After falling to the New York Giants, the Washington Football Team will go on the road to play the Detroit Lions at Ford Field (A comprehensive preview of the game can be found, HERE).
Washington still has a shot to contend in the NFC East, but it will need to get a win this weekend to do so. Here are three keys entering the Week 10 matchup.
After holding the Dallas Cowboys to 83 yards on the ground in a 25-3 win, the expectation was that Washington’s defense would do something similar to the Giants, who ranked 27th in rushing offense. That was not the case, as Wayne Gallman and Alfred Morris led the Giants to 166 rushing yards on 35 carries.
According to head coach Ron Rivera, the linebackers played a role in allowing the Giants to run through the defense with such ease.
“In all honesty, I’m concerned at the play of the linebackers,” Rivera told NBC Sports Washington’s JP Finlay. “I think it’s a group of guys that are hesitant and still aren’t pulling the trigger and letting it go and just getting downhill and making some plays.”
Rivera said after the Giants game, as well as the days after, that the key to those struggles was gap control. Players were either too late getting to their gaps or were blocked before getting to their gaps. That allowed running lanes to open up and the Giants to rush for an average of 4.7 yards per attempt.
“You get into your crease and you hold your crease,” he said. “As we work our way vertically to the quarterback and there’s a run, you become disruptive. That’s the thing that we have to do and what we’ve got to do to be successful as a football team.”
Washington’s linebackers have a chance to redeem themselves against the Lions, who come into Sunday’s game 24th in rushing offense. An improved performance from the linebackers will help produce the consistency defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio is looking for from the group.
“We have high standards on defense, and we’re looking to live up to the standards that we’re setting for ourselves every week,” Del Rio said. “Each and every player on the unit, on the defensive unit, is working hard and committed to being their best. That’s how we’re going to approach it.”
Terry McLaurin was once again Washington’s best offensive weapon against the Giants, as he had seven receptions for 115 yards and a touchdown. But he wasn’t the only receiver who had a big game last week; Cam Sims, who caught his first-career touchdown against the Giants in Week 6, recorded 110 yards on three receptions.
“He had opportunities and made the most of those opportunities and [that] got him more,” said offensive coordinator Scott Turner. “I think that guys see that. I think Cam feels that and gives him confidence and gives the other players confidence.”
If Washington wants to take advantage of the Lions’ defense, which allows 30 points per game, it will need to continue getting Sims, as well as the rest of Washington’s receiving options, more involved. Outside of Sims and McLaurin, the only other receivers targeted against the Giants — Isaiah Wright and Steven Sims Jr. — combined to make four receptions for 34 yards. Smith’s favorite target, running back J.D. McKissic, was targeted 14 times and notched career highs in receptions (nine ) and receiving yards (65).
That should improve now that Alex Smith has had a full week of practice as the starting quarterback. Smith received limited reps in training camp and even fewer as Kyle Allen’s backup. Now that Smith is Washington’s signal-caller and has a full game plan catered to him, Rivera has seen his chemistry improve with the offense.
“And not just with Cam [Sims], but with the other guys that he’s working with in the different positions,” Rivera said. “You see him working with the tight ends and you see the comfort there. You see him working with the backs and see him hitting the backs with the swings on the underneath routes. Then, you see…the in routes, crossing, stuff like that with receivers. The more he works with them, obviously the more comfort and confidence level he gets.”
There were a bevy of circumstances that forced Washington to abandon the running game during its loss to the Giants, but it was clear McKissic and Antonio Gibson struggled with nine carries for 37 yards. The Lions should provide an easier challenge, as they allow an average of 148.1 yards on the ground.
Gibson has shown he can take advantage of teams with poor rushing defenses; he did so against the Cowboys with 128 yards and a touchdown while averaging 6.4 yards on 20 carries. His performance played a large role in Washington putting up 397 total yards.
Smith and Washington’s offense amassed 402 yards — the most since Week 1 of the 2018 season — but Turner doesn’t want the unit to rely so heavily on the passing game, which accounted for 91% of its total yardage. Every game plan is different, he said, but he also likes to see the offense be more balanced.
“If you want to be a good offense in this league, which is what we’re working to become, you’ve got to be able to do both,” Turner said. “When you need to run the ball, we’ve got to be able to run it like we did against Dallas when we had the lead. Then, when you’ve got to battle back and stay alive and give yourself a chance to throw it, you’ve got to be able to throw it.”