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What to Watch: Falcons vs. Redskins

This could be the turning point in Washington's season



    What to Watch: Falcons vs. Redskins
    Getty Images
    Alfred Morris helps Robert Griffin III off the ground during the Sept. 23 game against the Cincinnati Bengals.

    Game time: Sunday, Oct. 7, 1 p.m. ET, FedEx Field
    TV: FOX
    Weather: mid-70s, partly sunny
    Records: Falcons (4-0) at Redskins (2-2)

    When the Redskins have the ball. It's no secret that Washington's offense is about two things: a strong rushing attack that sets up Robert Griffin III as both as runner and a passer. We've mentioned before that while RGIII is on a record-setting pace through the first month of his NFL career, it's been Alfred Morris and the running game that has set the tone for this offense.

    That won't change Sunday against the undefeated Falcons. The splash plays are likely to come courtesy of Griffin's arm, but it will be the steady-as-she-goes ground game that will facilitate it. Coach Mike Shanahan's success with the zone-blocking scheme is well documented, and Morris is the latest beneficiary.

    “That scheme is a zone scheme, one cut and get downhill," Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said Wednesday. "That’s something that Coach Shanahan has been doing for a long time. It doesn’t matter which back is back there; they’ve been doing a great job running the ball wherever he’s been. We have our hands full with the scheme and Alfred is playing well.”

    Also helping the 'Skins: Seeing what the Panthers were able to do with the read-option last week.

    “I’m sure they’ll study the film and look at how Carolina was successful," head coach Mike Smith said of the Redskins, according to AtlantaFalcons.com. "I know that they’ve been doing some things very well through the first four games. We’re going to make sure that we’ve shored up the issues we had in giving up 200 yards rushing last week, that’s for sure.”

    Meanwhile, one of Washington's big offseason acquisitions, wideout Pierre Garcon, returned to action last week after being sidelined for two games with an injured foot. He admits that he's not fully recovered and he's not sure when that will be.

    “It’s going to take some time to feel back like my old self, like it was in training camp,” he told the Washington Post. “But it’s a process. It’s a battle. But it’s coming along.”

    When the Falcons have the ball. Through four weeks, quarterback Matt Ryan is the frontrunner for NFL MVP. He's been that good. He's had help, of course, and it starts with his pass-catchers: Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez, as well as Ryan's mastery of the no-huddle offense.

    The running game, while not yet relegated to afterthought status, isn't a critical cog in the Falcons' success. According to Football Outsiders, Atlanta is the league's seventh-best passing team but 21st in the running game.

    Put another way: The Redskins are going to have to get after Ryan and keep him off-balance, and they'll have to do it without two cornerstones of their front seven -- linebacker Brian Orakpo and defensive lineman Adam Carriker, who were both lost to season-ending injuries.

    “Ryan is playing at a very high level this year and he’s got great skill players around him,” linebacker Ryan Kerrigan said via the Post. “Pressure is going to be paramount for us up front…. You can see that he’s really taken that next step this year. He’s playing at the highest level of any quarterback in this league, probably, right now. He’s playing very well. They’re really firing on all cylinders.”

    So pressure is one half the equation: the other half: The secondary. As we wrote Thursday, cornerback DeAngelo Hall is well aware of the issues in the defensive backfield and they'll need to be remedied quickly if the Redskins are going to have a chance this weekend.

    "We’ve struggled," Hall said earlier this week. "If you look at the stats, we’ve definitely struggled with consistency. But we feel good about the guys that we got."

    But as has often been the case, Washington's hopes and dreams rest with one player: RGIII.

    "I think the question mark coming into the season was how good could this quarterback be and how good could we be offensively," Hall continued. "I think we’ve answered all of those questions so far through the short season. The pressure is going to fall back on us on defense. We love that. We love to have that kind of pressure on us."

    With Ryan, White, Jones and Gonzalez, there will be plenty of pressure to go around. Now it becomes a matter of how the 'Skins deal with it.

    X Factor. Special teams are the red-headed stepchildren of NFL clubs. This week, however, Redskins kicker Billy Cundiff is the story. He missed three field goals against Tampa Bay before converting a 41-yarder with seconds left on the clock to eke out the victory.

    This is the same Billy Cundiff who in January honked a 32-yarder in the AFC Championship game that sent the Patriots to the Super Bowl and the Ravens home. Shanahan said the team wouldn't bring in kickers this week (and as far as we know they didn't) but another 1-for-4 afternoon for Cundiff will almost certainly end his tenure in Washington.