The Washington Football Team is facing off against Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in its first postseason appearance since 2015. Here are three keys to the Wild Card matchup:
1. Bring Interior Pressure
It has been known for several seasons now that the best way to stop Brady is to bring pressure and make him get rid of the ball early. But for a player who is performing as good as he ever has in his 21st season, that can still be difficult to pull off.
"Well, he's smart. He's seeing it and he's accurate when he throws the ball," said defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. "It's really pretty simple, or at least he makes it look simple. He makes good decisions and he's accurate with his passes. We've got to do like you always do to play a good pass defense."
Brady has thrown for 4,633 yards and 40 touchdowns, both of which are top 5 performances of his career, but he has also benefitted from being sacked just 21 times, which is the fourth-lowest of his career. Tampa Bay's offensive line has the third-lowest adjusted sack rate in the NFL, which has allowed Brady to complete 65% of his passes for the eighth time in his career.
"Am I surprised? No. First of all, they've got a lot of talent on that team. Second, they've got a quarterback that knows how to do things the right way. You watch him. The next thing is they have an offensive line that's done a good job of keeping him upright. Everything has come together for them."
That said, Washington's pass rush will need to put together an inspired performance against Brady. It is no secret by now that the group is good at bringing down quarterbacks (47.0 sacks with the seventh-highest adjusted sack rate), and with the secondary needing to employ unique coverages against the Hall of Fame quarterback, it will need to rely on its pass rush, particularly interior defensive tackles Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen, to rush the passer without additional blitzes.
"I think they've done a nice job preparing for it," head coach Ron Rivera said. "To be honest, that kind of pressure affects anybody. It really does. You have to have a great combination going. I did a little study a couple years ago about the success and why we had it in the past, and a lot of that success was driven from the interior. When you had [Panthers DT] Kawann Short and [former Panthers DTs] Star Lotulelei and Dwan Edwards give you that interior push and then you had [former Panthers DEs] Charles Johnson and Mario Addison coming off the edge -- that was pretty good. We feel we have something like that here."
While Allen and Payne do not receive as much outside credit as Montez Sweat and Chase Young, both are having solid seasons in Del Rio's 4-3 defense. Allen has graded as the 15th-best interior defensive tack, according to Pro Football Focus, and Payne is in the top 10 in solo tackles (7th), assists (2nd) and forced fumbles (T-2nd). Payne also has nine pass deflections in his career, which is as many as Sweat and Allen combined.
It will require a team effort to defeat Brady, but interior pressure from Payne and Allen will at least help Sweat and Young corral the quarterback.
2. Big Games From CBs Kendall Fuller And Ronald Darby
Rivera made it clear in the offseason that he wanted to revamp the cornerback position by bringing in Kendall Fuller and Ronald Darby. Fuller was fresh off winning a Super Bowl, while Darby had potential to be a quality starter despite having an injury history. Fortunately, both turned out to be wise investments for Washington.
Fuller is having one of the best seasons of his five-year career with four interceptions, which ties a career-high, and 11 pass deflections -- one away from tying a career-high. Darby, on the other hand, is playing his best football since his rookie season with 16 pass deflections. He has forced 19 incompletions, which leads the NFL, and his and Fuller's combined 27 pass breakups lead all cornerback duos.
"I would just say I think in both cases we acquired guys that fit what we were wanting to do," Del Rio said. "In Kendall's situation, he's a versatile guy that's done a lot. He's played corner, he's played nickel, he's been a safety, well-regarded here in the building. Obviously, he's been a good player for us and we're happy we have him. Darby -- Darby's biggest thing—he was always a good player. His biggest thing was just staying healthy. I think he's been able to stay healthy."
Fuller and Darby will have one of their most difficult challenges in facing Tampa Bay's wide receiver corps, which has helped fuel an offense that is seventh in total yards. Both Mike Evans and Chris Godwin have set career highs in catch percentage and account for 40% of Brady's passing yards, but Rivera feels good about his cornerback duo and likes how they complement each other.
"You feel good about who they are. They're both wily veterans, guys that have been through the ringer. They both know what it's like to have success and have some tough times. They're both football players that play very well. They both have a different style, a different type of skillset. But at the end of the day, they're both good players."
Fuller has allowed less than 50 receiving yards in 10 games this season on passes that he was targeted, while Darby did the same in eight games. Doing so again would significantly hamper Brady's options.
3. Distribute The Ball To Playmakers
Washington's offense has gotten by with doing just enough to win, but it likely will not be able to do that against Tampa Bay, which is averaging 30.8 points per game. Instead, it will need to keep up with Brady's offense, and it has some playmakers who can help it achieve that.
Washington does not know who will be its starting quarterback; the hope is that Alex Smith will feel well enough to play, but it also has confidence Taylor Heinicke can come if needed. Either way, the quarterback will need to spread the ball around to all skill players. Rivera praised Smith's ability to do this multiple times, and Heinicke targeted seven different pass-catchers against the Carolina Panthers. That skillset will be critical, especially since Rivera sees the team as "trending up" with its playmakers.
"We've got a group of guys that we think can become playmakers in this league," Rivera said. "They've shown they're playmakers. A good example is what happened last week with the two touchdowns and who scored. I think Terry [McLaurin] and Logan [Thomas] both showed that they are guys we can go to in the red zone and get the ball in their hands. You look at what J.D. [McKissic] has shown us over the course of the season, and he's a playmaker. Cam [Sims]'s a playmaker. Peyton [Barber]'s a physical, downhill runner."
The trio of McLaurin, Thomas and Antonio Gibson have particularly shown growth as being the offense's primary playmakers. McLaurin accounts for 29% of the team's receiving yards, Thomas leads the team in receiving touchdowns and Gibson had 1,042 yards of total offense.
Even though McLaurin and Gibson are dealing with injuries, they and Thomas still combined for 152 yards against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 17, which represented 61% of Washington's offense in the regular season finale. All three will need to be heavy contributors once again against the Buccaneers.
"Guys like that, you've just got to get the ball to them," Rivera said. "I think that's what the quarterback has to do whether it's Alex or it's Taylor. We've got to get the ball into those guys' hands."