On Friday, we at Acme Packing Company took some time to speak with Alex Rowsey, one of the writers over at Hogs Haven. Alex was able to give us some great insights into the Green Bay Packers' opponents this week, as the Green Bay-Washington matchup is one that has been exceedingly rare in recent years.
APC: The Packers have struggled mightily on offense, but Washington has given up a ton of yards on defense. What are the keys to your team's defense being effective in general, and what matchups do you feel favor the Hogs when Green Bay has the ball?
HH: Our defense is predicated on rushing the passer. Ideally, it would start with stopping the run, but the Redskins have struggled in that department for much of the year. Having Terrance Knighton in the middle certainly helps, but it seems that most teams are capable of having at least a decent day rushing the ball against the Redskins. Where they make their hay is by rushing the passer and collapsing the pocket to help aid their middling, banged up secondary. This strategy has really taken off over the past month as the Redskins are rushing the passer far better than they were earlier in the season. A lot of that can be attributed to the emergence of the rookie OLB Preston Smith. Smith was a second-round pick for the 'Skins this past draft, but he leads all rookies in the NFL in sacks this year with eight. Then there's DE Chris Baker who's having a career year and has registered six sacks. And of course, Ryan Kerrigan leads the team with 9.5 while veteran Jason Hatcher is constantly around the QB and had last week off to get fresh.
Another area the Redskin defense excels in is forcing fumbles. I'm sure it's been taught (like most all teams teach that skill), but the players really seem to take that lesson to heart. The Redskins are tied for first in the NFL with 22 forced fumbles and 15 recovered fumbles this year. That's huge. Chris Baker especially excels in this department for some reason. And it's a good thing, because the secondary has been severely beat up this year and there wasn't a whole lot expected of them when healthy. Top CB Chris Culliver is out for the year. DeAngelo Hall missed a bunch of time and has now transitioned from CB to S mid-season. Starting SS Duke Ihenacho was lost for the year early in the season. And now, the Redskins are relying on a crazy cast of characters to hold things together back there and DB Coach Perry Fewell along with DC Joe Barry deserve a lot of credit. They're starting Will Blackmon, a 31-year-old mid-season FA acquisition who was unemployed and relying heavily on Quinton Dunbar, an UDFA rookie who came to camp as a WR and is playing CB for the first time in his life this year.
The match-up that I think most heavily favors the 'Skins is their defensive front/pass rush against the Packer OL. It seems that the Packers OL is having a down year and is pretty banged up. I expect the Redskins to really try to force their advantage there and expect to be able to get a solid amount of pressure on Rodgers throughout the game.
APC: With Kirk Cousins throwing just three interceptions since week six compared to 27 total touchdowns (including four on the ground), what can you point to as the biggest reason for his elevated play over the second half of the year?
HH: I'm not sure I can accurately answer this question as that's really something only Kirk could answer definitively, but I believe there are two prevailing factors that are bound to make the difference. First of all, Kirk has confidence right now. I think that's come from the coaching staff by declaring him the starter prior to the season and then refusing to waiver from that regardless of Kirk's struggles. While he was playing in the beginning of the season and at times struggling, there was never any doubt that he'd continue to play and continue to start. In fact, Aaron Rodgers said this same sentiment just the other day. Kirk knowing he's not going to get quickly yanked or having to constantly look over his shoulders or feel like he has to force things to keep his job has surely helped ease his mind and give him confidence as the season has gone on.
The other factor is repetitions. Kirk is 27 and in his fourth year in the league. He's not a rookie. Still, he's a relatively inexperienced QB. This is his first year as a starter and for most of his career, a vast majority of the developmental reps at QB for the Washington Redskins have gone to RGIII. A player can grow by watching, but I don't think anything can give the confidence that experience and repetitions can. Kirk's been able to actually go out and physically make mistakes and learn from them. I think that's huge.
APC: Alfred Morris' numbers have declined steadily each year, both in terms of total yards and yards per carry. Is there any clear explanation for this, or is the heavy workload early in his career already catching up to him?
HH: There are a number of possible explanations, but I don't think anyone can say for sure. Obviously, Alf had the huge rookie season in 2012 along with RGIII and that success is going to be basically impossible to replicate. His job as a RB was made incredibly easier by the system that was in place and the threat RGIII posed to the league as a rookie.
Another change that's affected Morris is at HC. Mike Shanahan is known for what he's done with RBs in his career. The zone blocking scheme is a thing of beauty when taught and executed properly and Alfred Morris is unbelievably good at it. He has an unnatural ability to be patient and set up blocks when stretching zone runs to the outside and gets up field quickly and decisively at the right time. He's also always excelled at breaking tackles. Jay Gruden (and Bill Callahan) have brought a bit more of a power scheme that asks different things of their RBs. Alfred just doesn't seem to be as good at running in this style. Furthermore, Gruden's offense likes to have RBs that are threats as pass catchers and that's not something Morris has really ever done with any consistency.
You also have to consider that Morris has had something like 1,100 carries in his career. He's 27, so it's not like he's old, but that's a lot of carries and has to have some sort of an impact on a player. Morris' numbers have fallen off even more dramatically this year thanks to the drafting and introduction of the third-round rookie Matt Jones into the offense. From day one, it's been a RBBC in Washington this year and that's obviously caused Morris' numbers to take another huge hit.
APC: The two significant Packers connections in Washington are cornerback Will Blackmon (a former Green Bay draft pick) and GM Scot McCloughan, who was a Packers scout in the 90s. How has Blackmon played as a starter this year, and what is the general consensus on McCloughan after his first year in charge?
HH: Blackmon has been solid if unspectacular. Adequate would be a word for his play. He's not been the Redskins best CB, but he's far surpassed anyone's expectation for him as a 31-year-old coming in off the streets in-season. He's been a crucial addition and fans have been pleasantly surprised (probably coaches, too). He brings a nice veteran presence and has the versatility to play outside and in the slot. Once injuries took their toll in the Redskin secondary, it was nice to find a vet who could jump right in and not have growing pains. He's limited, but he knows how to play and has been good.
Everyone in Washington wants to have Scot McCloughan's babies. That's the general consensus. He's damn near worshiped by 'Skins fans and has been the savior of the team this year. People love the way he talks. They love his resume. They love that he's not Bruce Allen or Vinny Cerrato or any other non-football person who's been making football decisions for the Redskins since Dan Snyder bought the team in '99. They love his inaugural draft. They love the FA class he brought in this year. They love the leadership he's brought and the "culture change" he's established in the locker-room and on the field. Will Blackmon is a great example of this, but they love his in-season work to bring in the right vets that have played their parts perfectly to keep this season rolling along and prevent it from getting derailed thanks to injuries. Seriously, he's been perfect. He should probably win the Executive of the Year and I think everyone wants him to be the Redskin GM for decades to come.
APC: If you had to pick an under-the-radar player on both offense and defense who should have a big impact on Sunday's game, who would those players be and why?
HH: I'm going to give you two on offense: Alfred Morris and Pierre Thomas. Morris may not seem under-the-radar to Packer fans, but him having a huge day would surprise most Redskin fans at this point. I think the Redskins are going to come into the game knowing the struggles GB has had against the run and really try to establish themselves at home. Matt Jones is likely to be out due to injury, so Morris is going to get a lot of work and he's someone who's always gotten better the more carries he gets. I think they'll ride him a little more than they have most of this year. Thomas is another one of Scot's great mid-season acquisitions who's really played well for the Redskins. He's a very good receiver out of the backfield, he's fresh, and our other backs are banged up aside from he and Morris. He'll get a lot of work and may surprise a lot of Packer fans.
Defensively, I'm going with Will Compton. He's one of the starting ILBs and he's really gotten better as the season has gone along. He's instinctive, makes the right calls and can sniff out a lot of plays before they happen, and is always around the ball making a ton of tackles.
Thanks to Alex and Hogs Haven for taking the time to help us break down the game. As always, here's to a clean, injury-free game on Sunday.