Washington also employs despicable, unrepentant child abuser Adrian Peterson. There are a lot of reasons to actively dislike Washington, and fortunately, the Packers will likely take out their frustrations by beating them soundly.
After jerking Kirk Cousins around with the franchise tag for a few years the Washington football team let him get away to Minnesota, and replaced him with Captain Checkdown Alex Smith. Andy Reid actually coaxed a few good deep passing seasons out of Smith, but Jay Gruden is unlikely to have similar success. While the Chiefs relied on Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce, both outstanding downfield weapons, the Washingtons lack talent at the receiver position. They signed vertical threat Paul Richardson from Seattle in the offseason, and with 12 targets, 8 catches, and 85 yards over 2 games, he is their leading wide receiver. Former first round pick Josh Doctson has been a bust, and Jamison Crowder is a strictly average, but reliable slot player.
The passing game runs through running back Chris Thompson, and tight end Jordan Reed. Thompson is secretly one of the NFL’s best weapons, and best running backs. He can hurt you on the ground if called upon to do so, with a career 5.3 yards per carry average, but his real value is as a receiver where he averaged over 13 yards per catch last season. That's an outlier that is likely to come back to earth, and has early on this season, but Thompson has caught over 90% of his targets for over 8 yards per reception while leading the team in targets. Reed is a good tight end when healthy, but if anyone thinks he can replicate what Travis Kelce did for Alex Smith, they need to think again. Reed hasn’t averaged over 11 yards per catch in a season since he was a rookie, and is generally much closer to 10. Kelce, on the other hand, has never averaged under 12 yards per reception.
What this all adds up to is a conservative offense based primarily on Alex Smith checking down to safe throws and not beating himself. Smith did a nice job finally breaking that mold over the last two campaigns, and it’s a bit of a disappointment to see him land with such a stereotypical Alex Smith team.
He won’t be helped on the ground. With running back Robert Kelley lost until at least week 11 and rookie Derrius Guice out for the year, Washington picked up Adrian Peterson, who, as I so often end up writing, is nearly as bad a football player as he is a person. Peterson has dominated the backfield with a hugely ineffective 37 carries for about 3 yards per carry. He boasts gaudy receiving numbers in the early going, but don’t be fooled by the small sample size success. Peterson averages 20 yards per reception, on 5 receptions, but the bulk of that came on a dump-off that turned into a 52 yard gain. The only problem with that gain is that Peterson fumbled at the end of it, and the defense recovered. He has two other decent catch-and runs, but both were more a result of poor tackling, and in the case of the Cardinals, seemingly uninterested defenses. Peterson remains a sure path to a poor offense as a two down back who struggles in pass pro, telegraphs plays, and puts the ball on the floor. Hope for a lot of him on Sunday.
Washington’s defense has been, in terms of production, a carbon copy of last year’s version; unable to stop the run, but very good against the pass. By DVOA Washington is 4th against the pass, and 28th against the run, which is a fairly common split in the modern NFL as teams realize that there is some strategic advantage to luring your opponent into running.
Last season Washington had an underrated defense ranking 6th against the pass and 29th against the run, but there is some reason for skeptical of their early success. For one thing, they beat a truly horrific Arizona team that can’t seem to get out of its own way, and ranks 31st out of 32 teams as a passing offense. They played a nice defensive game against Indianapolis, but the Colts are hardly offensive juggernauts as this point.
The other reason to be skeptical is that Washington shed a ton of secondary talent in the offseason. While Josh Norman is still an excellent corner, the rest of the secondary is average at best. DJ Swearinger is the only reason I’m willing to concede “average,” as he had a career year in 2017, but I suspect there was some “Clinton-Dix” to that career year as the safety job was easy last season. Slot corner Kendall Fuller was one of the NFL’s best, but he moved to Kansas city in the Alex Smith trade. Bashaud Breeland paired with Norman to form one of the best outside duos in football, but Breeland wasn’t re-signed, and then suffered an unusual foot injury in the Dominican Republic which became infected, causing him to fail a physical with Panthers. Quinton Dunbar is his uninspiring replacement, and having shed so much talent, it’s unlikely that this secondary retains its lofty ranking once they face competent offenses.
The Washingtons are productive upfront, where they are very talented when healthy. In fact, last season, of their 42 recorded sacks, only 4 were charted as “coverage sacks” by Football Outsiders. That means that 95% of their sacks were purely generated by pass pressure alone, which was the highest percentage in the NFL. The line gets the 2017 draft’s 17th overall pick, Jonathan Allen, back this season, to pair with 13th overall pick Da’Ron Payne. That young talent should blend well with stalwarts like Ryan Kerrigan, and former Bear Pernell McPhee to terrorize opposing quarterbacks. The secondary isn’t likely as good as its numbers, but the front seven is likely better.
The recipe for the Packers on offense should be very similar to the Bears’ game. The key to scoring on Washington is to get the ball out quickly, before the pass rush can impact an immobile Aaron Rodgers. Like the Bears, Washington employs exactly one good defensive back in Norman, and getting production from Geronimo Allison and Jimmy Graham is a must. While the Packers correctly value Jamaal Williams as one of the premier pass-blocking backs in the league, this is also a game that calls for more Aaron Jones, fresh off suspension. Washington is vulnerable to an explosive back.
Early season numbers, advanced or otherwise, aren’t terribly reliable as the sample size is miniscule. Washington, superficially, looks a lot like they did in 2017, but the combination of a more conservative quarterback with inferior weapons paired with a far less talented secondary makes Washington one of the weaker teams in the NFL. They are Arizona/Buffalo bad, but this is a game the Packers should win.