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3 keys for Washington to win big in the desert

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Antonio Gibson carries the ball during the Washington Football Team's practice on Dec. 2, 2021. (Emilee Fails/Washington Football Team)

The Washington Football Team is headed out to the desert as it puts its win streak on the line against the Las Vegas Raiders. Here are three keys to the game, presented by Van Metre.

1. Running backs must step up for absent J.D. McKissic.

J.D. McKissic has proven to be one of Washington's most valuable free agent acquisitions of the past two seasons. He's second on the team in receiving yards (397), targets (53) and receptions (43) this season, and he's one of the most productive pass-catching running backs alongside the New Orleans Saints' Alvin Kamara. On Sunday, Washington will be without its versatile playmaker.

That means the rest of Washington's running backs will have to pick up the slack.

The team should have no concerns about that when it comes to Antonio Gibson, who is seventh in the league with 712 rushing yards. He hasn't been used much as a pass-catcher, but his 73 yards against the Buffalo Bills and 82 against the Baltimore Ravens in 2020 show that he can handle that responsibility, if needed.

Head coach Ron Rivera also mentioned that Wendell Smallwood -- signed to the practice squad Nov. 2 -- could also fill that role. Aside from the fact that running backs coach Randy Jordan has confidence in him, Rivera likes that Smallwood is a "tweener" who can offer some versatility.

"He shows a nimbleness in terms of route running and catching the ball," Rivera said. "So I think, if he's a guy that we have to pop up and use, I got a lot of confidence in him."

2. The secondary needs to step up with Collins out.

Landon Collins seems to have found his stride over the past month. He's second on the team in tackles, and his forced fumble against the Seattle Seahawks led to a touchdown before halftime.

Collins will also be out against the Raiders, as he's been dealing with a foot injury all week. Washington will need the secondary to adjust without one of the group's strongest players, but Rivera doesn't sound worried about the players available to him.

"It'll be by committee," Rivera said. "We have a couple guys who we're gonna rotate in for different situations and circumstances. We'll see how it goes. I feel comfortable and confident with the guys we're gonna rotate through."

Washington has a number of options to utilize in place of Collins. Deshazor Everett, a team captain and primarily special teams player, came in for Collins on the last drive of the Seahawks game. Darrick Forrest, a fifth-round pick in April, could also fill that role, if necessary.

Kamren Curl is another prime candidate to be the "Buffalo nickel" against the Raiders. He excelled at the position last year, and he is among the most versatile players in the secondary. Curl is behind Collins with 65 tackles and three pass breakups.

3. Get the Raiders off the field.

When the Raiders' offense is clicking, it's one of the best in football. Derek Carr, who leads the NFL in passing yards, is driving an offense that is sixth in total yardage and second in passing yards.

If the Raiders do have a weakness, though, it's their performance on third downs. Their offense is 29th in the league with a conversion rate of 34.4%. Over the last three games, they're last with a rate of 17%.

Washington's defense, on the other hand, is flourishing and looking more like the unit people thought it would be on a weekly basis. The numbers will show that the unit still last in the league in terms of allowing third down conversion, but that doesn't show that it is seventh during the team's win streak.

The Raiders are 0-4 when held to less than 300 yards. So, if Washington can maintain that success, then there's a good chance it can hold the Raiders in check.

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