With the Redskins traveling to New England to take on the undefeated Patriots, we caught up with CSN New England Patriots reporter Phil Perry. Below is a Q&A on what Jay Gruden and Washington should expect from Tom Brady and company.
1) What's the Patriots weakness? Banged up offensive line? How can the Redskins try to exploit it?
The Patriots offensive line has seen better days health-wise. It's actually been incredibly banged up going all the way back to training camp. On Sunday, there's a chance you see just one player who started on the line for the Patriots in Super Bowl XLIX: Sebastian Vollmer. But he's not even at a position he's all that accustomed to. When starting left tackle Nate Solder went down against the Cowboys in Week 5, swing tackle Marcus Cannon took his spot. Cannon played 11 snaps against the Colts before getting hurt himself. That forced Vollmer to go from right tackle to left, where he's been very good considering the circumstances. But the resulting domino effect has second-year man Cameron Fleming at right tackle. He was on the practice squad a few weeks ago. He's held up well enough over the course of the last two weeks, but he could have a significant challenge on his hands if he's matched up with Ryan Kerrigan on the defensive left. That's one matchup I've got my eye on this weekend. The Patriots interior is hurting, too. Both rookie fourth-round picks -- Tre' Jackson and Shaq Mason -- are dealing with knee injuries. Jackson's already been ruled out, and Mason hasn't played in two weeks. Veteran Ryan Wendell filled in for Jackson last week, but now he's doubtful with a knee injury of his own. Reinforcements may arrive in the form of Bryan Stork this week, but last year's starting center has been on short-term injured reserve for the first eight weeks. He's eligible to come back for the first time this week. The question is, if he's activated, where will he play? Undrafted rookie David Andrews has played every snap at center thus far this season and has been more than serviceable. Given all the injuries at guard, Stork could wind up there. The only problem? He hasn't played anything but center since his sophomore year at Florida State. If the Redskins want to disrupt Tom Brady, they'll have to do it by bringing pressure without blitzing. I'm not sure they'll be able to do that, but thanks to the wave of injuries on the Patriots line, they've picked a pretty good time to try.
2) The Redskins skill players should be their healthiest of the season, with Jordan Reed and DeSean Jackson on the field. Will Kirk Cousins and the Redskins be able to move the ball against the Pats secondary?
If you look at the numbers, the Patriots are firmly in the middle of the NFL pack when it comes to passing defense. They rank 16th in the league in yards allowed per game (249), and they're 12th in the league in yards allowed per attempt (7.1). That may give Gruden and Cousins cause to be optimistic, but this matchup seems to fit exactly what the Patriots like to do in the secondary. Start with Jackson. Against those types of deep threats, Bill Belichick typically wants to make sure he defends against the big play at all costs. That might mean playing with Devin McCourty (or the team's next-best free safety Duron Harmon) over the top with Logan Ryan defending underneath. Oftentimes the obvious double-team seems to be enough to discourage quarterbacks from even trying to beat it. (The Patriots famously frustrated Indy's TY Hilton twice last year with slot guy Kyle Arrington underneath and McCourty over the top.) On the other side of the field, the Patriots have had enough confidence in their No. 1 corner, Malcolm Butler, to run around with an opposing team's No. 2 wideout without much safety help. It's been an up-and-down year for the Super Bowl hero -- he's allowing a quarterback rating of 110.4 when targeted, according to Pro Football Focus -- but he's a very good athlete with impressive catch-up speed, and the coaching staff feels like he has shutdown traits. Seems to me like Pierre Garcon will be his assignment this week. Reed is kind of a different breed of tight end compared to the ones the Patriots have faced this year so I'm interested to see what the Patriots do with him. They've usually had strong safety Patrick Chung shadow guys at that position since he's good in short-area coverage and a strong tackler. We could see McCourty match Reed as well. His skill set may make him a good counter for the physical characteristics that make Reed look like a receiver at times. If McCourty finds himself in the box against Reed, expect Harmon to be the over-the-top defender on Jackson.
3) With the Redskins at 3-4 and a double digit underdog, do the Patriots players really view this game as a threat?
What Patriots players have said this week is what they say every week. Their focus is singular. This week's opponent has good players. Those players are capable of making big plays. Every week. Same thing. Every week. But you know what? I think they believe it, even when they say it before a game that seems like it will be as lopsided as this one. It starts with their coach. In their world, inside the walls of Gillette Stadium, the message gets drilled into their heads that if they don't do their jobs, bad things will happen. Their preparations got started this week a little bit early after playing last Thursday, and once they got going, you can bet they were swimming in Kirk Cousins highlights and Dashon Goldson's greatest hits. Belichick has done a very good job over the years of not allowing his team to fall into traps. He keeps them focused and on edge, and from what I've seen this week, he's done it again. So to answer your question: Yes, they see this game as a threat. At the moment. Give it a quarter or two, and their opinions may be changed.