There is no deep dive required to figure out a significant statistical difference offensively between the Redskins and Falcons.
Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan leads the NFL with an average of 334 passing yards game. His Washington counterpart, Alex Smith, hasn’t thrown for 300 yards in a single game this season. He didn’t reach 200 during any part of the current three-game winning streak.
Another clear difference shows in the standings. The 3-4 Falcons need a win Sunday at FedEx Field to achieve a .500 record for the first time this season. At 5-2, NFC East-leading Washington sits 1 ½ games ahead of second place Philadelphia.
The lack of an overpowering passing attack hasn't harmed the Redskins yet. Imagine if they get one.
“The passing game has been up and down. It's been slow,” said running back Chris Thompson, one of the many offensive playmakers battling injuries. “We've been without our full group of receivers for a little bit of time. The running backs have been back and forth. ...It's going to get better.”
The reality is Washington won’t sniff Atlanta’s level in the air this season. Elite talents like Julio Jones don’t grow on trees. The physically gifted target is second in the NFL with 812 receiving yards on 53 receptions. Inexplicably, the 6-foot-3 Jones has yet to score a touchdown this season, though fantasy football owners are keenly aware his scoring numbers have declined yearly since 2015.
Jones’s lack of touchdowns represents the defensive challenge. With the Pro Bowler requiring a double-team, Atlanta’s other options are taking advantage of open space.
First-round pick Calvin Ridley, a former teammate of numerous players on the Redskins roster from their collective time at the University of Alabama, leads the Falcons with six touchdowns. Mohamed Sanu, Atlanta’s free agent version of Paul Richardson, has touchdowns in three of the previous five games. Tight end Austin Hooper is second behind Jones with 33 receptions.
Ryan, whose 2018 stat line includes 15 touchdowns pass with only two interceptions, possesses all the needed tools for a star quarterback. That includes weapons.
“[Ryan] throws the ball and makes good throws, but his receivers are real good,” linebacker Zach Brown said of the secret to Ryan’s success. “Julio, Sanu, the Ridley kid. It's just hard to have corners to deal with that. They get open. They separate. They go up and get the ball. They understand the game.”
Even without as much elite talent, the Redskins have the pieces for a ranking higher than 26th in passing (212.7 per game). Push past the injuries, and the talk centers on the lack of continuity halfway through Smith’s first season in Washington. The Falcons drafted Ryan in 2008 and added Jones three years later.
“Alex has been in the league forever, but there is still a new system for him,” Thompson said. “I think with time he'll get more comfortable. He's in sync with everybody. Just have to find a way make plays. We look at the film and we see guys open, or we see routes we took too long on and Alex is sitting there waiting for us. We just have to find a way to do a better job. I believe if we just focus on our individual responsibilities it will get better and it will pick up.”
Head coach Jay Gruden was quick to point out another reason Washington’s passing stats lag behind Atlanta’s.
“We're focusing a little bit more on the running game. We probably have a lot more rushing attempts and more rushing yards than they do, so I like to compare that stat,” the coach said.
Deal, Coach: The Redskins rank eighth with 128 rushing yards per game while the Falcons are 30th at 83.3. That production on the ground is what’s kept the ball moving and the wins flowing, while removing any sense of panic.
"It helps for sure,” said Thompson, who sat out Wednesday’s practice with a lingering rib injury. “If we weren't [rushing] for 120 yards a game, [but] throwing for 180, then we would probably, I don't know, we could be 2-5. It's really been huge for us to have a good running game. With that, we've also been able to control the clock. Alex doesn't turn the ball over a lot. Because we've been able to do good in the run game, it's helped us.”
Now imagine how good these Redskins might be if they start establishing the passing game.
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