The Washington Redskins 2016 Playoffs begin this week in the Wild Card Round with a game against the Green Bay Packers. In advance of this game, I reached out to our friends over at Acme Packing Company. Our friend Evan "Tex" Western kindly took the time to answer my questions about the upcoming match-up.
1. Jordan Reed has had one of the best years for a TE in the history of the Redskins franchise. His play has been especially good over the past month or so (coinciding with Kirk Cousins playing at a very high level, as well). The Packers appear to have a pretty good pass defense this year. How would you try to defend Jordan Reed as the Packers DC and what do you anticipate the Packers defense actually doing on Sunday to try to contain him?
The Packers have had an excellent pass defense this year, but one area that has been inconsistent has been coverage on tight ends. Personally, I see Reed as being Washington's biggest advantage on offense against Green Bay. The Packers tend to use a combination of hybrid safety/slot corner Micah Hyde and linebacker Clay Matthews to cover tight ends, but that has at times led to disappointing results - the Broncos had over 100 combined yards from Virgil Green and Owen Daniels, for example. While the results have been much better over the past six weeks or so, the opponents have not had nearly the athleticism and explosiveness that Reed possesses.
I expect that with Washington's struggles running the ball lately, Green Bay will load up with an extra defensive back on most downs to try to match Reed's speed with Hyde or even slot corner Casey Hayward.
2. Is Mike McCarthy on the hot seat? Do you think a decisive performance (either good or bad) against the Redskins Sunday could have a major impact on whether he'll continue as the HC next year or is his job pretty secure regardless? Additionally, how are fans feeling about him and the job he's doing these days?
The fans have been getting frustrated with McCarthy this season, in large part because of a perceived lack of adjustments to the offense's struggles. He out-schemed Bill Belichick a year ago, but this season he can't seem to figure out how to get a receiver open to save his life.
That said, I find it nearly impossible to imagine McCarthy losing his job. He and Ted Thompson are joined at the hip, and he also just received a contract extension last November. If the Packers come out completely flat and get blown out on Sunday there's a chance he's gone, but if they look even remotely competitive I would be very surprised to see a change.
That said, I do expect a shakeup among the offensive assistants this off-season, given the struggles on that side of the ball.
3. How do you explain the Packers slump through the second half of the season? Can you break down who's to blame and what's happened and why/how for Redskins fans who may have not been paying close attention? What needs to happen to right the ship?
Ultimately, I feel that the rough second half is mainly due to two things: the Packers' receiving corps struggles to separate from opposing defensive backs, and the coaches have not figured out how to adjust to that. Denver and Carolina showed the rest of the league the gameplan for containing the Packers - play press-man coverage on the outside and drop an eighth man into the box to support the run. Since then, the offense has been largely ineffective and the Packers defense has been under more pressure to perform in place of the offense.
When the Packers have been successful, it has been when they establish the run early and stick with it. That forces defenses to shift out of those man schemes, and opens things up for the receivers to find some space in zone coverage.
4. Give us a couple of players that most Redskins fans probably don't know real well who you expect will have a significant impact on the game Sunday and why.
The Packers' rookie class will definitely be a critical part of this week's game. First-round pick Damarious Randall and second-rounder Quinten Rollins will both likely start due to fellow cornerback Sam Shields' concussion. Randall has been a little more feast or famine while Rollins was a bit more steady in recent weeks, but Randall's huge turnovers over the second half of the year have made him a dangerous player on the back end.
I'd love to give you a name to watch on offense, but we don't actually know who will start for the Packers at left tackle this week. Starter David Bakhtiari has been out for a few weeks with an ankle injury, and the backup plans have been mainly atrocious in his place. He did practice a bit on Thursday, and it would be a huge boost to the line if he can play. If not, backup center JC Tretter might play some left tackle, or fourth-year pro Don Barclay could get the call again two weeks after being beaten repeatedly by Dwight Freeney in Arizona, and neither of those are attractive options for Packers fans.
5. Could you please give us the general keys to the Packers defense and offense? What are the strengths and weaknesses and where might each team find their respective advantages?
On defense, the Packers thrive on pressuring the quarterback and forcing turnovers. When they do so, they have good ball-hawking defensive backs who can make opposing QBs pay for bad decisions. The run defense has been okay at best down the stretch, but they won't live or die by their performance against the run. If Kirk Cousins can get rid of the ball quickly and accurately, that will help minimize that part of Green Bay's game plan.
Offensively, as I mentioned before, I feel that this team must run the ball effectively in order to win. The pass protection has been poor recently and mediocre even when all the starters are playing, which has resulted in Rodgers being thrown off of his normal reads and mechanics. The one area where the passing game has been very effective is on screen passes, with both James Starks and Eddie Lacy contributing heavily to help take some pressure off Rodgers. Washington's defense should continue to run the press-man coverage that has been effective against Green Bay's receivers and force them to get open, because they have not proven that they can do so against any secondary this year.
BONUS: Who's going to win the game, what's the score going to be, and why?
Normally I have more faith in the Packers than I probably should, but this week I'm having trouble seeing how they can overcome Washington's impressive pass rush, especially on the road. I think it will probably be a fairly low-scoring, competitive game, but one in which another late comeback attempt falls just short for Rodgers and company.
I'm going with Washington, 20-16.