When the Washington Redskins began preparing to face the 0-5 San Francisco 49ers, coach Jay Gruden wanted to get a message across.
“They're four plays away from being 4-1,” Gruden told his players.
That may be the hyperbole of a coach trying to keep his team from overlooking a winless opponent, though San Francisco is the first team since the 1994 Houston Oilers to lose four consecutive games by three points or fewer. So the Redskins, despite being heavy favorites at home Sunday, insist they aren't taking the 49ers lightly.
“It doesn't matter what the record is, they're going to come in here ready to play,” linebacker Mason Foster said. “You can't look at anybody's record because everybody's a big-time player in this league. So you've got to come with it and watch the film, get ready for a dogfight, man, because that's what every NFL game's going to be.”
Since a 23-3 loss to Carolina in their opener, the 49ers have fallen in their past four games by a combined 11 points. Coach Kyle Shanahan, the Redskins' offensive coordinator from 2010-13, said it's a challenge to remain focused amid so many close losses.
“It does wear on you,” Shanahan said. “We were close in a bunch of those games, but we still lost. You have to sit there and figure out why and how you can figure out how to do better longer. It's nice to be in these games and have a chance to win, but we have got to get over that hump and find a way to finish one.”
Quarterback Brian Hoyer isn't quite sure if losing tight games is demoralizing or encouraging. But he does believe scoring 10 points in the final eight minutes of the fourth quarter last week in an overtime loss at Indianapolis gives the 49ers something to build on.
“We know how close we are,” Hoyer said. “I know that our opportunities are there. At some point we just have to take the bull by the horns and execute and take it on our own accord and just go out and do it.”
Here are some things to watch for when the Redskins host the 49ers:
SHANAHAN'S EXPERIENCE: A tumultuous time in Washington helped prepare Shanahan for the Atlanta Falcons' crushing Super Bowl loss, this rough start to his head-coaching tenure, and much more. Working under his father, Mike, who was the head coach, Kyle dealt with the saga surrounding Robert Griffin III and other drama with the Redskins.
“I thought I got extremely battle-tested in Washington,” Shanahan said. “I went through some stuff as a coordinator that most people don't go through until they become a head coach. And I watched some head coaches go through things for the first time and I can see it bothers them, and I'm like, ‘Man, I've been going through this for a long time.’”
REUBEN RETURNS: The 49ers are expected to get a big boost on defense this week with the return of rookie linebacker Reuben Foster. Foster sprained his ankle in the first quarter of the opener against Carolina, but he made a big impact in his brief play. Foster had three tackles and a pass breakup in 11 plays before the injury. Gruden said Foster was his second-favorite defensive player in the draft behind his own first-round pick, Jonathan Allen.
“He can run, he can hit, he can cover,” Gruden said. “He can do everything you want a linebacker to do. So I think he's force.”
NO NORMAN: Redskins cornerback Josh Norman is out with a fractured rib, pushing Bashaud Breeland, Kendall Fuller, Quinton Dunbar and rookie Fabian Moreau into bigger roles. Dunbar, a converted receiver, could start across from Breeland.
“He thinks he can cover anybody, anytime, anywhere,” Gruden said. “He's been out here at practice covering DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon last year, and this year with all these other guys. He's just, ‘Line `em up,' he's just bump and run. That's the mindset that he has and that's a great mindset to have.”
TWO-HEADED BACK: Shanahan went to more of a rotation at running back last week with undrafted rookie Matt Breida getting 10 carries for 49 yards and adding three catches for 22 yards against the Colts. Carlos Hyde had gotten more than two-thirds of the carries the first four weeks, but a sore hip and a fumble led to Breida getting more chances. Hyde had eight carries for 11 yards in the game.
“We ended up just going with the hot hand,” Shanahan said. “We felt like Breida was going better at the time.”
ENERGIZER DAVIS: Redskins tight end Vernon Davis spent his first nine-plus seasons in San Francisco, catching 55 touchdown passes during his prime. The 49ers traded Davis to Denver in 2015, but the Washington native has kept his career going at age 33 with a touchdown this season and two last year.
“I go out and I try to compete at a high level and I do my best to help these guys win games,” Davis said. “As far as everything else, as far as playing at a high level at this point, I've always had faith and kept my faith.”