Before the Redskins take on the Falcons at FedExField, Redskins.com's Jake Kring-Schreifels and Dante Koplowitz-Fleming provide the storylines and matchups to follow on Sunday.
1. Pressure Matt Ryan
The Falcons have a high-octane passing attack in every sense of the word. They put up a high volume of passing yards (third-most) and passing touchdowns (sixth), they're efficient on both third down conversions (second-highest rate) and red zone touchdowns (sixth-highest rate).
They have a workhorse receiver in Julio Jones, who is averaging 118 yards per game. To tie a bow on it all, they have a leaky defense forcing them to keep throwing deep into the fourth quarter of games. The Falcons want to get after it, and they want to do so through the air.
So, the best way to stop a passing attack is to prevent the ball from leaving the quarterback's hands. Last week, Washington put this into practice by sacking Eli Manning seven times in a 20-13 win over the Giants.
Five different players on Washington's defense recorded a sack that day in what was thorough dominance over the Giants' offensive line. For context, the Redskins got six of their seven sacks that day only rushing four, as mentioned by The Athletic's Dan Duggan on Twitter.
Being able to have such a productive day of pass rushing while sending limited blitzes is the key to stopping a passing attack like Atlanta's, which will undoubtedly be a tougher task for Washington than last week's matchup in the Meadowlands.
Atlanta's offensive line has allowed pressure at a high rate per Next Gen Stats, with Ryan getting pressured on 29.7 percent of drop backs, the fourth-highest rate among starting quarterbacks (minimum attempts).
That number could look worse on Sunday, as Atlanta will be without right guard Brandon Fusco, who suffered a season-ending injury in Week 7. Atlanta is already down a starting guard, as Andre Levitre was lost to season-ending injury earlier in the season. That bodes well for Washington's hyper-productive interior defensive line comprised of Jonathan Allen, Matt Ioannidis and Daron Payne, who have combined for 12.5 sacks this season.
Pressuring Matt Ryan will be the key to stopping the Falcons passing attack.
But that's not because Ryan is outright bad when pressured. He has the fourth-highest passer rating under pressure among starting quarterbacks (minimum 190 dropbacks), per Pro Football Focus. The difference in his stats when pressured and not pressured is what makes getting after him so important.
When not pressured, Ryan has completed 78.4 percent of passes for 1,692 yards and 11 touchdowns. He has not thrown an interception from a clean pocket this season. When kept clean, he has a 123.1 passer rating per PFF. He slices and dices when defenders aren't bearing down on him.
Contrast that to his stats when pressured and it becomes clear why Washington needs to get after him on Sunday. When pressured, Ryan has completed 52.1 percent of passes for 643 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions. His passer rating drops to 89.0 (reminder: this is still the third-highest passer rating among starting quarterbacks under pressure), but that's enough of a difference to make it imperative for Washington's defensive line to continue its streak of ransacking opposing quarterbacks.
2. Execute situational football
Washington, for the eighth time in as many games, needs a get-right performance on offense. It's been winning games, close games, because strong performances from the defense and a steady run game. This has led to a passing game that is lacking in statistical relevance.
Washington is averaging 213 passing yards per game and 1.1 touchdowns through the air. They're scoring an average of 20.9 points per game, 25th in the league. Those issues have persisted in the red zone, where they're also ranked 25th in touchdown percentage. Sunday could go a long ways in improving those numbers against a Falcons defense that's allowing red zone touchdowns at a high rate.
[This week's Know Your Opponent takes a look at Atlanta's defensive struggles in the red zone.]
This makes Sunday's matchup the perfect opportunity for Washington's offense to get rolling where it counts, and when it counts.
In the first half of games, the Redskins offense has looked up to the task. They've scored first in the five games they've won this season, and have 12 offensive touchdowns in the first half of games.
Unfortunately for the second half of games, it's been the opposite story. Washington has only scored two touchdowns on offense after halftime this season, a number that will surely need to improve.
Head coach Jay Gruden told reporters Wednesday that the team is well aware of its offensive struggles, and that it had a meeting that day to address it specifically. He added that the team's passing numbers are low, in part, because of the success of the run game, and that the stat the team is most concerned with are wins and losses.
"As long as we are winning games, protecting the football, that's the most important thing," Gruden said. "Our offense will be able to throw the ball eventually, with success."
And it's true. It is nitpicking to ask for bigger passing numbers when Washington is 5-2, atop their division and on the path to the playoffs. Regardless, quarterback Alex Smith knows the team can do better in the red zone, and he told reporters Wednesday that the team needs to improve on situational football, third downs (ranked 21st in the league) and red zone touchdowns (25th).
"I think the ones that stand out though are the situational stuff, the third downs that you don't convert because they would have given you a whole other rack of opportunities. The red zone, obviously because it's so vital," Smith said. "I think the situational stuff always tends to jump out when you don't execute, because of its magnitude, but certainly I think, it could first or second down too and you're still obviously trying to correct any of those things."
Smith is right about the possibility of a chain reaction of success, so to speak, if the offense can improve in situational football. If the Redskins convert more third downs, then they get more red zone opportunities, and when they get more opportunities they should get more touchdowns.
That can start this week, and it may have to, if Atlanta's theme of high-scoring games continues.
Check out these photos of the Redskins' preparing for their Week 9 game against the Atlanta Falcons Friday, Nov. 2, 2018, at the Inova Sports Performance Center at Redskins Park.
3. Get Clinton-Dix up to speed
It's been quite a whirlwind week for Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. A day after digesting a loss to the Rams as a member of the Green Bay Packers, he was packing his bags, hopping on a plane and texting his new teammates that he was officially a part of the Redskins secondary.
The team's last-minute trade before the deadline added another top safety to pair with D.J. Swearinger Sr., having the best season of his career so far, and should continue to improve an already potent defensive unit. Still, three days to digest a life change, learn new terminology, coaches, players and an opponent is a daunting task.
Clinton-Dix, as he made clear at his press conference, is going to play Sunday. He hasn't missed a game in his career. Just how much and how effectively he'll be able to play though are the two variables the Redskins must deal with.
Head coach Jay Gruden believes he's been getting along just fine and is catching up to speed this week. "He is a very bright guy and I think he's going to pick it up very quickly. He already has," Gruden said, reiterating his confidence on Friday. Gruden said the biggest thing to consider is his alignment and assignments, especially as they rotate safety Montae Nicholson into the mix.
Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky believes it will take Clinton-Dix a couple of weeks to be fully adjusted to the scheme and terminology, but his knowledge of the game in his fifth year will help tremendously.
"From a DB perspective, I rely on the DB coaches," Manusky said. "Does he understand the concepts we have? And pretty much, there are not 1,000 concepts. But overall, he is a very knowledgeable football player. He understands concepts, so we'll see from there."
Another thing to condsider: Clinton-Dix's positioning on the field (higher and on the left side of the defense) this season is where the Redskins will use him, as Swearinger will have more opportunities to play closer to the box where he feels more comfortable.
Comfort will be important against a Falcons passing attach that thrives on making defenses uncomfortable, throwing out multiple offenses and three wide receivers that pose different and equally challenging skillsets.
Cornerback Josh Norman knows that it will be the group of defensive backs that take accountability should anything go amiss on Sunday, not Clinton-Dix, and that they'll do their best to get him in the best position possible.
"We're not going to put too much on him, not gonna put any onus on him," Norman said. "If something happens, you know we'll move on, next play. Not gonna put too much on him, that's the main thing. If something happens, we blow it, it's on us more so than it's on him because we're not going to allow that to beat us. We're not going to allow that to trample him in any type of way. We'll coach him up things that need to be done and we'll go from there."