Leaving the Drama Behind; The NFC East Title is Within Sight
Updated: Jan 27, 2021
Washington’s 6 game run has been nothing short of astounding. The NFC East title can be won this weekend by Washington with a WFT win and a Giants loss. With the matchup being flexed to 4:05pm, from the original 1:00 time slot, the Giants vs Ravens outcome will be finalized by game time. The latest drama with WFT owner Daniel Snyder and the Dwayne Haskins protocol violation have been the news of the week. At some point, the focus has to stay on the field and HC Ron Rivera seemed agitated by more questions regarding Haskins’ violation, during Wednesday’s presser. Rivera was clearly focused on discussing the game with playoff implications as opposed to answering .
“Let’s don’t make what’s interesting, important. What’s important for this franchise right now is we are going forward. We play on Sunday. I want to get that really clear, we play on Sunday. The game on Sunday to me is more important to me ok, then what has happened. What has happened has been dealt with ok, there’s been consequences ok, and now what it is, is we’re going to do what’s important. That’s interesting. That’s been dealt with. Now, lets talk about Carolina Panthers versus the Washington Football Team, please.”
Although a win last week would have eased their path to the division title and their first playoff berth since the 2015-16 season, the defense showed resiliency, holding Russell Wilson to only 173 total yards (52 rushing) with 1 td and 1 int. Washington has had issues with mobile quarterbacks all year and although Wilson avoided being sacked last week, he dealt with a tight pocket, which got tighter after Del Rio’s second half adjustments. With 11:13 remaining vs Seattle down 20-9, the defense did what it has done all year and forced the timely turnover. After being flushed from the pocket, Wilson scrambled right looking for a receiver downfield. Second year defensive end, Montez Sweat, gave chase and tipped the pass leading to a Daron Payne interception. It’s fair to say this defense has made more game changing plays on defense, over the last six weeks, than Washington fans have seen in years.
The storylines coming into Sunday will be: the health of Alex Smith, Terry McLaurin‘s ankle injury (status is as doubtful on the injury report) and if rookie running back Antonio Gibson will be effective coming off an injury. The offense will need a spark and despite the drama, a win and a good game from Dwayne Haskins will go a long way towards his redemption process. Haskins will be facing a Carolina defense ranked 19th in the NFL giving up 239.7 and 119.4 rushing yards. But with multiple injuries on the offensive side of the ball, the defense might have to put this team on their backs once again.
Although the Carolina Panthers are 4-10, their defense has impressed under rookie Head Coach Matt Rhule. The Panthers week 15 matchup vs Aaron Rodgers and the Packers highlighted the potential of this young Carolina defense, holding Rodgers to only 143 pass yards (96 yards after sack yards subtracted) and sacking the All Pro 5 times. In saying that, their run defense is susceptible to giving up large chunk plays, which was evident with Packers running back Aaron Jones running for 145 yards and a TD with a 7.3 per carry average. With Washington coaches encouraged with rookie Antonio Gibson‘s progress while dealing with turf toe, having Gibson available against a poor run defense could lead to big day for the offense. Compounding issues for Carolina, the Panthers’ top pass rusher Brian Burns (8 sacks and 3 FF in ’20) is dealing with a knee injury and could be inactive vs Washington.
The Defense will Continue to Put the Team on Their Back
On the offensive side of the ball, Carolina has struggled with their top playmaker Christian McCaffrey only playing in 3 games this season. It’s becoming increasingly likely McCaffrey will miss another game as he continues to deal with nagging thigh/ankle issues. Washington ranks 4th defensively, in the NFL only allowing 312.6 yards per game and not having McCaffrey in the run/pass game will greatly benefit this opportunistic WFT defense.
Although Teddy Bridgewater can make plays with his feet and Washington has well documented issues with dual threat signal callers, Bridgewater’s 265 yards rushing on 44 attempts shouldn’t be a threat after being sacked 26 times on the year. The combination of Montez Sweat and rookie Chase Young has started to gain national praise. Both pass rushers have played off each others intensity, combining for 18 sacks and the amount of tipped balls leading to turnovers has been impressive. Both defensive ends have recorded touchdowns on turnovers and writing should be on the wall for another dominating performance against Carolina.
The defensive line has been the strength of Del Rio’s unit, but the play at linebacker was suspect against Seattle, which featured multiple missed tackles and blown assignments. With Cole Holcomb back in the lineup after missing last week the unit will get a much needed boost. Carolina quarterback Teddy Bridgewater has kept his team competitive all year (3360 passing yards 14 td’s and 8 ints), but he’ll be facing one of the most active and athletic fronts he’s even seen this afternoon.
Although the defensive back unit lost Landon Collins and Deshazor Everrett for the year, rookie Kamren Curl has been a bright spot on this unit. The improved play of Kendall Fuller, Ronald Darby, and Jimmy Moreland helped limit Seattle starting receivers DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett to only 77 combined receiving yards. Panthers receiver DJ Moore (11th in NFL in rec yards) will be the primary focus for Washington’s defense with an eye on Robby Anderson (1,017 yards rec).
Staying Aggressive Against a Familiar Foe
As we’ve seen over the last 6 weeks, Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio has shown his willingness to be creative with various blitz packages, in particular, using opposing offense’s extra focus on Young to his advantage. Washington’s defense has been at it’s best when Cole Holcomb and Jon Bostic are on the field together. Expect to see a heavy dose of cover 2 and cover 3 with Washington deploying their linebackers/defensive backs in a variety of formations in order to create more pressure. The loss of McCaffrey can’t be understated for Carolina and their 4-10 record is the result. Del Rio’s defensive will have an opportunity to play their best game of the year with the playoffs in the balance.
The near comeback win vs San Francisco last week surely resonates with Rivera’s team. As previously mentioned, Washington will have the opportunity to win the division with a Giants’ loss and a win vs Carolina. But if this scenario plays out, the luxury to sit the starters in the final week of the season is paramount, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Not since 1991 has Washington had a defense that can change the outcome of games. Although they might night have the high powered offense of the early 90’s, establishing an effective run game with clock consuming drives has to be the goal for Scott Turner‘s offense.
It can’t be understated how important this game is to Rivera, who’s facing the team he coached for 9 seasons and was fired after the loss to Washington last December. In the end, winning the division in a “culture change” year will go a long way in bringing back some of the old Washington fanbase and potentially bring in the new. As the offense continues to be a work in progress, Washington’s defense is primed to put the team on their backs all the way to the playoffs.
*Credit photos to Washingtonfootball.com and Elijah Walter Griffin Sr/Washington Football Team and Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
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