On Sunday, the 2-3 Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the 2-4 Washington Redskins at FedExField in Landover, Maryland. It will be the 20th meeting between the two teams, with the Bucs trying to hold on to a slim lead in the series that has traded hands frequently Washington has lost two straight on the road, against the Falcons and Jets, but is 2-1 at home this year with wins over St. Louis and Philly. The Buccaneers are coming off their bye week and trying to get back to .500 with a road win against the Redskins for the second straight year.
To get that victory, the Buccaneers will need to crack a tough Washington defense and find a way to get more pressure on QB Kirk Cousins, who has enjoyed very good protection in 2015. Here's a closer look at the challenges the Buccaneers will face on Sunday when they visit FedExField.
Jay Gruden has run a wide gamut of coaching experiences, all leading up to his first gig at the helm of an NFL team last year in Washington. He has been on a Super Bowl-winning staff, he's won multiple championships in the Arena League, he was an instant hit as a first-time NFL coordinator in Cincinnati and he's even sported that anachronistic title of "player-coach."
Photos of Mike Evans during his performance in last year's 27-7 victory over the Redskins.
So far as the leader in Washington, Gruden has a 6-16 record, including a 2-4 mark this year. He inherited a team that finished 3-13 in 2013 and has just one winning season since 2007.
Gruden's coaching career began at his alma mater of Louisville, where he played quarterback under Howard Schnellenberger. He spent two years (1990-91) as a graduate assistant for the Cardinals before beginning what would prove to be a long and successful career in the Arena League, where he won a total of six championships as a quarterback and a head coach for the Tampa Bay Storm and Orlando Predators. Gruden was playing for the Predators in 2002 when his younger brother, Jon, arrived in Tampa as the Buccaneers' new head coach, and he promptly joined the Bucs' staff as an offensive assistant. For six years he juggled playing and coaching duties with the Predators and his spot on the Bucs' staff, helping Tampa Bay win Super Bowl XXXVII at the end of the 2002 campaign.
After two years coaching in the UFL, Gruden landed the offensive coordinator job with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2011 and began the immediate development of second-round draft pick Andy Dalton. Dalton won 30 of his 48 regular-season starts from 2011-13 and threw 80 touchdown passes in that span, the third-most ever for a quarterback in his first three seasons behind only Dan Marino (98) and Peyton Manning (85). The Bengals, who had finished 22nd in the league's offensive rankings in 2010, improved in each of Gruden's three seasons with the team, rising all the way to sixth in yards and 10th in points in 2013.
Gruden had previously worked with Washington General Manager Bruce Allen in Tampa, and Allen wanted the reunion for more than just his new coach's football experience. "We knew it was more than just X's and O's," said Allen upon the hiring of Gruden. "it was about finding the right person to build the team chemistry that we needed."
The Redskins had a new opening-day starter under center and they've found another weapon for their determined rushing attack, but they have yet to find much offensive consistency in 2015. Washington ranks 25th in yards per game and 28th in points per game in the NFL and is not in the top half with either its rushing or passing attack.
The new Day One starter was Kirk Cousins, though Cousins is certainly not new to the Redskins' offense. He started five games in 2014 and has opened at least contest every year since the Redskins drafted him in the fourth round in 2012, the same year they spent the second-overall pick on quarterback Robert Griffin III. It's Griffin's spot that Cousins has assumed after the former followed up an inspired Rookie of the Year debut in 2012 with two seasons marred by injury and ineffectiveness.
Cousins has started all six games this season, running his record as an NFL starter to 4-11. His passer rating of 77.4 has been influenced largely by a 6-8 TD-INT ratio, though he has completed an impressive 66.2% of his passes. With big-play wide receiver DeSean Jackson missing the last five games with a hamstring injury, the Redskins have had difficulty getting the ball downfield. Cousins' average gain per pass attempt of 6.23 yards ranks 33rd in the NFL and the Redskins are tied for 25th in passing plays of 20 or more yards.
Again, however, Washington has run the ball persistently and with a good amount of success, averaging 107.2 yards per game, though only 3.9 per carry. Rookie third-rounder Matt Jones has joined workhorse Alfred Morris in the backfield, adding 220 yard and 4.1 yards per carry to Morris's team-leading 297 yards. Chris Thompson, a fifth-round pick in 2013, is a smaller runner who profiles as a third-down back with his 120 rushing yards, 6.3 yards per carry and 23 catches for 150 yards. Washington has had more luck generating big plays out of the ground game, tying for sixth in the league in rushes of 20 or more yards.
Those backs run behind an offensive line made up almost exclusively of recent Day One and Day Two draft picks. That line is anchored by Trent Williams, the fourth overall pick in 2010 who deservedly got a massive new contract just before the 2015 season. Williams missed the Redskins' game last Sunday due to concussion symptoms, but the 6-5, 337-pound mauler is clearly the line's anchor when he's in the game. He obviously must be light on his feet despite his size to handle the left tackle position, but he also brings a serious amount of strength and power to the field. The rest of the starting five also includes 2015 first-rounder Brandon Scherff at right guard and a pair of 2014 third-rounders in right tackle Morgan Moses and left guard Spencer Long. Kory Lichtensteiger has held down the center position since arriving as a free agent in 2010, though he too missed last Sunday's game due to injury.
Even with those recent injuries, the Washington front line has done an excellent job of giving Cousins time to throw. Cousins has been sacked just seven times and the Redskins rank third in the NFL in sacks allowed per pass play. Football Outsiders ranks Washington's line as the fourth-best in the NFL at protecting the passer, behind only those employed by the Jets, Bengals and Ravens.
With Jackson sidelined, the team has turned back to eighth-year veteran wideout Pierre Garcon as their top target, though rookie fourth-rounder Jamison Crowder has helped pick up the slack as well. Garcon is two years removed from his massive 113-catch season in 2013 but his average of 5.3 receptions per game is the second highest of his career after that '13 campaign. Again, the big plays have been elusive, as he's averaging a career-low 9.2 yards per catch. Crowder has 27 grabs but only 9.0 yards per reception. He was originally expected to help mostly as a punt returner in his rookie season but he won the slot receiver three weeks ago and is tied for third in the NFL with eight catches on third down since that time. The Redskins do tend to get a lot of production out of tight end Jordan Reed, who's third on the team with 24 catches and is picking up 11.6 per, but Reed has missed the team's last two games due to a concussion.
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Cousins' high completion rate and the strong running of Morris, Jones and Thompson has helped Washington sustain drives in 2015. No team in the NFL has averaged more time per scoring drive than the Redskins' average of 4:38, and only New Orleans averages more plays per scoring march than Washington's 9.57. Only three teams have run the ball more often in the first half, in terms of percentage of their total plays, than Washington.
Washington's defense has had a stronger first third of the season, ranking eighth in the league in yards allowed per game (340.7) and 15th in points (23.0). The Redskins operate out of a 3-4 front, and pass-rushing linebacker Ryan Kerrigan remains their most dangerous threat to opposing passers. Kerrigan racked up a career-best 13.5 sacks last year and had at least 7.5 in each of his first four NFL campaigns since being drafted in the first round in 2011. This year, Kerrigan shares the team's sack lead, at 3.5, with rotational defensive lineman Chris Baker. Overall, Washington has 12 sacks of opposing quarterbacks and ranks 15th in the NFL in sacks per pass play.
The Redskins weren't as busy in unrestricted free agency this offseason as they have been in some past years, but they did add a couple of important pieces to their three-man front in enormous nose tackle Terrance Knighton and defensive end Stephen Paea, whose listed as a co-starter with Baker. Knighton came over from the Broncos with a reputation as one of the NFL's top run-stoppers, and he's certainly a perfect fit at nose in a 3-4 defense. Still, Washington hasn't quite bottled up the run as effectively as expected, allowing a 4.6-yard per-carry average that ranks 25th in the NFL.
Photos from the Bucs' practice on Wednesday, October 21st at One Buccaneer Place in Tampa.
Washington has allowed 118.2 yards per game on the ground, 23rd in the league, but those numbers are a bit misleading. Knighton has played well and after four games the Redskins were among the league leaders in run defense, giving up just 78 yards per game. However, they've run into two of the league's eight best rushing attacks in the past two weeks in Atlanta and the Jets, giving up 176 yards to the former and 221 to the latter.
In some ways, Washington's work on defense has mirrored its results on offense, keeping its opponents from sustaining drives but coming up with too few big plays. Redskin foes have recorded just eight drives of 10 plays or more, tied for sixth-fewest in the NFL. Washington has allowed third-down conversion at a low 36.4% rate, ninth-best in the NFL, and that has helped the team average over 33 minutes of time-of-possession, fifth-best in the league. However, the Redskins' defense has just three interceptions (28th in the league in INTs per pass play) and has not found the end zone of its own accord yet this season.
That said, second-year cornerback Bashaud Breeland, a fourth-round pick in 2014, has emerged as a big-time playmaker in 2015. He has two of the team's three interceptions and has also recovered two fumbles and broken up a team-high eight passes. Last week, he recorded one interception and two fumble recoveries against the Jets – just the fifth player to do that in the last 15 years – and the week before that he single-handedly broke up four passes in Washington's near-upset in Atlanta. According to the grades on Pro Football Focus, Breeland has been the 10th-best cover cornerback in the NFL in 2015.
Strong safety Trenton Robinson, getting his first opportunity to start after bouncing around from San Francisco to Philly to Washington, has the Redskins' other pick as well as 46 tackles and a quarterback pressure. The Redskins have been getting a lot of their tackles from the back end of the defense, as free safety Dashon Goldson leads the team with 53 stops and Robinson ranks third. (Washington uses coaches' film review for the statistics in its publications.)
Keenan Robinson plays the MIKE linebacker position in the middle of Washington's defense, and when the scheme is working well, he racks up tackles by filling the small gaps left after Knighton and his fellow men up front occupy multiple blockers. Robinson is second on the team with 52 tackles and has also recovered a fumble recovery.
In addition to being strong on third downs, Washington's defense has been among the league's best in another crucial area: the red zone. Redskin opponents have scored touchdowns on exactly half of their incursions inside the 20, tying Washington for ninth in the NFL. The Redskins are allowing their foes to run successful plays just 39.5% of the time in the red zone, seventh-best in the league. Once teams get inside the 30-yard line against the Redskins, they average just 2.69 yards per play, placing Washington second in the league in that category. If a good number of drives are ending poorly for Washington opponents, those offenses have also had trouble getting started. The Redskins have yet to allow any points on their opponents' first possession of a game this year.
If there's one area in which Washington has thoroughly dominated its opponents this year, it's kickoff returns.
The Redskins signed Rashad Ross to their practice squad midway through last season and re-signed him to a futures contract for 2015 when the season ended, and those moves are paying dividends now. Ross has 13 kickoff returns in five games – a high number in an era in which touchbacks are more common than ever – and he's averaging 27.1 yards per try. That includes a 101-yard touchdown return against the Giants in Week Two. Meanwhile, opposing kick returners are getting just 16.2 yards per runback, with none longer than 29 yards. With Ross's help, the Redskins are second in the NFL with an average kickoff drive start of the 23.8-yard line.
The Redskins appeared to have another big special teams weapon heading into the 2015 season in punter Tress Way, who led the NFL with a 47.5-yard gross average last year and finished 10th with a 40.0-yard net average. Way was a revelation after arriving as a waiver claim late in the preseason and needing only 10 days to beat out the two other punters in camp. For some reason, his numbers are down in 2015, however, as he ranks 23rd in the NFL with a 44.6-yard gross and 29th with a 34.1-yard net. Way's big numbers over the course of an entire 2014 campaign suggest he can still be a major factor in the field position game.
Washington started the season with Kai Forbath, their placekicker of the past three seasons, still holding down that role. However, after one game, the team released Forbath and signed former Saint Dustin Hopkins, who has justified that decision with nearly flawless kicking. Hopkins is 10 of 11 on field goal tries and has not missed in nine extra point tries from the new and more difficult line of scrimmage. His only miss so far was a 53-yard field goal attempt in Atlanta, but since that attempt he has subsequently made field goals from 52 and 54 yards. Hopkins also ranks fourth in the NFL in touchback percentage, preventing returns on 18 of his 22 boots so far (81.8%).