As he does each week, Patriots (4-0) head coach Bill Belichick did his best to hype up the Redskins (0-4) during his big Wednesday press conference at Gillette Stadium.
“I think they're a good team,” Belichick said. “Their record is what it is, but I think when you watch them on film you see a good football team that has a lot of good players, that is well coached, that knows what they're doing. We'll have a lot of things to get ready for here this week.”
There is a difference, though, between getting ready for a team that does a lot of things and a team that does lot of things well. Maybe Washington is the former, but it certainly can’t be described as the latter.
Though Belichick dismissed the Redskins abysmal record to playing good teams – which may be in part true with losses to the Eagles, Cowboys, Bears and Giants – Jay Gruden’s squad just doesn’t do a lot that should scare opponents.
Through the first month Washington played complementary bad football. The Skins ranked 28th or worse in the NFL in total offense, rushing offense, total defense, rushing defense, third down offense, third down defense, points scored, points allowed and point differential.
That’s simply not “a good football team.”
Worse yet, Gruden admitted mid-week that Washington didn’t even have a plan as the coach tried to pick between benched/injured starter Case Keenum, ill-prepared first-round rookie Dwayne Haskins and now-healthy veteran Colt McCoy.
While Washington may be proving the old theory that if you have multiple quarterbacks then you really don’t have one, the team may also be without a head coach if the rumors of Gruden’s impending firing have any validity.
Certainly the Patriots are not a perfect football team at this point in the season, despite their perfect record. There are fair questions about health and execution on offense, both in terms of the passing game and rushing attack. There is a transition at kicker.
But those issues pale in comparison to those of the foe New England will face on Sunday in Washington.
Belichick may even believe his line that the Redskins are a “good football team,” but as his former boss Bill Parcells used to say, “you are what you’re record says you are.”
Leading up to the Patriots attempt to stay undefeated against a winless Washington team, here are some specific areas to keep an eye on in what has the makings to be another New England lopsided battle to open the season.
Third down domination – The Patriots defense is doing a lot of things at an elite level, most notably its work allowing just one touchdown in four games. But almost as impressive is New England’s NFL-best third-down defense that’s allowed just seven conversions in 52 attempts for a silly 13.5 rate. Meanwhile Washington is one of the worst third-down offenses in football, converting just 12 of 42 times in four games (28.6 percent). The Redskins also have the worst third-down defense in football, giving up conversions 63 percent of the time. So, the Patriots should have no problem getting off the field on third down on defense on Sunday and staying on it on offense. Just one of the many reasons it could be a long afternoon for the home squad.
Out of the running? – Neither of these two teams have had much success running the ball this season. New England (3.2) and Washington (2.9) rank 28th and 31st in yards per rushing attempt, respectively. Belichick has talked openly about wanting to block things better to get Sony Michel (2.8 avg. on 62 attempts) going on the ground. Defensively Washington has allowed opponents to gain 4.7 yards per attempt on the season. So maybe this is a chance for New England to finally find some success on the ground. Or, this could be a modern NFL football game where the passing game is the priority and planned road to success for both teams. Possession is nine-tenths of the law and equally as important on the football field.
QB uncertainty – While Belichick would likely bristle at this kind of talk, it probably doesn’t matter which of the three quarterbacks gets the start for Washington. Not because all three are dangerous, but because none of the three is likely to match up very well against the Patriots deep, talented, versatile pass defense that’s playing as well as maybe any unit in the game. Could the idea that the group didn’t have a specific player and game plan to prepare for hinder the New England back end that prides itself on elite preparation? Maybe, but that seems unlikely. More likely would be a team that can’t decide between three poor options passing the ball gives the Patriots defense more chances to make plays, turn the ball over and improve its early-season resume.
Handle the blitz – One thing that Belichick noted about Washington was that the defense basically pressures or blitzes at all times in its base schemes. New England has had its issues along the line and in protecting Brady at times. Maybe the most misleading stat from last week’s win in Buffalo was that Brady wasn’t sacked, despite the fact that he seemed to feel the pressure all afternoon. If Washington, which only has five sacks in four games, can get pressure on Brady it will disrupt the timing of the passing game that’s been a bit sluggish over the last couple weeks. As always, pressuring Brady is one of the best ways to pull an unlikely upset on the Patriots. It’s worth watching to see if Washington has the scheme to get that done against the Patriots still-suspect offensive line.
Keep an eye on the Nug guy – On one hand the argument can be made that the Patriots can’t kick much worse that Stephen Gostkowski’s five missed kicks in four games, including four PATs. But, there is a reason that aged veteran Mike Nugent was on the street to open the year. Nugent’s work in Washington will be the first chance to find out whether the Patriots have found a reliable replacement or if they enter the unsettled world of kicker issues that so many other teams deal with now that their proven veteran is lost for the season to hip surgery. Secondarily, it sounds like rookie punter Jake Bailey, who’s done his job so well through the first month, will now also handle the kickoff duties. While he showed in college and the preseason that he’s more than capable of getting that job done, it does add another role to his rookie plate. It would be a shame if that somehow had an adverse effect on his punting, which has been stellar to date.
Prediction – Anyone picking Washington to win this game is either a Redskins homer, a Patriots hater or simply crazy. There is no reason or reasonable explanation to pick the home squad that has questions in its coaching, its QB play and in just about every other aspect of the game. There are some questions about the Patriots performance in Buffalo, but those have to be put into perspective given that that they came against one of the better defenses in the game over the last couple years. Certainly Brady must prove he can get the passing game going more efficiently with Julian Edelman and Josh Gordon both dealing with injuries. Benjamin Watson – assuming he’s activated and plays – should add a little bit more of an option to the tight end position. The passing backs remain the most sure-fire part of the passing attack. Bold prediction – Michel tops the 100-yard mark in this one as the ground game gets going. The defense, well, the defense for New England continues to dominate against the fresh meat that is whichever quarterback hits the field. Heck, Washington may play a couple guys under center and both will probably struggle. New England continues to roll early in the season with the 33-9 victory over a Washington team that seems oh so directionless on and off the field.