The Washington Football Team will look to snap its two-game losing streak when it hosts the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday. (Check out a comprehensive preview of the game, HERE.) Here are three keys entering the Week 11 matchup:
1. Protect Alex Smith
Quarterback Alex Smith has played as well as he ever has in the past two weeks. Despite being sidelined for nearly two years, he completed more than 71% of his passes for 715 yards against the Giants and Lions. Neither of those efforts resulted in victories, but he proved he is more than capable of playing winning football again -- as long as the offensive line protects him.
As a 36-year-old coming off a gruesome leg injury, Smith is not equipped to consistently make plays with his legs. He is at his best when he can stand in the pocket, dissect defenses, make the correct read and deliver a decisive, accurate pass. That requires time, and the offensive line has given him that since replacing the injured Kyle Allen in Week 9. On 87 pass attempts, Smith has been sacked just four times.
Washington's offensive line will look different against the Bengals than it has the past few weeks. With Geron Christian Sr. on Injured Reserve and Cornelius Lucas out with an ankle injury, Morgan Moses will likely move from right to left tackle with David Sharpe playing opposite him. Moses, who will be making his 90th consecutive start Sunday, has not started at left tackle since his rookie campaign in 2014.
Head coach Ron Rivera does not expect this to be an issue, though, since he likes what he has seen from the offensive linemen and believes Moses will be able to adapt. Washington will also benefit from going against one of the worst pass-rushing units in the NFL. In nine games, the Bengals have brought down opposing quarterbacks 11 times.
If Washington can keep defenders off Smith, there is a good chance he will be able to build off one of the best performances of his career. And even if Smith needs to escape the pocket on a few plays, quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese is confident in his ability to do so.
"That's the part that's gotten a lot better," Zampese said about Smith escaping the pocket. "He hasn't hit a plateau either, so it's going to get better as we go and as we make adjustments to the brace and the different things that gives you. ...It's not like when he was a rookie, but we're making progress every week. He's aware of it and he works at it. Then we do the drill work to make sure that we're feeling good as we make moves quickly. You saw last week in the Detroit game, there was one in the second half he really had to get up inside of an edge rusher and I was like: 'Oh yeah, OK. Here we go.' It was great."
2. Finish Drives
Washington moved the ball inside the Lions' 35-yard line four times in the first half and came away a field goal. "I couldn't believe -- honestly I was stunned -- before half that we had three points," Smith said.
Washington was nearly perfect when it came to finishing drives after intermission -- its four possessions resulted in three touchdowns and a field goal -- and it will look to build on that success against a Bengals defense that is allowing nearly four touchdowns per game.
"It's not just starting the drives, but finishing," said offensive coordinator Scott Turner. "We've got to finish. We have to put our team in a better situation by getting a lead early and not having to try to fight and come back."
Washington is the only team who has yet to score on its opening drive, but it has been in position to do so in each of the past four games. First Dustin Hopkins missed a 47-yard field against the New York Giants in Week 6, and then Allen was stuffed on the goal line versus the Dallas Cowboys. After a bye week, Washington began its second matchup with the Giants with a 21-catch from Antonio Gibson, who proceeded to lose a fumble. And in Detroit last week, Washington faced a 1st-and-10 from the Lions' 14-yard line before a failed reverse and a sack knocked the team out of field goal range.
Scoring first against the Bengals will not only give Washington the rare chance to play from ahead, but it will also set the tone for the rest of the game.
"At the end of the day, when you get down to the red zone, you have to put points on the board," Rivera said after the Lions' game. "It's a matter of making plays. Making plays is as simple as making a block. It's as simple as catching a ball. It's as simple as making a run, making a read."
3. Limit Big Plays
Scoreless opening drives have contributed to Washington's string of slow starts, but so have big plays. In fact, Washington has given up six plays of more than 50 yards this season -- tied with Dallas for the most in the NFL -- and all of them have happened in the first half. The defense has also allowed 15 plays of at least 30 yards, 12 of which have occurred before halftime.
"You do that a couple of times and teams are going to take those shots," Rivera said after the Lions' connected on a 55-yard score. "That's something that we've got to get corrected."
Kendall Fuller was the one beat on the Lions' opening 55-yard touchdown, but he has been one of the league's top cornerbacks this season. Fellow free agent signing Ronald Darby has also been solid. The safety position is a bigger concern; Washington has already been without Pro Bowler Landon Collins, and now Deshazor Everett will miss the Bengals' game with an ankle injury. That leaves Kam Curl and Troy Apke as the starters, both of whom have been beaten over the top this season.
Fortunately, Washington will be going up against the NFL's least-explosive offense, according to Sharp Football. The Bengals only have 20 rushes of at least 10 yards and 22 passes of at least 15 yards for an explosive play rate 7%. The league average is about 10%.
With starting running back Joe Mixon sidelined, Washington will focus on limiting the run and then pressuring quarterback Joe Burrow in passing situations.
"I'd say the biggest thing is to put them in position to where they've got to throw," said defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. "I think making sure we're defending the run -- they do a really good job with their passing game and some of the things that they like to do. We've got to make sure we're on top of that. We understand the challenges. Part of it is getting pressure on the quarterback. That's always important, so clearly that'll be a priority for us."