Week 1 is here at last, and this exciting matchup that brings the Washington Redskins to the Superdome to play the New Orleans Saints is just the kind of action we’ve been waiting for. You can bet there’s no team looking forward to getting the season underway more than New Orleans, as the Saints try to move past the offseason turmoil from ‘Bounty Gate’. Here we get our first look at whether Drew Brees and company can keep the offense rolling without Sean Payton calling the shots, while, under new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, the defense gets its first attempt to rebound from a dismal playoff performance.
That new-look defense will get to officially welcome Robert Griffin III to the NFL. Washington hopes its rookie quarterback won’t receive a rude welcome, and can help the team improve on a five-win campaign of a season ago–perhaps starting with an upset of the Saints.
As always, there are a number of intriguing factors that could decide the game; here are three to keep an eye on.
We got a glimpse of what RG3 can do this preseason. In three games the rookie looked solid passing the ball, completing 20 of 31 passes for 2 touchdowns without an interception, but was sacked three times and lost two fumbles. Now it’s time for the real thing as he heads into one of the toughest environments in the NFL. Can the rookie handle the pressure and keep up with one of the most explosive offenses in the NFL? A lot will depend on how well Washington’s offensive line can protect the quarterback. Trent Williams provides adequate protection on the blind side, but the rest of the line is a mess. Expected to start on the right side of the line are Chris Chester (-17.2) and Tyler Polumbus (-15.4). And while Griffin has to face a defense that received the league’s worst pass-rushing grade last season, and will be without Will Smith, New Orleans is hoping that Steve Spagnuolo’s scheme can help the team improve that mark and exploit Washington upfront. At the very least, the rookie can anticipate a variety of looks from Spagnuolo’s defense. Expect the Redskins to call a number of different plays, from roll outs to QB runs, designed to get Griffin out of the pocket and take advantage of his athleticism on the perimeter.
It’s no secret that Washington will need to generate pressure on Drew Brees to slow down the Saints offense. Although he finished last season with the highest completion percentage in the league under fire (58.7%), the number was well below his record-setting overall clip. Fortunately, Washington is well-equipped to handle the task with outside linebacker duo Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan. The two are following strong seasons where they earned pass rushing grades of +25.9 and +11.3 respectively, and each ranked in the top 20 in Pass Rush Productivity after producing a combined 19 sacks and 88 quarterback hurries. Kerrigan’s strong play carried over into the preseason as the second-year pass rusher racked up two-and-a-half sacks in limited snaps over three games.
In one of the game’s best matchups, Orakpo and Kerrigan will be lined up opposite one of the better offensive lines in the league anchored by tackles Jermon Bushrod and Zach Strief. Outside of poor displays versus Tampa Bay, St. Louis, and San Francisco, Bushrod was solid in 2011, while Strief enjoyed a breakout year finishing the regular season as our eighth highest graded offensive tackle (+12.0). What does bode well for Washington, however, is that both tackles struggled at times during the preseason. Strief had trouble with Jeremy Mincey of Jacksonville and Bushrod looked overmatched against the Patriots’ Chandler Jones, allowing three pressures in just two series of action.
If the two linebackers and the rest of the ‘Skins front seven can’t get to Brees early and often, it’s sure to be a long afternoon for the Washington defense.
Saints Linebackers vs. Redskins Rushing Attack
While the Redskins are rolling out a new quarterback on Sunday, the Saints will be debuting two big additions at linebacker: David Hawthorne and Curtis Lofton. Though neither player is particularly strong in coverage, both LBs are gifted run stoppers and welcome upgrades for a starting unit that combined for a grade of -60.2 a season ago. Lofton ranked fifth among inside linebackers in Run Stop Percentage and both were among the top 16 in Tackling Efficiency at the position. Unfortunately, the two enter Week 1 battling injuries; Lofton is nursing an ankle injury and Hawthorne is recovering from a minor knee surgery. That could mean seeing more of Barrett Ruud (-13.6) and Will Herring (-3.6).
Look for the Redskins to test the Saints’ new-look LBs on the ground, especially if either Hawthorne or Lofton is limited. Leading Washington’s rushing attack is the trio of backs Roy Helu, Evan Royster and rookie Alfred Morris. Despite consistently poor offensive line play, both Helu and Royster graded positively last season, with Royster posting an impressive 5.9 yards per carry and +4.8 grade on 59 carries. It remains to be seen how much RG3 will add to the run game, but the Saints’ linebackers will also have to account for his ability.
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