aggressive, pressure-based approach in an attempt to force Grossman into quicker decisions, which the Pats hope will lead to mistakes. The Redskins probably anticipate this, and that's why getting the running game going will be important for them. They rank 31st in the NFL in rushing yards per game, but there have been some recent signs of life.
Tedy: There is something about Roy Helu, this rookie running back who is getting a lot of touches for them. He isn't getting a lot of attention nationally, so a lot of people don't know much about him, but he runs hard and looks like he has a feel for Mike Shanahan's zone running game -- one cut and go. He's the type of running back for that system. Shanahan has plugged in many running backs in the past, and I think he's found another one with Helu. He cuts hard off that outside foot and takes it up the field. The Skins also got it to him creatively Sunday in the screen game, so he's a threat in that aspect.
Mike: Helu is a fourth-round pick out of Nebraska who the Redskins traded up to select. He leads their team with 456 yards on 97 carries (4.7 avg.) and has 42 receptions, the third-highest total on the club. While he has been a bright spot, they have been dealing with instability along the offensive line.
Tedy: The Skins lost starting left tackle Trent Williams to suspension this week. That's another significant blow. Those who have followed our chats and podcasts on ESPNBoston.com might remember that I looked to this game as a possible difficult test for the Patriots, but since the Redskins are without their starting blindside protector and No. 1 pass-catcher, they're going to struggle on this side of the ball.
Mike: I also wanted to get your thoughts on Gaffney, who was a teammate of yours with the Patriots in 2006 and '07. He signed with the Broncos as a free agent in 2009 -- the Patriots tried to retain him but were outbid -- and then was traded to the Redskins this year.
Tedy: I still think Tom Brady misses him. He was valuable in that offense and was an unsung hero of that '07 team. That catch against the Ravens in the end zone is something I'll always remember, to keep the undefeated streak alive. A lot of things happened in that game, but that catch might have been the main highlight for me, the way he was able to get both of his feet in at the left backhand corner of the end zone. He's playing good football for the Skins. He was that third receiver the Patriots are trying to replace.
Patriots' offense vs. Redskins' defense
Mike: Washington's 3-4 defense has played a lot of teams tough, although it isn't coming off a good effort (the Jets scored 21 fourth-quarter points Sunday). Who stands out to you on this unit?
Tedy: I start with linebacker London Fletcher. No matter what team he's played on, I always start with him because he's a player that all the Patriots coaches have a tremendous amount of respect for; he's a tackling machine. When he totals 100 tackles, that's a bad year for him. I was so happy when he made his first Pro Bowl a few years ago. It was long deserved. Being a linebacker, I always looked at the way he flew around. He wasn't the biggest or quickest of guys, but just very instinctive and able to find the ball and diagnose plays as well as anyone.
Mike: Quarterback Tom Brady said earlier in the week that the Redskins' pass rush is a concern. They've added a few young players in recent drafts who also catch your eye.
Tedy: On the edges, you have potential problems with Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan, two good rushers who can give the Patriots trouble. Overall, they have a mixture of some veteran players and youngsters that produces an interesting energy. They have Barry Cofield and Adam Carriker along the defensive line, and at safety, O.J. Atogwe was a good signing for them. They have DeAngelo Hall and Josh Wilson at corner, so it's a solid unit. They rank 15th in scoring defense. At the beginning of the year, the Skins were playing some great football and they still have the same players.
Mike: Brady and the Patriots' offense didn't like the way they finished Sunday's win over the Colts. They really stalled in the fourth quarter, so they've had to live with that this week. The Redskins are tied for third in the NFL in sacks per pass play, so protection will be something to watch. If Brady has time, there could be chances to make big plays.
Tedy: One problem the Redskins had Sunday is that the defensive backs can be gamblers at times. Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez got them guessing a time or two with double moves. The touchdown to Santonio Holmes late in the game was based on a play that was run two plays earlier, where Holmes faked the "in" and beat the coverage. Two plays later, the Jets ran a similar route for the touchdown. So the corners sometimes gamble, and the Patriots might implement some type of double move so they can get a big chunk of yardage at the expense of those gambling corners.
Special teams and predictions
Mike: One area we haven't touched on much this year is the solid work of Patriots punter Zoltan Mesko. He is fourth in the NFL in net punting (40.8) and drew praise from Belichick in recent weeks. Overall, the Patriots' special-teams performance has improved over the past four weeks, which has coincided with their four-game winning streak.
Tedy: For the Redskins, they had some trickery last week on a kickoff return, with Brandon Banks, and it was a reverse to Anthony Armstrong. Sort of a misdirection reverse. Banks is a quality returner, a smaller guy, and as much of a threat as he is, the Pats have also shown some deceptive stuff like we saw last week against the Jets.
Mike: Let's get to our predictions. The Patriots are limiting turnovers and penalties, which is a good starting point in playing winning football. I think this game will be close before the Patriots pull away in the fourth quarter. In a Tom Brady versus Rex Grossman matchup, it's hard to go against Brady. Patriots 27, Redskins 17.
Tedy: The Fred Davis and Trent Williams suspensions handcuff the Redskins' offense. I still like their defense. They have players all over that unit who can make plays, but the Patriots are playing good football right now. I think they'll put together four full quarters of focus on the road and win 31-20.
Tedy Bruschi played 13 seasons for the New England Patriots and is a member of the franchise's 50th anniversary team. Mike Reiss is the Patriots blogger for ESPNBoston.com. You can reach Mike by leaving a message in his mailbag.