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Washington can stabilize the season with a win in Atlanta as Curtis Samuel makes his debut in burgundy & gold

Ending losing streaks

Many fans were pointing to Daniel Jones’ 4-0 record against Washington prior to the Week 2 game to justify their predictions that Washington would lose to the Giants again in the first of two meetings between the two teams in the 2021 season. I’ve never really understood this mindset; it’s as if, once a team gets two or three wins in a row against a rival, that trend is written in stone, never to be reversed.

I mean, going into the 2020 season, Washington had lost 6 straight against the Eagles, but managed to sweep Philly last year. Prior to that 6-game streak by the Eagles, the Redskins had owned them, winning 5 in a row across three seasons. Was that a sign that Philly would never beat Washington again? Of course not. Since RG3 was drafted, the series has gone: 2 wins for Washington, 3 wins for Philly, 5 wins for Washington, 6 wins for Philly, 2 wins for Washington.

Winning and losing streaks are meant to be broken.

This week presents another opportunity for Ron Rivera’s team to reverse another string of losses to an NFC opponent.

Washington leads the all-time series against Atlanta with a 15-10-1 record, but it’s been a tale of two time periods. Up until 2006, Atlanta rarely beat the Redskins, and actually went winless in the first six meetings from 1966-1977. The ‘Skins had a dominant 15-4-1 record against the Dirty Birds between 1966-2005.

In the early-to-mid ‘90s the ‘Skins won five consecutive meetings, including a 24-7 win in the Divisional Round of the 1991 playoffs; that came after Washington had won the regular season matchup 56-17 earlier that season. That dominant Redskins team went on to win the Super Bowl that year.

Atlanta Falcons v New York Giants Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

The pendulum swung the other way around the start of the Matt Ryan era, however. Similar to (until recently) Daniel Jones, Matt Ryan has never lost against Washington in his career – he has a spotless 5-0 record versus Washington. Counting a win by Atlanta in 2006, the Falcons are on a six-game winning streak against Washington.

Today’s game is the latest opportunity for the burgundy & gold to shove the pendulum back in the other direction.

Washington is slightly favored today

Despite being on the road and the two teams having identical records, with each team having gotten its only win of the season against the winless Giants, Vegas likes Washington as the favorite in this game, setting the spread at 1.5 points. It’s not a lot, but the sentiment seems to be flowing towards Washington wherever I’ve looked this week.

A Washington win would provide a bit of stability in what could be a rocky season, while a loss seems as if it would certainly open the Cracks of Doom in a season where the Football Team was expected to build on its 7-9 finish and NFC East title from 2020.

The expectation among all NFL analysts and most fans entering the 2021 season was that Washington’s defense would be among the best in the league this season, and that, if the offense could simply improve from one of the least productive in 2020 to even an average group in 2021, then Ron Rivera’s Football Team would be a playoff contender.

Thus far, the offense has mostly kept up its part of the bargain, aside from 4 troubling turnovers against the Chargers and Bills, but the defense, from which so much was expected, hasn’t shown up.

Can Washington pressure the quarterback?

Limited sack production from the highly touted front four has led to scoffing among many, but the issue seems to be more with the coverage by the linebackers and defensive backs, who have routinely surrendered catches to opposing receivers.

The front four hasn’t played to their potential, but they also haven’t been terrible. While the defense has struggled to generate sacks, with just six in three games, generating pressure has not been a problem – at least not when compared to league averages. True, the defensive pass rush came out slowly in Week 1 when the Chargers quarterback, Justin Herbert was the least pressured passer in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus, but things were much different in Weeks 2 & 3.

NFL: New York Giants at Washington Football Team Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

According to PFF, Daniel Jones and Josh Allen were each among the top six most-pressured passers in the NFL when facing Washington. Unfortunately for Washington, both Jones and Allen handled that pressure, earning top grades in that regard from PFF. Washington needs to convert more of that pressure into sacks, but the real issue is that the secondary needs to take advantage of the pressure to disrupt the passing game.

The eye test says that WFT pass defenders are playing far off the line of scrimmage and are not disrupting receivers on their releases. In today’s timing-based passing offenses, quarterbacks are able to play pitch and catch with their receivers and keep the chains moving. While Rivera and Del Rio seem to have been working on a theory of giving up limited gains and making the tackle while avoiding getting beat for the big play, that strategy clearly isn’t working. The strategy relies on the ability to stop teams from converting 3rd downs, and Washington is giving away 3rd down conversions like a drunk Oprah Winfrey (you get a first down, and you get a first down…).

Of course, facing Atlanta represents a good opportunity for Washington’s pass rush to start converting the rush into sacks thanks to the Falcons’ struggles handling pressure. Unlike the quarterbacks for the Giants and Bills, Atlanta’s Matt Ryan has been among the least effective quarterbacks in the NFL when pressured thus far this season. PFF ranks the Atlanta passer 36th among quarterbacks when under pressure in the first three weeks of the 21 season. That’s right...Ryan is 36th in a 32-team league. In fact, the past two seasons have seen Ryan grade out as below average when under pressure after several seasons of being among PFF’s highest-graded passers in the same situations.

Matt Ryan’s MVP season of 2016 seems to have been tied to his offensive coordinator, Kyle Shanahan. With Shanny junior’s departure to San Fran in the 2017 season, the Falcon’s fortunes have waned. After famously blowing a 28-3 lead to lose Super Bowl LI, the Falcons have put together seasons of 10-6, 7-9, 7-9, 4-12, closely mirroring the futility of the Washington franchise’s final four seasons as the Redskins, when they went 8-7-1, 7-9, 7-9, 3-13.

Two teams trying to reverse recent struggles

Washington closed out that final season as the Redskins (2019) by sacking Jay Gruden after an 0-5 start, and finishing the season under Bill Callahan. The team then tried to begin a new era by hiring Ron Rivera in 2020.

NFL: Preseason-Washington Redskins at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

For the Falcons, the change came a year later, with team owner Arthur Blank dumping Dan Quinn after an 0-5 start to the 2020 season, and naming our old friend Raheem Morris as the interim HC to finish out the season. 2021 marks the ‘restart’ for the Falcons under current head coach Arthur Smith. While coaching changes are often necessary and typically pay dividends over the long term, the first year under a new head coach often involves a lot of difficulty as the team faces changes in the way everything is done.

It seems that, for the Falcons, having two new starters on the offensive line, a new head coach and play-caller in Smith, and the loss of Matt Ryan’s favorite security blanket, Julio Jones, who was traded to the Titans for 2nd & 4th round draft picks in the ’22 and ’23 drafts, has magnified whatever issues have affected Ryan since his MVP season of 2016.

A “get well” game, but for which team?

Fans in Atlanta and Washington will each be looking at today’s Week 4 matchup as a “get well” game, though it seems fair to say that Washington fans entered the season with higher expectations, and, therefore, will be more deeply crushed if their team comes out on the losing end of today’s contest.

With a first-year coach and some injury issues, the Falcons aren’t likely to implode if they drop to 1-3 this week, but “pending implosion” doesn’t feel like hyperbole when used to describe what is likely to result if the Football Team returns from Atlanta without achieving a .500 record.

Montez Sweat

The team’s pass rush, which, as detailed above, has probably been better than most people think, still has the opportunity to have an impact on this game, given Matt Ryan’s apparent issues against pressure.

While Chase Young is the team’s highest profile defensive player and the guy who gets the plaudits from the national media, it is the guy on the other side, Montez Sweat, that most consistently produces in the pass rush.

NFL: Washington Football Team at Buffalo Bills Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

PFF has a metric called a “true pass set” to evaluate both offensive linemen and pass-rushers. The metric eliminates screens, play-action passes, rollouts and plays that feature very long or very short times to throw, in an effort to better indicate how players perform when scheme and other factors are mitigated. Sweat ranked third among edge-rushers in “win percentage” on true pass sets in 2020, and he’s continuing to excel in this metric this year. He has earned a 90.5 pass-rushing grade on true pass sets so far this season, which is equal to the grade earned by Myles Garrett, who is coming off a 4.5-sack performance in Week 3. If Sweat and his teammates can bring that pressure and convert some of it into sacks against Matt Ryan, it could be a long day for Atlanta’s offense, which has averaged just 16 points per game through the first three weeks.

Washington’s surprising success in avoiding sacks

Offensively, Washington’s O-line has allowed just a 3.2% sack percentage. The 3 sacks given up by Washington through 3 games has been matched only by the Rams, and the 18 yards lost on those three sacks are an NFL best. Much of the credit for this success should probably go to Taylor Heinicke, whose mobility has helped mitigate the impact of opposing pass rushes. While No. 4 has technically been sacked twice (once each against the Giants and Bills) the second sack was for zero yards.

NFL: Washington Football Team at Buffalo Bills
Background: Sep 26, 2021; Orchard Park, New York, USA; Washington Football Team quarterback Taylor Heinicke (4) slides to avoid a tackle by Buffalo Bills middle linebacker Tremaine Edmunds (49) in the fourth quarter at Highmark Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark Konezny
Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Meanwhile, Atlanta is tied for 17th in league in sacks surrendered, with Ryan going down 7 times, and they are tied for 16th in the NFL for sacks by their defense, having gotten to opposing quarterbacks 6 times in three games. At a guess, I suspect that Taylor Heinicke may be able to continue to mitigate the sack production of the opposing defense, but he simply can’t combine that with interceptions like the two he threw against Buffalo. In those situations, the sack would actually have been preferable. That’s where Ron Rivera’s “game manager” comments came from this week.

Washington’s rushing game

When it comes to running the ball, I feel like Washington has been fairly successful, though the stats don’t really bear out my gut feeling. Looking at the stats sheet, the run game seems to have struggled, with the offense producing just 3.9 yards per carry. Antonio Gibson actually had good games against the Chargers (90 yards, 4.5 ypc) and Giants (69 yards, 5.3 ypc). It was against the Bills that he struggled to put up good rushing stats, picking up just 31 yards at 2.6 ypc. His struggles as a runner in that game, however, were greatly overshadowed by his spectacular 73-yard touchdown scamper on a screen pass that ended with a season highlight film leap for the pylon.

NFL: New York Giants at Washington Football Team Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

It was actually JD McKissic who excelled on a yards-per-carry basis last week, earning 7.7 yards per tote against Buffalo’s defense. On the whole, McKissic is averaging 5.1 ypc through three games while Gibson is averaging 4.2 ypc on a significantly larger workload.

NFL: New York Giants at Washington Football Team Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

My sense is that Washington’s limited rushing yardage (97 yards per game) has resulted primarily from game script (we’ve been playing from behind a lot and passing more than we should). If Washington can avoid playing from behind against Atlanta, I think that the WFT running backs are capable of consistently moving the ball and eating up game clock.

Time of Possession

So far this season, Washington’s time of possession has been the third-lowest in the league at just 25:32. That seems much more indicative of the defense failing to get off the field rather than any particular failure by the offense. Washington has been punting 4 times per game – pretty much the league average – but Washington’s opponent’s have punted only 7 times all season. Only two defenses in the league have forced fewer punts in 2021, highlighting the team’s almost inexplicable failure to stop opponents on 3rd down.

This week’s offensive X-factor

When it comes to Atlanta defending against the passing game, Taylor Heinicke is only half the equation, and the Falcons will need to deal with a variable that the Chargers, Giants and Bills didn’t have to solve.

Curtis Samuel

Outside of McLaurin, the other receivers—Adam Humphries, rookie Dyami Brown, and Cam Sims—have combined for 16 catches for 125 yards. Of course, this overlooks the fact that TE Logan Thomas, and RBs JD McKissic and Antonio Brown are the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th leading pass catchers on the team, but Washington’s ability to stress defenses should be greatly enhanced by having Curtis Samuel on the field.

Carolina Panthers v New Orleans Saints Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

His flexibility to line up in the slot, out wide and in the backfield, and to threaten the defense with his speed and shiftiness at every level of defense and from sideline-to-sideline as a runner or receiver has the potential to transform the Football Team’s offensive attack, and the Falcons won’t have the benefit of any game film of Samuel in a burgundy & gold uniform. Hopefully, Curtis Samuel will be an X-factor in this game that delights Washington fans and overwhelms the Atlanta defense.

What has been happening with Atalanta’s passing game?

On the other side of the ball, although talented on paper, the Falcons wide receiver and tight end group hasn’t really shown much the first few games, and just doesn’t seem as intimidating without Julio Jones. Atlanta ranks 26th in passing yards per game and 28th in total yards per game.

But…

Didn’t they draft a tight end in the first round of the draft?

Rookie Kyle Pitts has yet to really break out. His best game was in Week 2, when he went for 73 yards on 5 receptions against Tampa Bay. He hasn’t scored a touchdown yet this season.

Atlanta Falcons v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

Any Washington fan who has been paying attention for the past decade knows that there isn’t a tight end alive and active on gameday in the NFL who can’t look like an all-pro against Washington’s defense. While the drafting of Jamin Davis this season offered hope that Washington’s days of giving up the middle of the field to opposing tight ends might be coming to an end, like Kyle Pitts, the promise hasn’t yet been realized. If anyone seems primed for a breakout against Washington today, it’s the Falcons’ talented rookie tight end.

Atlanta’s offensive X-factor

In the first three weeks, Cordarrelle Patterson has been the unquestioned MVP at the skill positions for Atlanta. I watched the game against the Giants, and you could see that, while the coaches may still be figuring out how to help Kyle Pitts reach his full potential, this may be the first coaching staff in Patterson’s career that has figured out how to use him effectively.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at New York Giants Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Cordarrelle Patterson, so far this season, is averaging 11.8 yards per reception (matching his career best), with 150 yards after catch (11.5 avg). He is rushing for 4.0 yards per carry, and 23 yards per kickoff return. He has two touchdowns. The 6’2”, 238 pound Patterson is #2 in rushing behind Mike Davis and #2 in receiving behind Calvin Ridley. He has scored 40% of the team’s touchdowns this season.

Bottom line

So, it seems to me that if the defense can pressure Matt Ryan, key on Cordarrelle Patterson when he’s on the field, and avoid letting Kyle Pitts enjoy his NFL breakout today, then there seems to be a good chance that the Falcons can be held to less than 20 points. Jack Del Rio’s defense will have to do that without Benjamin St-Juste, but I get the feeling that Washington won’t suffer too much with Torry McTyer and possibly Darryl Roberts stepping up.

A strong defensive rebound against a less-than-potent Falcons offense would give the Taylor Heinicke-led WFT offense a good chance to take advantage of the return of Curtis Samuel to help notch the team’s second win and return home with a .500 record.

Let’s hope it all goes well. I’m not ready to see the Cracks of Doom.

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