1. Billy Davis couldn’t have been too pumped when the schedule came out and he saw the Redskins listed as the first test for his overhauled defense. Davis was brutally honest this week when explaining where his ‘D’ stands as it enters the season. The Cliff Notes version? Well, let’s just say work-in-progress would be putting it mildly.
The Eagles are transitioning from a Wide-9 4-3 to a two-gap 3-4, pretty much as drastic a move as you could make in the front seven. Davis will find out just how much progress his group has made when it faces a Redskins offense that was the sixth-best (sixth in passing, second in rushing) in the league last year, according to Football Outsiders and fourth in points per game (27.3).
2. The Eagles will prepare for a 100 percent healthy Robert Griffin III. RG3 was the only QB in the league to complete at least 65 percent of his passes and average more than 8.0 yards per attempt in 2012. As a rookie, he threw 20 touchdowns against five interceptions and added 815 yards and seven touchdowns as a runner. Griffin is returning to the field eight months after suffering an ACL/LCL injuries in his right knee, both of which required surgery.
3. While Griffin’s mobility is certainly an asset, the truth is he can be a statue and still probably torch the Eagles’ secondary. Last year, he was 30-for-39 (76.9 percent) for 398 yards (10.2 YPA), six touchdowns and one interception in two meetings against the Eagles.
The Birds’ secondary features three new starters. Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher are the starting corners. The book on Williams is he’ll allow receptions in front of him, but is one of the best-tackling corners in the league. He did, however, have 17 passes defended and four interceptions last season, per Football Outsiders. Williams has had a tumultuous offseason. He skipped most of the spring and forced every Philadelphian (present company included) to figure out what “sconces” were. He got kicked out of a joint practice with the Patriots for mixing it up with Aaron Dobson. And earlier this week, Williams scuffled with Riley Cooper. If Employee 26 (that’s how Williams sometimes refers to himself) struggles against Washington, fans are unlikely to offer him a warm welcome the following week at the Linc. If he performs well, everyone’s likely to forget about all the offseason nonsense.
4. Fletcher will start at left cornerback. He had an OK preseason, giving up completions, but generally displaying decent coverage. Brandon Boykin will play nickel. The Redskins’ biggest receiving threat is Pierre Garcon. In his first season with the Redskins, Garcon caught 66 percent of the balls thrown his way. Despite only playing 10 games, he tied for the team lead with 10 grabs of 20+ yards. And according to Pro Football Focus, Garcon averaged 7.3 yards after the catch, fifth-best in the league.
Santana Moss is 34, but still productive. He had 41 catches for 573 yards in 2012, including 10 receptions of 20+ yards. Moss also led the Redskins with eight touchdowns. He’ll get matched up against Boykin, who had a strong rookie season and an excellent summer. Josh Morgan was the Redskins’ most-targeted receiver last year, and they also have athletic tight end Fred Davis, who is coming off a ruptured Achilles’ injury.
5. How did we get this far without discussing Alfred Morris? Davis and Eagles defenders made it clear this week that stopping the run is priority No. 1. Per Football Outsiders, the Redskins ran the ball on 48 percent of all of their first-half plays last year, second-most in the league. They ran it 55 percent of the time on first down, fifth-most.
Considering that Griffin is coming off an injury and the Eagles’ run defense didn’t exactly look stout in the preseason, look for a healthy dose of Morris early on. The second-year player had 335 carries last season, third-most in the NFL and piled up 1,613 yards while averaging 4.8 YPC. He had nine runs of 20+ yards and scored 13 touchdowns. The Eagles will start Isaac Sopoaga at nose tackle with Fletcher Cox and Cedric Thornton on either side. They’ll rotate in other linemen like rookie Bennie Logan, second-year player Vinny Curry and possibly Clifton Geathers and/or Damion Square, depending on who’s active.
“I think you’ll see a little bit of both,” outside linebacker Connor Barwin said. “It matters what the score is. It matters what other teams are doing. It matters what kind of offenses we’re facing. We’re gonna face this zone offense so you might see a little bit more of one or the other. But I think you’ll see both, and it really depends on what’s happening in the game, what’s working early and so forth.”
6. Up front, the Redskins return all five starters who played 15 of 16 games together last year. Left tackle Trent Williams is easily the team’s best offensive lineman. He owned Trent Cole last year, limiting him to two hurries and no sacks in two meetings. Cole spent much of the summer practicing dropping in coverage, but indications this week were that he won’t be doing as much of that when the real games start.
“The drops that we give the outside backers are very rarely anything that has to do with vertical,” Davis said. “It’s all about a 15‑by‑15 box that they live in. What you’re asking, it really presents some problems with the offense, too, when they are trying to run the ball and block those guys with the receivers.
“There’s a lot of things that go into it. I know when you think of Trent Cole and coverage and everything and everybody thinks about dropping vertically and deep, you say, that doesn’t fit, and I understand that. So the things we’ll ask them to do are in a smaller box than what you would ask other linebackers to do, if that makes any sense.”
Brandon Graham was the team’s most effective pass-rusher a year ago. He’ll rotate in with Cole and Barwin.
7. The rest of the Redskins’ line is: Kory Lichtensteiger (LG), Will Montgomery (center), Chris Chester (RG) and Tyler Polumbus (RT). Polumbus is probably the weak link, having allowed a team-high 4.5 sacks and had 18.5 blown pass blocks, per Football Outsiders. Lichtensteiger is considered a good run blocker, but he had 11 penalties in 2012. Montgomery has started all 32 games the past two seasons; same goes for Chester.
8. The Eagles’ inside linebackers and safeties will have to avoid big miscues against the best play-action team in the NFL. The Redskins used play-action on 42 percent of their pass plays last year. That was the highest number of any squad since Football Outsiders started charting games in 2005. They averaged 10.1 yards per play on play-action; 5.5 without.
“They set you up and run, run, run and then hit you with a play-action and try to go up top on you,” said safety Nate Allen. “So you gotta respect both of ‘em. You just gotta play your keys and be disciplined.”
Added rookie Earl Wolff: “You’re really anticipating on first down to see run. Alfred Morris, you want to anticipate him coming because he’s a really good running back. …Basically they’re gonna try to suck up our linebackers and hit comeback routes, hit curls, thing of that nature. They just have a highly-explosive offense. We have to be ready for anything.”
Allen and Patrick Chung will start at safety, but Wolff is expected to rotate in. We could also see some three-safety looks, specifically to defend against the read-option. HogsHaven.com posted a terrific piece on how blitzing a slot corner can be effective against the read-option. The Eagles showed a three-safety look with Chung in the slot this summer.
9. DeMeco Ryans is coming off a strong 2012 campaign and is the leader of the defense. Second-year player Mychal Kendricks looks ready to make a nice leap and could see a new role in 2013. Kendricks looked great as a blitzer in the preseason and showed pass-rushing chops while at Cal.
Of course, blitzing Griffin is a risky proposition. He averaged a league-high 9 yards per play against five rushers last year, per Football Outsiders. Griffin averaged a ridiculous 13.1 yards per play against six or more rushers, also a league-high. Overall, according Stats, Inc., Griffin completed 69 percent of his attempts for nine touchdowns and no interceptions against the blitz.
10. Griffin didn’t chuck it downfield a lot as a rookie. Only 9.2 percent of his attempts traveled 20 yards or more downfield. That ranked 32nd in the NFL, per PFF. However, when he did go deep, he was successful, on-target 50 percent of the time, fifth-best… Teams only sent extra pressure at Griffin 20 percent of the time, a league-low, per FO. …The Redskins used max protection 17 percent of the time, tops in the league. …The Eagles are thin at cornerback. The fourth option would be either newcomer Shaun Prater or rookie Jordan Poyer. …The Redskins scored touchdowns on 81.2 percent of their red-zone chances last year, fourth-best in 2012.