This season, so far, has felt like a couple of backwards steps since the Week 1 come-from-behind victory against the now 0-2-1 Eagles. Against the Cardinals in Week 2, the defense was unable to contain Kyler Murray. That wasn’t completely unexpected, so it was easy to imagine the team stepping up and playing better ball — perhaps even winning the game — against a more traditional Cleveland Browns team. Instead, Dwayne Haskins had his worst start as an NFL quarterback, throwing three interceptions and losing a fumble to turn a winnable game into an ugly loss.
I’m not sure anyone expects Washington to actually win the game against the Ravens today, but, win or lose, the team needs to move forward, not backwards. Here are a few keys I will be looking at today to tell me that this young team is headed in the right direction.
No. 1 - Create offensive drives consistently through four quarters
Despite giving up 34 points, 385 passing yards and over 120 rushing yards to the Chiefs, the Ravens have a very talented defense. They will likely come to FedEx Field hoping to reestablish their pride and their reputation against Washington’s struggling offense, led by Dwayne Haskins, who had a horrible game a week ago. The Ravens love to blitz, and are likely to bring extra players on the pass rush early and often in an attempt to overwhelm Washington’s suspect offensive line and rattle the young quarterback. Scott Turner’s offense needs to be ready for what’s coming. I’m not expecting the offense to put up 5 touchdowns, but they need to be able to at least put together drives and get first downs.
The offensive line and Haskins can’t completely capitulate. If the team can consistently put together drives with two or three first downs and stay in decent field position both offensively and defensively while avoiding 3 & out drives, I’ll see that as a good indicator for the group against “Wink” Martindale’s aggressive defense. The key to this will be the ability of the offensive line to play well together. They have to play like NFL starters, and Haskins has to have confidence in them to do their jobs. Finally, they need to put drives together in all four quarters of the game and not just play well for two quarters.
No. 2 - Stay even in the turnover battle
Baltimore has a good defense, but so does Washington. My No. 1 game key a week ago against the Browns was turnovers. Here’s what I wrote a week ago:
Last Sunday’s game against the Cardinals might’ve gone a lot differently if Dwayne Haskins hadn’t lost a fumble in Arizona’s red zone and if Steven Sims hadn’t fumbled away another ball during his punt return.
The Washington defense has looked fairly adept so far this season at generating turnovers. The offense has to take advantage of them the way they did in the second half of the Week 1 comeback victory against the Eagles.
This week I’ll say that the four turnovers attributed to Dwayne Haskins a week ago were killers. The Football Team played well enough to have won the game if the turnover battle had been more even. Gibson had the chance to fall on Haskins’ fumble and didn’t manage to do it; Troy Apke let an interception go right through his hands. Those plays make a difference. Of course, so did Isaiah Wright’s heads-up play to prevent a sure interception late in the first quarter on a drive that eventually resulted on a Washington touchdown.
The team has to play smart on offense and aggressively on defense. Washington can’t lose the turnover battle to Baltimore.
No. 3 - Contain Lamar Jackson
Washington’s defense couldn’t contain Kyler Murray, and he ran eight times for 8.38 yards per carry, adding a dimension to the Cardinals offense that the Football Team just couldn’t deal with. While Murray has rushed for 187 yards in 3 games, Lamar Jackson is right behind him, having rushed for 182 yards.
Washington lost a huge part of the interior pressure when Matt Ioannidis was lost for the season with a pectoral injury last Sunday, and the defense will be without the speed of Chase Young on the edge this week. Jackson will break the pocket and run at times; the key for Washington is not to let that turn into first downs or touchdowns.
No. 4 - We need offensive production from players not named McLaurin
Don’t read this as meaning that Terry McLaruin shouldn’t be part of the game plan or a significant part of the offense — he should be. What I mean is that the other skill players need to step up and perform at a good level; Logan Thomas, Antonio Gibson, Isaiah Wright, Antonio Gandy-Golden, Steven Sims and the others need to contribute across the board. This is as much about the future of this football team as it is about the game against Baltimore. Haskins needs to have confidence in every skill player on the field, just like he has to have confidence in the offensive line unit. Wright did some good things last week, and Gandy-Golden had a good play early in the game in Cleveland on a jet sweep. We need more of that.
As Ron Rivera continually reminds us, this is a young football team, and Rivera’s focus is more on teaching them how he wants them to play than it is on winning every week. I’m not sure how fans feel about that, but the head coach has been pretty open about it. This week, the team needs to show that its offense can play against one of the league’s best defenses, and the defense needs to show that it can contain one of the league’s best quarterbacks. Haskins has to bounce back from the worst start of his career and the defense needs to play well despite the not having Ioannidis or Young on the field this week.
If the WFT looks competitive against the Ravens, that will be a big step forward after looking overmatched against the Cardinals and sloppy against the Browns. If Rivera’s team looks like they don’t belong on the same field with the Ravens, however, then the pressure will mount on the organization and, likely, its young quarterback and new head coach.