Redskins focus on pressuring Eagles' Wentz
ASHBURN, Va. — Last year, the NFC East was a debacle, with the division-winning Washington Redskins taking the lone playoff spot at 9-7.
This year, it is been the best division in football so far.
Every team has at least two wins, and the Redskins, Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys are a combined 10-4.
The first real division showdown of the season comes Sunday at FedEx Field where the Eagles (3-1) face the Redskins (3-2). The winner would find itself in first place or tied for first if Dallas (4-1) loses on the road to the Green Bay Packers.
Last year, Washington swept Philadelphia, clinching the NFC East in the next-to-last week on the road at Lincoln Financial Field. However, the Redskins will see a far more cohesive Eagles team this time around, with rookie quarterback Carson Wentz and new coach Doug Pederson leading Philadelphia.
The Redskins' ideal scenario on defense would be bringing pressure from all over to force Wentz into youthful mistakes. However, is proving to be a good athlete capable of making plays on the move. Wentz has completed 67.4 percent of his passes.
Washington, meanwhile, has struggled to generate consistent pressure through its first five games. Even so, the Redskins can't treat Wentz like an average rookie. He is making opponents who do so pay for it, and he has thrown just one interception in 135 pass attempts. He has seven touchdown passes.
“When teams blitz, it takes everybody,” Wentz said. “It takes the O-line picking up guys, getting their jobs done and then receivers winning. It takes receivers, tight ends, running backs. It takes them winning and getting open early. I think we've done a really good job of that. We're all playing on the same page, playing fast.”
Wentz will be without left tackle Lane Johnson, who had a 10-game suspension by the NFL upheld this week. He begins serving it and won't play. That leaves Wentz's blindside in the hands of a fellow rookie Halapoulivaati Vaitai, who played college football at Texas Christian.
The Redskins likely will try to take advantage of Vaitai. They have rotated pass rushers Ryan Kerrigan, Preston Smith and Trent Murphy at outside linebacker all season, and so far Murphy has produced the most.
Murphy, who gained 30 pounds at the team's request to move to defensive end, had to move back to outside linebacker in training camp after a season-ending injury to pass-rush specialist Junior Galette. Murphy has been dynamite with a team-best 4.5 sacks in his third season. He only had six total in his first two years in the NFL.
Kerrigan has 2.5 sacks and is dealing with groin and elbow injuries. Smith has been a disappointment after an eight-sack rookie season. He has yet to record one sack in 2016.
Better tackling helped fuel Washington's win against the Baltimore Ravens last Sunday. That had better continue against an Eagles team that has players such as running back Darren Sproles who can punish teams for missing.
“Compared to the Cleveland game, I thought it was a major improvement, that's for sure,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said of his linebackers and safeties bringing Ravens players to the ground quickly and consistently. “I think they took it all upon themselves to make sure they were more sound in their fundamentals as far as tackling is concerned. I got tired of hearing about it.”
Washington could be without star tight end Jordan Reed, who has a suspected concussion. That would be a major loss. Reed had two touchdowns in the division-clinching win Dec. 26 in Philadelphia.
The Redskins need to get the ball to wide receiver DeSean Jackson, either way. He had just four catches the past two weeks. It doesn't hurt that Jackson often torches for former team. In three games against the Eagles since leaving Philadelphia after the 2013 season, Jackson has 13 catches for 283 yards and a touchdown. However, the animosity he held for former Philadelphia coach Chip Kelly, who cut him unceremoniously, is gone now.
“Doug Pederson is actually a good friend of mine,” Jackson said. “We got a good relationship when he was in Philly coaching, so I don't have no bad taste in my mouth versus him. We'll just play, and hopefully we'll get this win.”