The Washington Redskins bring a 5-3 record and a hold on first place in the NFC East to Raymond James Stadium this weekend to face a 3-5 Tampa Bay Buccaneers team trying to snap a two-game skid. No other team in the East is above .500; meanwhile the Buccaneers are chasing a 7-1 Saints squad as well as the 6-2 Panthers and 4-4 Falcons. Washington and Tampa Bay will also settle the all-time series, at least temporarily, as it is currently knotted at 10-10.
Washington boasts young-again running back Adrian Peterson and the NFL's 10th-ranked rushing attack, though maintaining its average of 121.9 yards per game and 4.3 yards per carry will be more challenging with at least three and possibly four offensive line starters out due to injury. The Redskins' defense also ranks 10th overall and has been particularly strong against the run, allowing just 89.4 yards per game. Here's a closer look at some of the challenges the Buccaneers will face when Washington visits on Sunday:
View photos from the Buccaneers' practice Thursday at the AdventHealth Training Center.
Each week during the season, Head Coach Dirk Koetter puts together a specific video package to show to his players called "Game-Wreckers." The clips are meant to identify the three or four players on the opposing team who are likely to make the big plays that most affect the game's outcome. The Buccaneers know they have to limit the damage inflicted by these game-wreckers if they are going to come out on top.
Koetter's cut-up is an internal tool for his team and it is not shared publicly, though he does occasionally note an opposing game-wrecker or two during media sessions. Below are four players who might be on this week's tape.
1. LB Ryan Kerrigan. The pass-rushing outside linebacker continues to do what he has done every season since Washington drafted him 16th overall in 2011: play every game and sack the quarterback. Kerrigan has never missed a game and he's never finished a season with fewer than 7.5 sacks. He's hit double digits in that category three times, including each of the last two years, and he's more than halfway there again in 2018 with 5.5 QB takedowns. Kerrigan also has seven quarterback hits, four tackles for loss and a forced fumble.
2. RB Adrian Peterson. The 33-year-old future Hall-of-Famer was still looking for a job halfway through August, and he wasn't necessarily guaranteed to find one after averaging 3.1 yards per carry in a total of 13 games over the previous two seasons. But the Redskins lost rookie Derrius Guice to injured reserve in the preseason and that prompted a call to Peterson, who has been rejuvenated running behind a very good (albeit now very injured) offensive line. Peterson, who is closing in on 13,000 career rushing yards, has averaged 75.5 yards per game and 4.4 yards per carry in his 12th NFL season.
3. LB Zach Brown. Brown had a Pro Bowl season for Buffalo in 2016, racking up 149 tackles and 4.0 sacks, after which the Redskins signed him as an unrestricted free agent to bring a speed element to the middle of their 3-4 front. Brown delivered with 127 tackles, 12 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks in 13 games last season. Brown hasn't gotten the QB down yet in 2018 but he's made 50 tackles, 34 of them in run support.
4. TE Jordan Reed. Injury problems are the only thing that have held Reed back – he's yet to play a full 16-game season in the NFL – but when he's on the field he can be one of the NFL's most dynamic tight ends. Reed has averaged 5.1 catches and 52.6 yards per game in his six-year career, and he went to the Pro Bowl in 2016 after catching 66 passes for 686 yards and six touchdowns in just 12 games. The season before that, he racked up 11 touchdowns, and he has 23 scores in his career, though only one so far in 2018.
Washington's defense has been relatively stingy on the scoreboard, giving up 21.5 points per game to rank ninth in the NFL. The offense has helped by not frequently turning the ball over, as the Redskins have committed just seven turnovers and have a plus-7 turnover ratio, tied for fifth-best in the league. Here are some other areas in which the Redskins have excelled so far this season:
· Washington's defense has not allowed opponents to tack on points at the end of either half. The Redskins are one of four teams that have yet to surrender a point to an opposing two-minute offense.
· Alex Smith has done his best work in the red zone. Despite an overall passer rating of 89.9, Smith has a 113.1 mark inside the opposing 20, and that has the Redskins ranked third in the league in that category. Smith has thrown six touchdown passes on 22 red-zone throws, and has not been picked off.
· The Redskins know they can run the ball on second down no matter how well they do on first down. The team ranks fourth in the league with a 5.1-yard rushing average on second-down handoffs, and almost exactly a third of those runs (21 of 64) have gone for six or more yards.
· Washington's defense gives up fewer "chunk" plays than average. In fact, it is tied for seventh in fewest plays of 20+ yards allowed, with 30, and it has yet to allow a run of 20 or more yards. Only Washington and Minnesota can make that latter claim.
Alex Smith and the Washington passing attack are averaging just 6.12 yards per pass play, which is the 10th-lowest mark in the league The defense has had a bit of trouble getting off the field on third down, giving up a conversion rate of 42.3% that is also 10th-worst in the league. In addition:
· Washington's two leading pass-catchers are a tight end (Jordan Reed) and a running back (Chris Thompson), respectively. Maurice Harris has 21 catches to lead all Redskin wideouts, and the next player on that list, Paul Richardson, was just put on injured reserve. As such, Washington's wide receivers have the lowest percentage of their team's receiving yards than any other wideout group in the league, at 45.53%.
· Adrian Peterson has given the Redskins a viable rushing attack, but they do tend to lose yardage on runs several times a game. Washington has run the ball 225 times and been stopped for a loss on 29 of them. That rate of 13.2% of their runs ending in negative yardage is the fourth-worst in the NFL.
· Washington hasn't gotten too much out of its return game. It's average of 5.7 yards per punt return ranks 24th in the league and its 17.1-yard kickoff return average is third-worst.
· Opposing pass-catchers have been able to tack on the YAC against Washington this season. Of the 2,174 receiving yards the Redskins have allowed this year, 1,140 have come after the catch, and that rate of 52.4% of the total yardage being YAC is fourth-worst in the NFL.
NEW FACES IN 2018
The Redskins moved on from Kirk Cousins and largely remade their offensive skill positions. There's a new quarterback, a new lead tailback (by necessity after an injury to rookie Derrius Guice) and a new wideout, though injuries could impact that.
1. QB Alex Smith. Halfway into the season and 14 years into his NFL career, Smith isn't exactly an unknown commodity, but this is his first season in Washington. The Redskins traded a third-round pick and CB Kendall Fuller to Kansas City to get Smith as they chose to move on from Kirk Cousins after seven seasons. Smith averaged a career-high 8.6 yards per attempt in his last year as a Chief to lead the NFL, but in Washington he has gone back to a shorter passing game, averaging 7.0 yards per attempt.
2. DT Da'Ron Payne. Washington used its first-round pick in 2018, the 13th selection overall, to take the 320-pound space-eater out of Alabama. Payne has stepped right into the pivotal nose tackle role in the Redskins' 3-4 front and has 26 tackles, 3.0 sacks and five quarterback hits.
3. RB Adrian Peterson. As noted above, Peterson was a mid-August addition and he has kept the Washington ground game alive in the absences of Guice and Rob Kelley.
1. T Trent Williams/T Morgan Moses/G Brandon Scherff/G Shawn Lauvao. That's four of the Redskins' opening-day O-Line starters, and at least three of them will be unavailable on Sunday in Tampa. Williams and Scherff, in particular, are two of the best in the NFL at their respective positions; Williams is currently out with a thumb injury and Scherff and Lauvao just landed on injured reserve this week. Moses has a knee injury but a chance to play.
2. WR Paul Richardson. In addition to much of their O-Line, the Redskins also came out of last week's loss to Atlanta down one of their top wideouts. An offseason addition from Seattle, Richardson was a deep threat who had caught 20 passes for 262 yards and two touchdowns.
3. CB Quinton Dunbar. Dunbar has played well in his first season as a full-time starter, opposite Josh Norman, but he left the Atlanta game with a leg injury and did not return. If he's unavailable, the Redskins will lean more on Fabian Moreau and rookies Greg Stroman and Danny Jackson.