8:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Redskins -7, Over/Under: 50.5
Reigning Division Champions clash tonight in the Nation’s Capital, as the Washington Redskins host the Carolina Panthers in a matchup featuring two teams traveling in very different directions. Sometimes, a simple transaction can change the fortunes of a team, but it’s rare that the exchange of one player can swing the proverbial pendulum so dramatically, but that was exactly what happened when the Panthers (5-8, T-4th in NFC South) decided to part ways with All-Pro Cornerback Josh Norman during the Offseason. After the Defensive Back refused to agree to the terms of the Franchise Tag, Carolina’s Brass ultimately decided to pull the offer from the table, effectively making Norman a Free Agent, only to see him take his talents to Washington DC. While he can’t take all the credit for his former team’s spectacular collapse, it would be foolish to think his departure didn’t have something to do with it. Simply put, Ron Rivera’s charges have been terrible on Defense this season, particularly in terms of defending the pass, which is where Norman would have been really, really helpful. You just don’t let All-Pro Cornerbacks entering their prime walk in Free Agency, and the Panthers have been trying to live down that mistake ever since. In 2015, they limited the opposition to 234.5 yards through the air (11th Overall) on 5.4 Net Yards per Attempt (2nd Overall), relinquishing twenty-one touchdowns (7th Overall) while snaring twenty-four interceptions (1st Overall) despite being thrown against more than any other team in the league (40.6). Yeah, they were pretty damn good. However, in 2016 they have been torched to the tune of 272.4 yards (30th Overall) on 6.6 Net Yards per Attempt (22nd Overall), while yielding twenty-four touchdowns (25th Overall) and picking off fifteen passes (2nd Overall). Management’s decision to replace Norman with the likes of youngsters such as Daryl Worley (76 TKL, 1.0 SK, 1 INT, 8 PD), James Bradberry (45 TKL, 1 INT, 7 PD), and Bene Benwikere (who was cut after a Week Four loss to Atlanta) may end up bearing fruit further down the road, but this Baptism by Fire approach certainly hasn’t done the team any favors in the now. With that said, a porous Secondary is hardly Rivera’s only concern, for reigning MVP Cam Newton (53.5% 231.2 Y/G, 15 TD 9 INT) simply hasn’t been the same player he was a year ago. With the Offensive Line decimated by injuries, Newton has rarely been afforded the luxury of a clean Pocket, absorbing a plethora of hits that one would have to think could be taking a cumulative toll on the Quarterback; there’s no question that he has made himself susceptible to unnecessary contact throughout his career, but he’s already missed one game this season after suffering a concussion, while most recently dealing with a nagging shoulder injury that limited him in practice all week. Unfortunately, he hasn’t been able to rely on the running game for support either, as Carolina has averaged 109.2 yards on the ground (13th Overall) on just 3.9 Yards per Carry (24th Overall) despite rushing the ball 28.1 times per game, eighth-most in the league. While those numbers may not seem that bad, they’re a far cry from the 142.6 (2nd Overall) they churned out a year ago. Again these problems can be traced back to the Offensive Line, which is without THREE starters including Michael Oher (Concussion), Ryan Kalil (Shoulder), and Gino Gradkowski (Knee), who are all on Injured Reserve. Indeed, this team will look very different than the one that absolutely thumped the Redskins last season in a 44-16 beatdown; the Panthers turned the Redskins over five times, while limiting Kirk Cousins and Co. to a scant 186 Total Yards of Offense and nine First Downs. More so than anything else, Turnover Differential is ultimately what dictates success in the NFL these days, and while this team has still managed to create a good deal for themselves (twenty-two, 9th Overall) they’ve constantly shot themselves in the foot, turning the ball over twenty-four times, fifth-most in the league which is light-years away from the ridiculous Plus-20 Differential they enjoyed in 2015.
Meanwhile, the Redskins (7-5-1, 3rd in NFC East) are finding that defending their first Division Title since 2012 is far more difficult than they could have expected, as they currently find themselves not only third in the competitive East, but on the fringes of the Playoffs as well. Indeed, keeping pace with the likes of the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants has proven an arduous task, as Washington snapped a two-game losing streak last weekend in a back-and-forth 27-22 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles which featured five lead changes. Jay Gruden’s charges ended their three-game road trip on a positive note, despite yielding 383 Total Yards of Offense and possessing the ball for just 23:22. As they have throughout the season, the visiting side continued to make their living off of big plays, with three of their four touchdowns being plays of twenty yards or more. First it was Robert Kelly’s (587 yards, 5 TD) 22-yard touchdown run in the Second Quarter, followed by DeSeasn Jackson’s (746 yards, 4 TD) explosive 80-yard score early in the Third Stanza, while Backup Tailback Chris Thompson’s (590 All-Purpose Yards, 3 TD) 25-yard rush up the middle of the Eagles’ Defense inside of the Two Minute Warning effectively ended the game. All three plays were huge not just from a yardage perspective, but in terms of significance as well, for each score gave the Redskins the lead. Don’t look now folks, but this Offense has slowly became one of the more potent in the league; Washington has averaged 25.4 points (8th Overall) on 422.8 Total Yards (2nd Overall), including 313.5 yards through the air (2nd Overall) on 7.7 Net Yards per Attempt (2nd Overall), along with another 109.3 yards (12th Overall) on 4.5 Yards per Carry (6th Overall). At the controls is Cousins (67.5% 311.2 Y/G, 23 TD, 9 INT), who quite frankly is making himself A LOT of money this season; while he forced Management’s Hand with last year’s stellar performance, earning the Franchise Tag as a result (which is a very hefty figure if you’re a Quarterback), he’s no doubt in line for a lucrative long term contract come Spring. After leading the league in Completion Percentage in 2015, the former Fourth Round Pick has shown tremendous improvement in pushing the ball downfield, averaging 7.61 Net Yards per Attempt, representing a huge spike from last year’s average of 6.99. Of course having a litany of vertical threats to throw to helps a great deal, as Gruden just may have the fastest collection of Receivers in the league, led by the aforementioned Jackson, who has racked up a sizzling 17.6 yards per reception. However, as formidable as they’ve been offensively, the Redskins still have a ways to go on Defense, where the addition of Norman (50 TKL, 1 INT, 13 PD, 2 FF) hasn’t necessarily been the remedy for their (many) ills. Washington has permitted 24.4 points (22nd Overall) on 370.6 Total Yards (26th Overall), including 257.8 yards through the air (24th Overall) on 6.5 Net Yards per Attempt (17th Overall), along with another 112.8 yards on the ground (22nd Overall) on 4.5 Yards per Carry (28th Overall). At first glance, you would think that the Cornerback’s presence has proven valuable in the form of the Redskins allowing eighteen passing touchdowns (9th Overall), but that is a misleading statistic, for opponents have proven far more fond of running the ball against them, totaling seventeen rushing scores, fourth-most in the NFL. But hey, Norman can’t do everything, can he? On the bright side, Gruden’s Rush Defense has stiffened over the second half of the campaign, relegating the opposition to 102.1 yards on the ground opposed to the dismal 130.0 per game they relinquished through the first five outings. Furthermore, with the exception of the 163 yards they gave up to Dallas (who runs on everyone), they haven’t allowed over 100 rushing yards since their Bye Week back in early November.