Offense’s assignment: Hit the ground running
WASHINGTON — After a one-point victory last week over the worst team in the NFL, the Redskins have to face one of the league’s best outfits.
The San Francisco 49ers, coached by former Washington offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, are 5-0 and winning with a powerful offense and suffocating defense. In their past two games, they held the Browns and Rams to a combined 10 points.
This is not an easy week for the Redskins, who face the formidable Vikings four days later in Minnesota. But first, here are five keys for Washington against San Francisco.
Run the ball: Interim coach Bill Callahan has promised his team will be dedicated to running the ball, even bringing in a fullback to add what he hopes will be more versatility to the offense. So far, so good: In last week’s win at Miami, running back Adrian Peterson gained 118 yards on 23 carries.
Eventually, the running game opened up opportunities for quarterback Case Keenum to hit rookie Terry McLaurin, who had two touchdown catches. But the Dolphins have the league’s second-worst run defense; the 49ers have the sixth-best.
The Redskins could quickly find themselves in third-and-long situations if they don’t run well on early downs, and that’s a scary proposition against an aggressive San Francisco defensive front.
Stop the run: No one runs the ball more than the 49ers, and almost no one runs it as well. Matt Breida, Tevin Coleman and Raheem Mostert have combined to rush for 790 yards behind one of the league’s better offensive lines. If San Francisco establishes the run early, the Redskins defense is going to have a tough time with the 49ers’ passing game, which features hard-to-cover tight end George Kittle, who leads the team with 31 catches for 338 yards.
The pressure will be on Washington’s defensive front to stop the ground game early and force Jimmy Garoppolo to throw, something he hasn’t had to do much this season. He’s averaging 20.4 completions per game.
Garoppolo has been intercepted five times, and the 49ers have fumbled seven times (losing five) in five games. Perhaps their biggest flaw is that they have given their opponent opportunities to take the ball away. The Redskins had two interceptions against the Dolphins and even intercepted Tom Brady once the week before, but they have not been forcing turnovers as much as they will need to moving forward.
To be able to beat a ball-control team with a defense as elite as the 49ers’ Washington must force fumbles and pressure Garoppolo into ill-advised throws.
Avoid breakdowns: For much of the season, Washington has been its own worst enemy. The Redskins have killed promising drives with inopportune penalties and let their opponents rack up big plays, with defensive miscommunication allowing pass catchers to run open.
Callahan has made cleaning up these mistakes one of his priorities, and the Redskins didn’t make many mistakes for three quarters against the Dolphins. But they allowed Ryan Fitzpatrick, Miami’s backup quarterback, to tear them apart in the fourth quarter and almost lost a game they should have won going away.
Good teams such as San Francisco thrive on such errors. The Redskins need to fix the communication problems and eliminate the sloppy penalties.
Win the field-position game: The Redskins didn’t have an explosive offense or a dominant defense last season, but they won six of their first nine games by employing a solid ball-control style, eating up clock with Peterson and pinning the other team deep in its own territory.
They have not been able to do those things as well in 2019, in part because of injuries, losses on the offensive line and less effective quarterback play. And their defense has been particularly weak on third down, allowing opponents to extend drives.
Washington is built to be more of a ball-control team than one that hits on big plays. The sooner it settles into that style, the more competitive it can be.