The Washington Football Team travels to Arizona on Sunday for a late afternoon game against the San Fransisco 49ers, who have had to temporarily relocate due to a ban on sporting events in their home area of Santa Clara California.
It’s a short week for Washington, who played their last football game at 5pm on Monday, but a slightly shorter one for the Niners, who traveled to play a game in Buffalo during the normal Monday Night Football slot shortly after the Washington-Pittsburgh game ended.
While every game is important, this one is probably critical to San Fransisco’s hopes of earning a wild card berth in the playoffs. Falling to 5-8 with three games left would make it very difficult for them to qualify. Meanwhile, a loss for Washington might not be fatal as far as the Football Team’s playoff chances are concerned. Depending on what happens with the New York Giants, Washington might still have an opportunity to win the division even if they fall to the Niners this weekend.
But that’s not the goal. Ron Rivera is taking his team west in expectation of victory. Here are four keys to achieving that goal on Sunday.
Key No. 1 - Run the ball successfully
This is all about Antonio Gibson who will not play because of injury. The more successful he’s been as a runner this season, the more successful the Football Team has been on the field. Over the past few weeks, and reaching the pinnacle against the Cowboys, Gibson’s speed, explosion and awareness have been the key to much of the the team’s offensive success. Frankly, he had become so important to the offense, that I didn’t think the team would be able to overcome his injury when it occurred near the start of the game against the Steelers.
In fact, they almost didn’t. Initially, Scott Turner tried to run Peyton Barber as the primary back in his stead, but, while Barber is useful for getting 2 yards in a cloud of dust without fumbling, he’s not really the bell cow that Gibson is turning into. Midway through the third quarter, Turner seemed to figure that out. He adapted by using McKissic more (he had 10 receptions in the game; most of them in the second half), but the adjustment wasn’t so much a running game adaptation as substituting short passes to McKissic just past the line of scrimmage as substitutes for what likely would have been running plays from Gibson.
You’ve got to think that Rober Saleh, the 49ers defensive coordinator, saw that and will be ready for it. I don’t think the path to success lies in Alex Smith throwing 45 times on Sunday, so Washington is going to have to figure something out.
The answer doesn't lie with Gibson returning, either. He's officially "out" this week. Gibson reportedly is suffering from ‘turf toe’, which is a sprain of the ligaments in the front of the foot. It is typically a very painful and lingering injury that only gets better with rest (in the case of a Grade 3 injury, surgery may be required, but Gibson’s seems to be milder than a full tear based on reports I’ve read). I'm sure everyone will be keen to see if Gibson can play in Week 15. The fact that the team didn't put him on IR, which would keep him out through Week 16 indicates that there's a chance he may be able to play against the Seahawks or Panthers.
Without Gibson this week, however, the team is left with the two backs that have been on the active roster all season long: Barber and McKissic. Barber is primarily a short-yardage back and McKissic is primarily a receiver. Reports surfaced earlier this week that Javon Leake has been promoted from the Practice Squad. A second running back, Michael Warren II, has been added to the Practice Squad and could, potentially, be elevated to the active roster under the special 2020 roster rules.
Leake is a 6’0” and 200 pound rookie running back out of Maryland. Per Sports Illustrated, “ Leake showed up to the combine and ran a 4.65 40-yard dash, which is well below what he is capable of running.”
Looking at his draft profile from the Draft Network, he has plenty of limitations, but Washington won’t need him to be part of of the passing attack, and his strengths seem to revolve around his explosiveness and some elusiveness as a runner, though he apparently doesn’t possess Gibson’s balance or tackle-breaking skills. They list his best trait as being “big play ability”.
Sports Illustrated spotlighted him in an article in June:
Leake possessed an incredible one-cut ability in college and was an honorable mention All Big-10 due to his explosive, home run hitting, ability while sharing a backfield with Anthony McFarland.
His yards-per-carry were astonishing throughout his time as a Terp. In his freshman year, Leake averaged 11 yards per touch on only nine touches.
His touches increased in his sophomore season to 34, and he averaged 9.1 yards per touch (309 yards) while scoring seven touchdowns.
In his junior year, which was 2019, Leake averaged 7.2 yards per touch (736 yards) on 102 carries. He added eight touchdowns, but only had nine catches on the season.
Leake was the change-of-pace back who possessed a unique ability to make one cut and accelerate past second-level defenders.
Reading that reminds me of the reports on Antonio Gibson in his time at Memphis. As part of a one or two game fill-in for Gibson, I could see Leake, who has been with Washington for about 3 weeks, having a package of plays on 1st & 2nd down that could help fill the void left by Gibson’s injury.
Wright is a receiver, not a running back, but he is similar to Gibson in size (6’2”, 220 pounds). He’s not quite as fast as Gibson; the Washington Post reports he had a 40 time of 4.58 seconds, but he’s explosive and athletic, and he’s been working with the offense since training camp.
I believe one reason Wright made the roster as an undrafted rookie was, in part, to provide some Antonio insurance. I don’t expect to see Wright lining up in the backfield, but he can likely replace Gibson on some plays, such as jet-sweep motion, that might not fit Leake’s skillset as neatly.
Despite his limited production, both Scott Turner and Ron Rivera remain committed to Peyton Barber. Against Dallas, he had his most productive game of the season, rushing 11 times for 57 yards (5.18 yards per attempt). This is the only time all season, however, that Barber averaged more than 3.5 yards per carry. Against the Steelers, he produced only 1.64 yards per carry. That was no outlier, however; Barber has averaged 2 yards per carry or less in 6 games this season; twice he has averaged either 1.0 or 1.5 yards per carry.
Ron Rivera was asked 3 questions about Peyton Barber inhis Friday Zoom session with the media, and the coach expressed unconditional confidence in Barber's abilities, his understanding of what the team needs from him, his contributions on the field, and his "unselfishness".
Head Coach Ron Rivera spoke to the media about Peyton Barber's increased role in the offense.— Washington Football Team (@WashingtonNFL) December 11, 2020
: https://t.co/jfeWHv63jv pic.twitter.com/GPFh2mZqJs
San Francisco is 9th against the run, giving up an average of 106 yards per game (Washington is ranked 10th, giving up 107).
It is not going to be easy to run against the 49ers defense, but the coaches are going to have to figure out how to do it. If the offense becomes one-dimensional by being forced to abandon the run, then it will be difficult to move the ball against the SF defense, which is very balanced, ranking 11th in passing yards given up per game.
The Washington Football Team has to run the ball effectively.
Fansided tackles the question of how Washington will deal with the absence of Antonio Gibson:
How Washington Football Team’s backfield breaks down with Antonio Gibson out
Key No. 2 - plan on Terry McLaurin seeing double coverage all game long
The Steelers didn’t win on Monday, but they succeeded in throwing a blanket over Terry McLaurin by bracketing him with a safety on every single play and daring the Washington Football Team to throw it to someone else. That’s exactly what happened.
To some extent, that ‘someone else’ was McKissic, who saw a career high ten receptions, but it also meant that two other players saw a lot of passes.
One of them was tight end Logan Thomas, who had career highs in catches and yards (9 for 98) and who caught a touchdown pass.
The other was Cam Sims, who also caught a career-high 9 passes for the second-highest yardage of his career (92 yards). What was really amazing about Sims’ performance against the Steelers was that he had three big plays (29, 30, and 31 yards), and two of them were on short passes near or behind the line of scrimmage where Cam simply took off and cut through the defense for big yardage. The third big play, of course, was the spectacular one-handed catch in the 4th quarter.
Steven Sims, who seemed ready to break out in December of 2019, has been fairly irrelevant to the offensive production for most of this season after opening up with two good games against the Eagles and Cardinals in Weeks 1 & 2. He had three catches in each of those games, compiling 50 and 53 yards in those contests. Since then, he’s been fairly unproductive, going over 17 yards only once since the Cardinals game.
He could have had a great play against the Steelers. Alex Smith hit Steven Sims in the hands on a crossing route that would have seen him scamper for a first down and perhaps as much as 15 or 20 yards IF he had caught the ball.
But he didn’t. He dropped it.
Sims played well in December last year, and then he opened up this season with two good games. All of those were with Dwayne Haskins at quarterback. There’s a good chance that the Niners will mimic Pittsburgh and scheme to take Terry McLaurin away. Alex Smith will need to be able to rely on his alternate targets — Logan Thomas, JD McKissic, Cam Sims and Steven Sims — and all 4 of them (and Isaiah Wright, too) need to be ready to answer the call by making the catches, getting yards after the catch, and not fumbling the ball.
When Washington throws the ball, Alex Smith has to have multiple targets he can rely on. Terry McLaurin can’t be the only reliable receiver on the field.
Key No. 3 - Shut down the 49ers run game
Kyle Shanahan learned how to design running attacks from his old man, Mike. The Shanahan offensive system is friendly to running backs.
Despite this, the Niners have been only moderately successful at running the ball in 2020, ranking 18th on the season. It’s likely that part of their issue is that Raheem Mostert has sruggled with injury, appearing in just 6 games all season long.
Over the past three games, the Niners have fallen from their season-long average of 110 rushing yards per game to just 82 rushing yards per game, ranking 25th in the league in that time period, despite Mostert playing in Weeks 12 and 13.
Consider this quote from Kyle Posey, a writer for the Niners Nation blog:
I’d do what the Bills did and do everything in my power to keep the Niners running game inside of the tackles. If you shut that down, and make this team throw the ball outside of the numbers, it hasn’t mattered who is at quarterback, San Francisco hasn’t shown they’re capable of moving the ball consistently.
The Washington defense currenly ranks 10th in rushing yards allowed for the season as a whole, giving up 107 yards per game, but over the last three weeks, they rank #1 in the NFL, giving up just 50 rushing yards per game to opposing offenses. Granted, that has come against some anemic rushing attacks (Pittsburgh and Cincinnati both rank among the bottom-4 teams in the NFL in rushing yards per game), but it’s clear that the team has the players needed to stop even high-quality running backs like Zeke Elliott and Tony Pollard.
Jack Del Rio needs to put the clamps on the San Fransisco running game.
Key No. 4 - Win the turnover battle (+2)
Turnovers are always important. Except for the number of points on the scoreboard, there is probably no better predictor of winning and losing in the NFL than turnovers. I gave the following statistics in the Four Keys article for the Steelers game:
- In the WFT’s four victories, they have two giveaways and eight takeaways for a ratio of +6.
- By contrast, in the team’s seven losses, the numbers are 14 giveaways, 4 takeaways, and -10 differential.
In the wake of the Steelers game, those numbers can now be updated to FIVE victories, two giveaways and NINE takeaways for +7.
Against some teams, the goal is simply not to lose the turnover battle. I felt that the WFT had to win the battle of turnovers against the Steelers just to remain competitive and give themselves the chance to win, and they sealed the win with a 4th quarter interception when they were ahead by 3 points and Ben Roethlisberger had the ball with a chance to tie or win the game. The turnover was critical.
Against the 49ers, turnovers should be seen as opportunities. The 49ers are the 3rd worst in the league in offensive giveaways; they’ve given the ball to their opponents an average of 1.8 times per game across the 12 games that have been played so far. But that number has been even more dramatic recently — the 49ers have averaged 3 giveaways per game over the past three weeks. That’s 9 turnovers by the San Fran offense in three games.
Against the Saints:
- 2 interceptions
- 2 fumbles lost
Against the Rams
- 1 interception
- 2 fumbles lost
Against the Bills
- 2 interceptions
The Niners offense isn’t taking care of the ball. Nick Mullens has thrown 5 INTs in three games and the team has fumbled the ball away 4 times.
In those same three weeks, Washington has had the lowest number of giveaways in the NFL.
- 1 interception
- 1 interception
- no turnovers
** All turnover stats per ESPN
If Washington can go +2 in the turnover differential against San Fran, they should be able to win. Forcing turnovers will come from putting Nick Mullens under pressure and tackling aggressively.
Here’s another quote from writer Kyle Posey of Niners Nation:
Any team that can get pressure is going to disrupt [the 49ers] offense. If I’m Washington, I put Chase Young and Montez Sweat over the right side every passing down and wreak havoc. The right side of the 49ers offensive line is where teams have had the most success on passing downs.
There seems to be every reason to believe that Washington can get good value out of its 5 first-round draft picks (and Tim Settle) on the defensive line. They can “wreak havoc” with Mullens and likely exacerbate his propensity to turn the ball over.
Meanwhile, Alex Smith is generally good at protecting the ball. Getting two extra possessions with the resulting short fields should provide an advantage to the burgundy & gold that they can exploit.
Bucky Brooks of NFL.com wrote an article this week in which he talked about the opportunity Washington has to be successful in the playoffs if things go the way they need them to. Here’s what Brooks had to say about the Football Team:
Seeing how Washington’s currently two games under .500, the odds of making a run in the postseason aren’t exactly in the Football Team’s favor. But this roster has the right ingredients to emerge as a surprise contender in the NFC.
WFT features a dominant defensive front loaded with five-star talent and a sneaky offense led by a former Pro Bowl quarterback (Alex Smith) and a couple of potent young playmakers (Terry McLaurin and Antonio Gibson).
While Smith’s remarkable return from a gruesome injury has made Washington the feel-good story of the NFC, it is the overall physicality and toughness displayed by this team that keeps opposing coaches up at night. The defense, in particular, can impose its will on opponents, with Chase Young, Montez Sweat, Ryan Kerrigan, Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen controlling the trenches. When the Football Team’s defensive front has its way at the line of scrimmage, the game grinds to a halt and enables Smith and Co. to pick and choose their spots as an opportunistic offense.
It isn’t always pretty with this group, but Washington’s throwback style can be effective against the finesse squads in the NFC.