The Washington Football Team is back in action after taking a week off, and it is now shifting its focus towards a playoff push in the final nine games of the regular season.
"I told our guys in our meetings today, 'I don't care if we're 8-8 and getting into the playoffs. You've just got to be invited to the dance, and then we'll see what happens,'" said head coach Ron Rivera. "We'll see. Like I've said before, I've made it to the playoffs at 7-8-1 and people said we didn't deserve to be there and we turn around and win our first playoff game and go on the road and scare the heck out of a good team. It doesn't matter. However you can get in, get in."
Washington is in a unique spot as it makes a run for NFC East division crown. Despite starting 2-5, it currently sits in second place behind the Philadelphia Eagles. The team has a .481 strength of schedule for the rest of the year, second only in the division to the Dallas Cowboys.
Washington's 25-3 win over the Cowboys was a positive step, but there are some areas it has to sure up before it hosts the Giants on Nov. 8.
Here are five areas Washington will need to improve on for the rest of the season.
1. Rush The Passer More Consistently
One could argue there is not much to be fixed with Washington's pass rush. After all, the team is sixth in total sacks, which has resulted in a loss of 154 yards for opposing offenses, and has the second-highest adjusted sack rate.
Those numbers do not tell the full story of Washington's ability to pressure quarterbacks, though. More than half of the team's sacks have come in two games; it had eight sacks against the Eagles and six against the Cowboys. Washington only managed eight sacks in the other five games combined.
It's not a coincidence that both games against the Eagles and Cowboys resulted in wins. The pressure the defensive line created forced three turnovers against the Eagles, resulting in two touchdowns. In Week 7, the Cowboys were held to 142 yards of offense -- by far their lowest total of the year.
"We all saw how effective that was," Kevin Pierre-Louis said Oct. 14. "Sacks turned into turnovers, which were fumbles and interceptions. The D-line has been playing good, the D-tackles had an amazing game [against the Los Angeles Rams]. The back end, we're just going to help out the D-line to make sure they can get after the passer, which we'll reap the benefits from that."
Fortunately, there will be opportunities for Washington to improve its sack total. Its next four opponents (New York, Detroit, Cincinnati and Dallas) all rank in the bottom half of the league in terms of sacks allowed, and all have an adjusted sack rate of more than six percent.
2. Find A Viable Replacement For Landon Collins
Landon Collins has been the most productive member of Washington's secondary since he joined the team in 2019. In 22 games, Collins has 158 tackles, four quarterback hits, three sacks and an interception. But an Achilles injury he suffered against the Cowboys ended his season, meaning Washington will need to find a replacement for the three-time Pro Bowl safety.
"It's always tough when you lose a good football player," defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said after the Cowboys game. "He's a tough guy that was voted a team captain by his peers. Obviously, any time that happens, it's something you have to work to overcome. We're just going to ask him to heal up and stay positive. We're going to carry on. We're going to continue on and expect to play well."
Washington, which has the NFL's best passing defense and fourth-best overall, has a few options at its disposal. Perhaps the best option is seventh-round pick Kamren Curl, who has impressed coaches since training camp. Curl only has 17 tacks so far this season, but he came in for the injured Collins and played a career-high 70% of the defensive snaps.
"Kamren Curl is a guy that really has exceeded expectations," Rivera said. "This is a guy that not having the workouts, I think, is why he slipped and was where he was when we drafted him. I think if he'd had the workouts, I think people would've seen a little bit more into him and he would've been drafted higher. So, he's a guy that we're very fortunate to have on the football team."
Third-year safety Jeremy Reaves is another player who may get an opportunity with Collins sidelined. Reaves has yet to play a snap this season, but Rivera said the former undrafted free agent has earned his respect.
"I'm one of those guys that if you come to training camp, you work your butt off, you do everything that you're supposed to, you deserve that opportunity before anybody else," Rivera said. "That's what I was kind of doing with Jeremy. He earned that right. He earned my respect as far as having gone through camp, not complaining, and doing things the right way. I wanted to give him a chance to be a part of the 53 and see where he is."
Whoever Washington puts at safety will face easier opponents in their first bouts of extended action. The Giants are ranked 31st in total offense, followed by the Lions (22nd) and Bengals (18th).
3. Extend The Field Vertically On Offense
By now, most Washington fans have seen the highlight of second-year wide receiver Terry McLaurin sprinting past Cowboys rookie cornerback Trevon Diggs for a 52-yard touchdown that put the team up 15-3. It was Washington's longest play of the year, but the issue is that big plays have been rare commodities for the offense.
Washington, which ranks 30th in total offense, is also 30th in explosive rush rate (9%) and explosive pass rate (6%), according to Sharp Football Stats. The team averages 6.3 yards per pass play, which ranks 28th, and has only managed eight touchdowns through the air.
"It's a group effort," offensive coordinator Scott Turner said Oct. 14. "We've got to protect up front. The receivers have to get the separation down the field and then the QBs got to stand in there and make the throw. I've got to do a good job of making those calls at the right time.
"Hopefully one day, sooner rather than later, we're going to have one of the performances that we're capable of and it's because of what we're doing on a day-to-day basis."
That performance finally came against the Cowboys, as Washington put up 397 yards of offense along with 12 plays that resulted in gains of at least 10 yards. It was a positive moment for Washington against Dallas' 24th-ranked defense, but now it will have to build on that momentum against the Giants, who rank 13th in total defense.
4. Protect The Quarterback
Sacks has consistently been a problem for Washington's offensive line. After finishing the 2018 season allowing 44 sacks, the unit allowed 50 in 2019. The team is currently on pace for 60 this year.
Washington has allowed at least three sacks in six of its seven games, but the most discouraging performance came against the Rams when Kyle Allen and Alex Smith were sacked eight times for a loss of 41 yards.
The Rams pressured Washington's quarterbacks 12 times during that game. That number was matched the following week against the Giants, but there were signs of improvement against the Cowboys. Allen was only sacked twice and pressured just eight times, and as a result, he had his highest passer rating (111.1) since being named Washington's starting quarterback.
Washington will have another chance to improve in a rematch against the Giants. New York recorded three sacks on Allen at MetLife Stadium, but a solid outing against the Cowboys could give Washington's offensive line the confidence it needs.
5. Improve Field Goal Accuracy
Dustin Hopkins has been one of the NFL's more accurate kickers since signing with Washington in 2015. He has routinely hit at least 80% of his field goals and 90% of his extra points. But so far, Hopkins is 8-of-12 in field goals and has missed one attempt in four of seven games.
Most of those misses were inconsequential; his misses against the Eagles, Ravens and Cowboys had little effect on the final score. But the one he missed on the opening drive against the Giants, which wasted a 12-play, 39-yard drive, left Washington trailing for the entire game, and it is possible the outcome would have been different had Hopkins split the uprights.
Rivera has confidence in Hopkins. though. He's had some struggles, Rivera said, but he still feels like Hopkins "has done a great job for us."
"We wish he could make them all, but we know he's not going to. There's going to be an opportunity for him to kick and win football games for us."