Entering the midpoint of the NFL season with a winning record, things would be looking great for the Chargers if not for their residence in the AFC West. Not only will they have to jockey for position with the Chiefs and Broncos, but they must face both of those teams twice before the season is over. There is still a lot of reason for optimism though. Philip Rivers seems to be back on track, playing much better than he did a year ago. Hoping for more than a split against any of their division rivals may be wishful thinking, but there’s no reason to think the Chargers can’t wrangle a wild card spot if they can win their other games, starting with Washington.
At three wins below.500, the Redskins would be all but out of the playoff hunt if not for the ineptitude of their own division. Dallas leads at an even 4-4 and while Robert Griffin III appears to have overcome concerns about his surgically repaired ACL, the defense has be the Achilles’ heel of this team. Only once have they held their opponent under 27 points, and this must change if the Redskins hope to climb out of the hole they’ve dug through eight weeks. Hosting a team from three time zones away has its advantages, and Washington must take every inch they can get if they hope to make up ground in the NFC East. Here are three things they’ll have to key on to come away the victors this Sunday.
Philip Rivers vs. Redskins Secondary
All the attention may be on guys like Peyton Manning and Drew Brees, but it’s actually Philip Rivers who leads the league in Accuracy Percentage at a healthy 82.9%. If he can keep that up, he’ll shatter the previous record of 80.6% set by Aaron Rodgers in 2011. If this isn’t impressive enough, Rivers has done it with a young group of receivers. With Malcom Floyd and Danario Alexander out for the season, Rivers’ other receivers have stepped up big time — his top three wideouts have made 74 catches against only two drops. Add to that his chemistry with veteran Antonio Gates, who he’s hit on 47 of 53 targets (though Gates has dropped five of those) and you have a fearsome passing attack.
If that’s not concerning enough, Washington has the 28th ranked passing defense, allowing over 273 yards per game. A quick glance at our grading confirms as much — not a single member of the Redskins’ secondary has earned a positive grade in coverage for the year. There are a few bright spots though. DeAngelo Hall has allowed his fair share of yards and touchdowns, but he also has three interceptions and five more pass breakups to his name. Opposite Hall is Josh Wilson, who has given up a QB rating of 101.9 on passes into his coverage. On the back end, they must hope that Brandon Meriweather can play better returning from his suspension — quarterbacks throwing in his direction have completed 85.7% of their throws at over 16 yards per catch.
Can They Keep Rivers Upright?
If there’s one thing that’s been proven to slow Rivers down in the past, it’s a strong pass rush. While the coverage unit and run defense has left much to be desired, the pass rush has been one of the few bright spots on the Redskins’ struggling defense. The outside linebacker pairing of Ryan Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo has so far accumulated 60 quarterback disruptions in seven games. At 12.8, Orakpo’s Pass Rushing Productivity is eighth-best at the position, and Kerrigan isn’t far behind (11.9, 12th). This is nothing new for this duo, as each has graded positively as a pass rusher every year they’ve been in the league. A strong showing from one of these linebackers would help mask the issues on the back end for Washington.
The injury bug has taken a big bite out of the tackle position in southern California, but you’d hardly notice it the way San Diego’s tackles have been playing. Starting six games at right tackle and one at left, rookie D.J. Fluker has held up well in pass protection, allowing three or more pressures only twice en route to a solid 95.1 Pass Blocking Efficiency. Fluker will get to move back to right tackle as King Dunlap returns to the left side. While not exactly a liability, Dunlap has had more trouble in pass protection than Fluker, surrendering the same amount of sacks (two) and just four fewer pressures on 91 fewer pass blocking snaps.
Running to Set Up the Deep Ball
At 39.9% of passing plays, no one ran play action more often than the Redskins of a year ago. The healthy run game of 2012 allowed Robert Griffin III to achieve an exceptional 11.8 yards per attempt and a QB rating of 116.2 on play-action passes, first and third-best respectively. Fast forward a year, and while they are still using play action more often than almost anybody, Griffin has averaged just 6.8 yards per attempt on such passes and has a dismal QB rating of just 65.0. The biggest reason has been Griffin’s struggle with the deep ball so often set up by run fakes. In his debut season he hit the receiver on 50% of his deep throws, compared with just 25.9% this year.
Even so, Washington has averaged 5.0 yards per carry on the year, which is far from concerning. Last year’s workhorse back Alfred Morris leads the team both picking up 565 rushing yards and forcing 19 missed tackles. Even Roy Helu, (who has spent nearly 80% of his plays on passing plays) has earned four touchdowns and forced nine missed tackles on just 36 runs.
It starts on the defensive line for San Diego’s run defense, and primary starters Corey Liuget, Kendall Reyes, and Cam Thomas have been a disappointment. Together they’ve recorded 13 stops in the run game on a combined 283 snaps in run defense. By comparison, 16 defensive linemen have recorded more stops than this entire trio. Rotational player Sean Lissemore has done well, recording as many run stops as Thomas and Reyes on less than one third as many snaps. Those stops have earned him a Run Stop Percentage of 14.3, which would be good for second-best at his position if San Diego would give him enough snaps to qualify.