Sunday will be an interesting day for Redskins running back Matt Jones after a strong finish in last week’s win over the New York Giants. He gained 37 of his 65 yards on the game-winning field-goal drive, with carries of six, 10, 12 and five yards. More importantly for the Redskins, he ran the way they’ve wanted him to, with power. It’s what Jones wanted to see as well. “You look at the film and how I was running in the first half and then the second half?” Jones said. “That’s something you can learn from. Just picking holes and you’ve got to know which one and to be decisive. I could feel myself running downhill. I could feel my power.”
That wasn’t the case early in the game as Jones missed a few holes and did not squeeze out the yardage coaches felt was available. “Their line was so big and clogging up the gaps, which was making me be hesitant and try to find a hole,” he said. “That being said, when I was getting hit, it made me more mad. They were playing good run defense. Once we got them loosened up, there were plays to be made and I felt I needed to make a play out there. Everyone else was making plays. I felt I should be part of that.”
The Redskins are better when they have a stronger commitment to the ground game. There were times the Giants’ linebackers were sucked up by play-action fakes, leaving passing lanes for quarterback Kirk Cousins -- as on the 20-yard dig-route to receiver Pierre Garcon. But if Jones can repeat that decisive fourth quarter, it would definitely help the Redskins. Still, the play-action game is working: The Redskins average an NFL-best 13.69 yards per play-action pass compared with 9.90 last season.
The Redskins will start seven former draft picks on offense, including all five offensive linemen, on Sunday. Slot receiver Jamison Crowder is basically a starter because of how many times they’re in three-receiver formations, so that would give them eight. Defensively, it’s a different story as the Redskins have just two former draft picks who will start Sunday -- linebackers Ryan Kerrigan and Preston Smith. Linebacker Will Compton was an undrafted free agent so it's the same as the draft picks. Another player, slot corner Kendall Fuller, will replace another one of their undrafted free agents in Dashaun Phillips, out with a hamstring injury. Corner Bashaud Breeland will start when healthy. But this speaks to the need for more homegrown talent on defense.
Jamison Crowder's lack of success on punt returns was puzzling last season considering he’s well suited for the role based on his running style -- very shifty and capable of making the first defender miss. It's why he's so good on the slip screens. But he averaged just 5.3 yards on 30 returns last season. This year? He’s averaging 21.0 on five returns. That’s helped by a 50-yarder last week, aided in part by a Duke Ihenacho devastating block that took out two pursuers. But even without that kick he’d be averaging 13.75 yards. “It’s not just me, the punt-return team is better,” Crowder said. “Last year I had some times where I wouldn’t hit the hole like I should have. But a lot of times there were three or four guys in my face. I can’t shake the whole team. This year guys are doing a really good job holding up. I can field the ball and see the holes and which way I want to go.”
Get ready for a lot of different formations by Cleveland on Sunday. They’ll use receiver Terrelle Pryor all over the place -- split wide, tight to the formation and in the backfield as a Wildcat quarterback. Sometimes he’ll be aligned at quarterback in a diamond formation -- similar to what Washington used in its 2012 zone-read heyday. Beware the one read play-action pass, which, when the Redskins used to run it, was the most effective weapon. On a typical play-action pass in 2012, a typical linebacker might take 1.4 to 1.6 seconds to recover. The zone read play-action would sometimes take up to 1.9 seconds.
Another formation had both tackles split wide with a receiver outside them and another player behind them. Then the Browns ran the ball up the middle. The feeling among some Redskins players: They do too much. “They just try to trick you,” one player said.
Former Redskins draft pick Austin Reiter is expected to start at center for Cleveland on Sunday. Had Reiter stuck around, he would have been promoted to the Redskins’ active roster because of the season-ending injury to center Kory Lichtensteiger. Spencer Long was ahead of Reiter at center, so he still would have started. But Reiter listened to his agents, Jesse Foreman and Bek Talipov, and jumped at the chance to sign with Cleveland. Sometimes, practice-squad players stay where they are knowing it might be a better long-term chance.
One player to watch for Cleveland’s defense is nose tackle Danny Shelton. He’s a big-bodied player who has improved. It’s not as if he can’t be overcome, but when he’s going well he plays with good leverage and strength. It helped that Shelton lost at least 30 pounds from the end of last season so he’s not wearing out during games.