NASHVILLE, Tenn. – As we continue to get ready for Sunday's matchup with the Washington Redskins, I reached out to Andrew Walker, Senior Writer for Redskins.com.
I sent him three questions about Washington and in return, I answered three questions he offered up about the Tennessee Titans.
Three Questions about the Washington Redskins**
JF: It feels like these two teams are alike in many ways. Both feel like they have the talent to win now under new head coaches but have disappointing records thus far. What's the frustration level in Washington?
AW:There's no doubt that a 1-5 record at this point of the year was not what the Redskins envisioned when they opened the season Week 1 against the Houston Texans, but a few key injuries here, a few big plays eluded there, and that's where they find themselves heading into Sunday's game against the Titans. For the guys on the team who returned from last year's 3-13 season, especially, it's easy to sense their frustration, because it's never easy winning just four games in about a season and a half. Coming off an NFC East title and playoff appearance in 2012, many expected the Redskins to perhaps take the same path as the Seahawks as one of the better, young teams in the league, but that just hasn't panned out. Sunday's locker room after the loss to the Arizona Cardinals was about as quiet as it gets. These guys know they're playing as hard as they can — it just hasn't resulted in as many wins as they'd like. But one thing Jay Gruden has instilled into this team is their willingness to move on — not ride the roller coaster, per se — and get up to prepare for and play their next opponent. If you were here at Redskins Park to watch practices and see these guys talk to the media this week, you'd think it was Week 1 all over again. I think that's the exact attitude needed, no matter if this team was 1-5 or 5-1.
JF: How big has Desean Jackson been for this team on the field and as a veteran leader in the locker room?**
AW:DeSean Jackson is doing exactly what Redskins President/general manager Bruce Allen and head coach Jay Gruden envisioned when they quickly signed him upon his release from the Eagles in late March/early April: he's the most dangerous weapon on the field who can break a long touchdown play at any time. But one thing that's surprised me about Jackson is that he's not just a vertical threat. Sure, he's still probably runs the best go route in the league, but Jackson has proven this season that he's dangerous running any route. In last Sunday's game against the Arizona Cardinals, for example, he burned Patrick Peterson on a little crossing route in the middle of the field and took it 64 yards to the house.
As for his presence in the locker room, Jackson prefers to lead by example, rather than with his words. He's very professional and quiet about how he goes about his work, and it pays off when he goes out and puts up the monster stats that he's been putting up for a few years now. I'm not going to sit here and pretend like I know what led to Jackson's odd release in Philadelphia in March. But since he's arrived in Washington, he's been nothing but a class act on and off the field. All I know is the Redskins are happy that he's no longer terrorizing them two times a year as a member of the Eagles.
JF: What has been the biggest reason(s) that the Redskins have come up short in close games as they seem to have been in every contest so far? Third down percentage? Turnover ratio?**
AW:You're right. Except for their Week 4 loss to the New York Giants (45-14) and their Week 2 blowout win over the Jacksonville Jaguars (41-10), the Redskins have found themselves with at least a chance to be in position to either tie or go ahead in the final quarter in every other game this season. It's hard to point to one reason why they have been coming up short in these games, because, as head coach Jay Gruden alluded to, pretty much every aspect of their team has shortcomings they can point to and say, 'This cost us the game,' or, 'That cost us the game.'
Offensively, the team has struggled on third downs, converting 32.4 percent of them (30th in the league), and, of late, have been unable to get Pro Bowl running back Alfred Morris going. Morris — the quickest back to 3,000 career rushing yards in Redskins history — has just 70 yards combined in the past two games, yet still ranks 10th in the league in overall rushing. The turnovers, meanwhile, have mainly been a product of a young quarterback, Kirk Cousins, trying to make big plays down the stretch in the fourth quarter. Defenses know he's going to be throwing the ball down the field in those situations — especially if the running game isn't as sharp as Washington would like — so they're pinning their ears back and being aggressive in the secondary and earning those interceptions.
Defensively, the Redskins have lacked consistent pressure on the quarterback, allowing the opposing team to throw against a very young and inexperienced Redskins secondary. The Redskins tied a team record with 10 sacks against the Jaguars Week 2, but haven't had a consistent pass rush in any other game — except their Week 3 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, in which quarterback Nick Foles had a defender or two in his face seemingly every time he dropped back, yet was not officially taken down for any actual sacks. Outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan is individually putting up a good season so far with 6.5 sacks, but his fellow playmaker on the other side, three-time Pro Bowler Brian Orakpo, is stuck in a rut with just a half sack through six games. If Kerrigan, Orakpo, Jason Hatcher and company can pressure Tennessee's quarterback on Sunday — whoever it is — then this whole story could change.
And, finally, on special teams, Gruden has said he's been amazed that the "splash plays" have just eluded the Redskins so far this season. They haven't had one lengthy kickoff or punt return of note or haven't blocked a field goal or a punt, which are the types of plays that can obviously change momentum in their favor. The Redskins have also struggled in the field position game of late, and constantly find themselves backed up against their own end zone to start drives, while the other team — despite having the league's leading punter in Tress Way (51.2 yards per punt average) — is often times starting drives at their own 30, 40 or near midfield.
Three Questions about the Tennessee Titans**
AW: Delanie Walker leads the team in receiving yards and receptions so far this season – what makes him so important to the offense? How is he used that makes him such an effective weapon?
JF:Walker is one or the more versatile and underappreciated tight ends in the league. It's not surprising however since he spent six seasons in the shadow of Vernon Davis in San Francisco. In his first year with the Titans (2013) and his first season as a team's featured tight end, Walker became the first Titan to catch 60 passes at the position since Frank Wycheck in 2001.
He's picked up where he left off as you noted, leading the Titans in receiving yards (421) and receptions (29) thus far in 2014. His three receiving touchdowns are also tied for the team lead. Walker has a unique skillset in that he's built like a fullback but has the speed of some wide receivers. He was drafted by the 49ers as a wide receiver before they converted him to tight end. Walker is comfortable wherever coaches want to line him up and you'll see him motion pre-snap plenty on Sunday.
Other Titans receiving targets are starting to step up, but there's no doubt that Walker has carried the team's passing game through six weeks.
AW: How has the rushing attack moved on after the departure of Chris Johnson? Bishop Sankey and Shonn Greene each obviously bring their own flavor to the field – how do they complement each other and benefit the offense?**
JF:The Titans have filled the void of Chris Johnson with a four-man running back by committee. Greene, Sankey and Dexter McCluster get a bulk of the carries with Leon Washington getting most snaps on third-and-long.
Early deficits have forced the Titans to abandon the run game more than they'd like to, but they still own a 4.7 yards per carry average on the season (6th in the NFL).
Greene is currently dealing with a hamstring and if he's unable to go Sunday, expect to see more Sankey. Last week the rookie carried the ball 18 times for 61 yards in Greene's absence with McCluster leading the team in receptions with six.
AW: For various reasons, Jake Locker and Charlie Whitehurst have both seen time at quarterback. How does the offense differ (both schematically and in overall production) between the two?**
JF:Schematically the offense doesn't change with either guy. What you get with Locker in the game is the opportunity for him to break the game open with his athletic ability.
In the first half against the Browns (week 5), Locker ran the ball four times for 34 yards, resulting in two first downs and one score. He is by no means a scramble-first quarterback, but his speed adds another element that defenses must prepare for and be aware of. For Locker, it's just about staying on the field, which seems to be an area where the Titans QB has been snake-bitten. Hitting his right thumb on the helmet of a Browns defender is the most recent stroke of bad luck that kept Locker out of last week's game vs. Jacksonville.
Whisenhunt spent last season with Whitehurst in San Diego and brought the quarterback here specifically because of his knowledge of the system. That makes him such a valuable backup to Locker. Whitehurst isn't flashy, but is very efficient with the football and rarely turns it over. In two-plus games, the Titans backup has thrown three touchdowns to just one interception for a quarterback rating of 93.8 – better than Eli Manning (93.3), Ben Roethlisberger (93.3), Matt Ryan (92.7) and Drew Brees (91.8).