The Redskins.com crew breaks down the key players and matchups to keep an eye on during Sunday's Redskins-Giants 2016 Week 3 showdown at MetLife Stadium.
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FIND SOME BALANCE
Through the first two games of the season, the Redskins have tallied just 29 rushing attempts, the least in the entire NFL and six fewer than the next team, the New Orleans Saints.
In the first game of the season, Redskins quarterback Trent Williams recorded 43 passing attempts to just 12 carries. Last week, Cousins threw the ball 46 times while Rob Kelley lead a running game that recorded 17 carries.
While the Redskins fell behind by as many as 26 against the Pittsburgh Steelers and 10 to the Dallas Cowboys, forcing them to increase the passing totals, Washington wants more balance out of the offense especially in the red zone where they're just 3-of-10 to date.
I think the short answer is it could help," Cousins said this week. "It's not going to help if we're running for no yards. You know, you've got to be productive in the run game, which we have been frankly, I think. The statistics may not show that, but it feels like when I hand the ball off we are getting positive yards. Brought a little of it on myself because in a couple of those red zone opportunities, I'm throwing fades when I could hand it off, so there's a little bit of I've got nobody to look at but myself. I think the other thing would just be when we get behind and we have to get in a two-minute mode, you just can't run the ball."
If the Redskins are able to gain a presence on the ground, that could mean Rob Kelley makes his regular season debut on offense.
After being a preseason star, Kelley has recorded just two special teams snaps so far this year.
"I'd like to get him some touches this week and I do feel comfortable," Redskins head coach Jay Gruden said. "I think he's got great vision, got a great, low center of gravity. He's like in between Chris [Thompson] and Matt [Jones]. He's not as big as Matt and he's not as quick as Chris, but he's got great vision and he's a big, solid running back and I'd like to see what he can do and hopefully that'll come Sunday."
BE READY FOR AN IMPROVED NEW YORK DEFENSE
In the Redskins last meeting with the Giants last November, Kirk Cousins completed 20-of-29 passes for 302 yards, including a 63-yard touchdown to Jamison Crowder in a 20-14 Washington victory. This isn't to say Cousins can't repeat that performance – he's thrown for more than 300 yards twice already this season – but the New York defense he'll be facing isn't quite the same one he saw in 2015.
Following a season in which New York allowed the most passing yards in the NFL – 4,783 yards to be exact – the Giants opened up the checkbook this past offseason looking to improve. The headliner was defensive end Olivier Vernon, who was given the richest contract for a defensive end in NFL history. Joining Vernon, who came from Miami, was run-stuffing nose tackle Damon Harrison (formerly of the Jets) and cornerback Janoris Jenkins, who played his first four seasons with the Rams.
So far, so good for the 2-0 Giants, as they've allowed the sixth-fewest yards per play in the NFL. Opposing teams have passed for just one touchdown against the Giants and runners have gained just 3.3 yards per rush.
"They put a lot of money into the (defensive) front," Redskins guard Shawn Lauvao said. "Obviously with Vernon, with Damon Harrison, but they had JPP (Jason Pierre-Paul), they had (Johnathan) Hankins. So they already had some dominant, solid players in the front. …There's not too many off days in the NFL. (Offensive line coach) Bill (Callahan) has had us on our Ps and Qs."
All of the yardage statistics have translated to where it matters most for the Giants – on the scoreboard. New York has allowed just 32 points this season, including a measly 13 to a high-powered New Orleans Saints offense last week.
"I see the entire defense has improved, really as a whole," Redskins head coach Jay Gruden said. "I think they are able to stop the run a lot better with the big addition of 'Snacks' [Damon Harrison] – I think that's what his nickname is from the Jets. He's a big body. Obviously [Olivier] Vernon is a good run defender as well as a good pass rusher. Those are two good defensive linemen right there, and then you add Janoris Jenkins back there in the secondary and a first rounder in Eli Apple and Leon Hall with all of that experience, it makes their defense a lot better. And they are playing well. They're playing well both in the secondary and stopping the run, so it's a very good defense. It's going to be a great challenge for us."
STOP THE THREE-HEADED PASSING ATTACK
Through the first two weeks of the season for the Giants, the offense has proven that it has the ability to be very dangerous through the air.
A look back at some of the top images in games between the Washington Redskins and New York Giants.
Already having thrown for 575 passing yards, quarterback Eli Manning has shown that he is very capable of utilizing the many weapons that he has at the wide receiver position. In addition to Odell Beckham Jr., who has 159 yards on 12 catches, the Giants have added rookie Sterling Shepard, who is currently leading the team with 160 receiving yards, and Victor Cruz, who has returned from a 26-game absence that spanned two seasons.
"It's a three-headed receiving monster out there," safety David Bruton Jr. said. "We can't just focus on one guy. We've got to focus on Cruz, who's back. We've got to focus on Sterling (Shepard) as well. … We know that they have great threats outside, inside, no matter who's out there. And with a quarterback that's able to run that offense flawlessly. We definitely have our work cut out for us."
A major area that the defense will have to be aware of is preventing the Giants from producing plays of 20 yards or more. They already have seven in two games, so taking away the long passes could really hurt New York's offensive attack.
The Redskins are also putting significant emphasis on improving on third downs, after allowing opponents to convert 15 of 26 so far this year. The goal is to keep the Giants in third and long situations, where they have struggled this year.
"Third down is our money down and that's what we're focused on, we're focused on getting better on third down," Bashaud Breeland said. "As a secondary we got the same mindset, that's what we're trying to do. They got us ranked 32nd in third down right now and we're trying to be first."
While much of the attention may be on Josh Norman vs. Beckham Jr., the entire defense needs to be prepared for the attack that the Manning presents. Six different targets have five or more catches already this year, making the challenge of covering effectively that much harder. But the defense is ready for whatever the Giants throw out them.
"I think we're all motivated. Anytime you go out against a guy like Odell, Victor (Cruz), Eli (Manning), you get excited," safety DeAngelo Hall said. "You get pumped up for those kind of matchups. And New York City is one of the best places to play. You know you're always going to get a lot of coverage, so you always want to play well in New York. I think the matchup itself is kind of, I guess a big deal in the media, but for us it's not Odell versus Josh. It's the Redskins versus the Giants and that's kind of the mindset we're taking about it."
The Redskins have been able to get the ball up and down the field. The problem so far, though, has been a lack of touchdowns.
"The good thing is we've been getting down there, so we're moving the ball," Gruden said this week. "The bad thing is we haven't been finishing in the red zone. So, we do need to maybe put some extra time in it, be detailed on it, but we've worked on it. You know, we've spent a lot of time on it in OTAs and training camp. We have a ton of red zone periods and [we] were very good last year. This year's a different year obviously, and we've got to get better. But I expect that to come. We have too many good targets in the red zone to not be successful."
One of those targets is Jordan Reed, who has had past success in the red zone but hasn't been looked at as frequently so far this year.
In 2015, he had 10 touchdowns come from inside the 20-yard line. Through two games this season, he's been targeted just three times for one reception.
Another player that can create problems is the elusive DeSean Jackson.
"Any time that you go into a game plan with some of your special dynamic players like those two, you always want to find creative ways to be able to get them involved," Redskins offensive coordinator Sean McVay said. "You know, at the same time, you're trying to anticipate some of the looks you're getting. You never are always exactly right, but you try to put them in some of the spots where if you're hoping for this coverage, they're the primary target. Ultimately, the way that we're predicated offensively and with the skill players that we do have, we ask the quarterback to be able to recognize the coverage and then let his decision dictate whatever that concept is based on the coverage the defense presents."
The Redskins also threw quite a few end zone fades against the Cowboys, although none of them were completed. While Gruden admitted that shouldn't have tried so many fades, the Redskins have enough players capable of catching passes in the corner of the end zones that they'll continue to have the route as an option.
"We have pretty good fade-route runners down there. Back shoulder fades, fades, high-point-type throws – unfortunately we didn't get very good releases on those and the balls were thrown a little bit too quick and too flat to give them an opportunity," Cousins said. "Not quite the ideal look – a couple of them – that we wanted to throw those. Hindsight, I wish we wouldn't have tried as many, but we'll throw more fades. They've been very successful to us in the past. It is a good benefit to have those type of guys that can win the one-on-ones."