BOSTON (CBS) – It’s another matchup against a lesser opponent, but the New England Patriots have to focus on playing a full 60-minutes Sunday against the Washington Redskins.
Washington has lost seven of their last eight, but still have the talent defensively to make the Patriots miserable. Head coach Mike Shanahan has always done well against Bill Belichick and the Patriots (owning a 5-3 record over Bill) and his defense’s seem to know how to disrupt Tom Brady. At least they did in Denver.
Life in Washington has been different for Shanahan, but the scheme remains the same. While the Patriots will have to worry about slowing the Skins down on defense, the concern with Washington’s offense will be about getting one individual the ball, and making sure he is the one to make a mistake with it.
Here are a few of the key matchups heading into Sunday’s tilt.
Another Great Pass-Rush
In what seems to be an ongoing trend, the Patriots will face another one of the NFL’s better pass-rushing teams on Sunday. Washington features a strong tandem of linebackers, including Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan who have combined for 12.5 sacks this season.
“They’re good, very good,” said quarterback Tom Brady. “They can rush, they’re good in coverage, too; I think that’s the thing that surprises a lot of people because they’re 260, 265-pound guys. I feel like every week, we’re talking about their pass rushers.”
“We’ve played quite a few good pass rushers this year. I think these two guys are right up there in terms of their ability to set the edge in the running game, to collapse a pocket, strip sack the quarterback,” added Brady. “Even if they’re not sacking the quarterback, they’re forcing the ball out quickly. They’re good players I think. They’re the key to the whole defense.”
Despite going up against some of the league’s best pass-rushers, New England has only allowed 21 sacks in the first 12 games.
Stopping the Redskins rush will not be easy though, and will be a full team effort. Shanahan, who Brady is 1-5 against in his career, likes to bring his linebackers up to the line of scrimmage to mask who is blitzing and who is dropping back into coverage. All the Patriots on the field, not just linemen, will have to be ready to do their job, whether it be blocking or getting open as fast as they can.
“The front line will do their job; we need to make sure we’re in the right place,” said receiver Deion Branch. “They do a great job at disguising a lot of different things. We have to be on point this week.”
“They have great rushers, great outside linebackers. We have to be ready and block them,” said tight end Rob Gronkowski. “Whenever I’m in pass protection I have to do a good job there. Tom has to get the ball out quick so they only have a chance at getting to him.”
“When you play good pass rushers, you’ve got to understand that at some point, they’re going to be there. So you just don’t have all the time to sit around and make decisions, so you just try to get the ball out,” said Brady. “A lot of it comes down to coordinating the routes with the protection and then ultimately getting the ball out fast enough. If you know that these guys are really aggressive pass rushers, than you have to throw the ball quick. You have to screen them, you have to trap, you have to draw, you have to do all the things it really takes to keep them off-balance as well. But if you just let certain guys tee off, play from behind all day, it’s going to be a long, hard day.”
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Even if the Patriots contain Orakpo and Kerrigan, there are still other veterans that can hurt the Patriots on the defensive side. Defensive Ends Stephen Bowen and Adam Carriker are enjoying all the focus both Orakpo and Kerrigan draw, already setting new career highs with 4.5 and 5 sacks, respectively. There is also 14-year veteran linebacker Londan Fletcher patrolling the field, who leads Washington with 124 tackles.
“London’s a great football player; he’s played a lot,” Waters said of the 36-year-old Fletcher. “He’s all over the field. He hasn’t changed much and he hasn’t slowed down much. If you ask me how long that could play, he could probably play for a long time.”
If the Patriots can keep Brady standing, he will still have corner DeAngelo Hall to deal with. But as long as he gets a chance to throw the ball, New England should be fine.
Make Rex Grossman Throw
As bad as the Patriots secondary has been this season, their goal on defense Sunday should be to make quarterback Rex Grossman throw the ball.
Grossman was Washington’s starter at the beginning of the season, but after throwing four interceptions to the Eagles in the middle of October (and nine in a four-game span), he found himself on the bench. But John Beck couldn’t do much either under center, so Grossman is back out there.
He has a big arm, and he likes to use it. Sometimes it’s not the smartest move, but Grossman is not afraid to air things out.
“I think in his aggressiveness, there are probably some throws that he’d like to have back,” Belichick said of Redskins QB. “I think that’s part of what makes him good is that he is aggressive. Defensively just because it looks like you have fairly good coverage on a player doesn’t mean he won’t try to stick it in there. Sometimes he makes plays and sometimes it doesn’t quite get into that spot, but he’s definitely not afraid to be aggressive and throw it in there. I think defensively you have to respect that.”
“He’s going to throw that ball deep. He definitely takes some chances,” said former Redskin Andre Carter. “He is definitely a gunslinger. That’s something we have to do, avoid the deep ball.”
“He can move,” said linebacker Jerod Mayo, who had his first career interception against the Colts last week. “They move him a lot. They move him out of the pocket and he can make all the throws on the run. That’s the challenge for us, and hopefully we’re up to the task.”
One way to put the game in Grossman’s hands: stop the run.
“This is a big ‘do your job week’ because of some of the things they do. They run the ball very, very well,” said nose tackle Vince Wilfork. “That starts up front with the defensive line and the inside backers. We have to do a good job stopping the run, playing the run well to be successful. If not, we’ll lose this ballgame.”
While Mike Shanahan been changing his running backs more often than Belichick grunts during a press conference, Washington now features Roy Helu out of the backfield, who has put together back-to-back 100-yard weeks.
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“He’s a great running back,” Mayo said of Helu. “He runs hard, runs at pad level, and he’s their second leading receiver right now. He’s a great player.”
Running the ball is nothing new in a Shanahan system, and the Patriots are well aware with that.
“Shanahan has had success wherever he’s been running the ball,” said Wilfork. “We know that; it’s not going to change. It starts with the running game. We can’t be third and two, third and three all game, or it’s going to be a long, long night. We have to buckle up on first and second down, force them into some long situations.”
The Patriots haven’t had issues with the run, ranking 10th in the NFL allowing just over 100-yards a game. Stopping Helu on Sunday will be key to getting Grossman to use his arm and very mistake-prone decision-making.
If Rex Grossman is the one to beat the Patriots on Sunday, then Washington earned it. He will be without his top target in tight end Fred Davis, who was suspended for a repeat violation of the league’s substance abuse policy. He may still complete a few big passes, likely to former-Patriot Jabbar Gaffney, but the more Grossman throws the ball the more likely it will end up in the Patriots hands.
Watch for Kyle Arrington to be salivating all afternoon.
Tune in to the Patriots-Redskins game Sunday on WBZ-TV and 98.5 The Sports Hub at 4:15pm. Pregame coverage begins on WBZ-TV with Patriots Gameday at 11:30am and at 1pm on The Hub. Stay tuned after the game for all the reaction and analysis on 98.5, and over on MYTV38 with Patriots Fifth Quarter.