8:25 PM EST, CBS – Line: Washington -3.5
Division rivals clash tonight in the Nation’s Capital, as the Washington Redskins host the New York Giants in a battle of 1-2 teams on Thursday Night Football. For the second consecutive season the Giants (1-2) are off to a disappointing start, as they have once again been dealt with a litany of injuries. Nine players have already been placed on Injured Reserve, including a number of players counted on to be key contributors such as Mario Manningham (calf), Geoff Schwartz (toe), and Walter Thurmond (pectoral). Last year, Tom Coughlin’s club got off to a dismal 0-6 start, effectively taking them out of any competition for the NFC East title before the midway point of the season was even reached. Despite earning the first victory of the campaign last week, a 30-17 win over the Houston Texans at MetLife Stadium, there just doesn’t seem to be a sense of optimism around the team. In addition to all the injuries, turnovers have once again been a problem, all the while as the offense continues to learn a new playbook courtesy of Ben McAdoo, the team’s new Offensive Coordinator, late of the Green Bay Packers.
As the Giants struggle to acclimate themselves to this new offense, Eli Manning has clearly become the face of their stunted growth. The two-time Super Bowl MVP spent the entirety of his ten-year career in the same system, making the transition to a Packers-esque West Coast Offense a jarring one at this point. However, the change was indeed needed; Manning is coming off of a campaign in which he not only led the league with a career-worst 27 interceptions, but also saw his Completion Percentage (57.5%), Net Yards per Attempt (5.99), Touchdowns (18), and QBR (36.53) all fall to career lows. Obviously, it didn’t help matters that he also sustained more sacks than he had in any other season (39), and had the league’s third-worst rushing attack to lean on (83.3). So yes, the change was indeed warranted, as Coughlin is looking to maximize his Quarterback’s potential by utilizing more three and four-step drops, leading to shorter, higher-percentage passes so Manning can get the ball out of the pocket quicker. So let’s take a look at his numbers, shall we? Through three games, the eleven-year veteran has completed a healthy 65.0% of his passes for an average of 224.7 yards per game at 6.00 net yards per attempt, tossing five touchdowns opposed to four interceptions. As a result, his QBR has risen back to a respectable 65.68, showing that perhaps you can teach an old dog new tricks. For example, in the victory over Houston, he looked like vintage Eli; Manning went 21-of-28 for 234 yards and two touchdowns, and most notably no interceptions.
The running game has also played a part in his, and by extension, the team’s progression, as the Giants have been a far more balanced team than they were a year ago. Rashad Jennings was acquired in the offseason from Oakland after a breakout campaign in which he rushed for a career-best 733 yards and six touchdowns, and has thus far averaged a healthy 95.3 yards per game on 4.2 yards per carry. Losing former First Round Pick David Wilson to a career-ending neck injury in the preseason threatened to set this facet of the offense back, but Jennings has helped to keep things moving at 109.0 yards per game. Now it’s just a matter of getting the Receiving Corps up to speed, for apart from veteran mainstay Victor Cruz, the rest of Manning’s targets have left a lot to be desired. Cruz has reeled in a dozen passes for 191 yards (15.9 ypc) and a score thus far, while unheralded Tight End Larry Donnell has emerged as the most targeted weapon in the passing game (23 times), hauling in a team-best eighteen receptions for 182 yards and a touchdown. However, Jerrel Jernigan and Rueben Randle have underwhelmed, accounting for just seventeen catches on 29 targets, 107 yards and a score, with the former landing on Injured Reserve with a broken foot, and the latter plagued by drops. With that said, First Round Pick Odell Beckham Jr. could be making his debut tonight after missing the previous three games and the majority of the preseason with a strained hamstring, which would be a boon to a unit that is in dire need of healthy playmakers.
Meanwhile, change is also in the air in Washington (1-2), where a transition to a new Head Coach has now led to a new face under center. Jay Gruden was hired to replace Mike Shanahan this offseason with designs of fully unlocking the potential of third-year Quarterback Robert Griffin III, the former Offensive Rookie of the Year who clearly regressed during his sophomore campaign. That regression led to Shanahan’s dismissal, and ultimately to the younger Gruden’s acquisition; after crafting the Bengals’ offense for the last three years, he had the look of a kid in a candy store when arriving in the Nation’s Capital where he can take the reigns of a unit that ranked in the Top Ten in both Total Offense (388.9) and rushing yards (135.3). However, the promise of a high-flying offense quickly turned into a Quarterback Controversy after the aforementioned Griffin dislocated his ankle early in Week Two’s 41-10 victory over Jacksonville, and Kirk Cousins came in and proceeded to light the Jaguars up.
Many people questioned the Redskins’ decision to draft Cousins in the Fourth Round of the 2012 NFL Draft, after trading up to select Griffin with the Second Overall Pick, claiming that Cousins’, whom clearly possesses a good degree of potential, would create friction with RGIII’s development as the starter. That wasn’t an issue in 2012, but as Griffin struggled to perform after months of rehab from a gruesome knee injury suffered in the Playoffs, the cries for Cousins to step in continued to get louder and louder. Now with his predecessor’s ankle injury expected to keep him out of action for a minimum of six weeks, Cousins has picked up the ball and hasn’t looked back since. Since replacing Griffin two weeks ago, the third-year veteran has impressed, completing 64.2% of his passes for 338.5 yards per game on 7.9 net yards per pass, five touchdowns and one interception. Furthermore, he has shown a propensity of trusting his protection in the pocket, suffering just two sacks in as many games, while his teammate was dropped four times in a little under five quarters of football. And as you can imagine, with steadier play under center the offense has improved by leaps an bounds; in Week One at Houston, the Redskins looked lethargic scoring just six points on 372 yards of total offense, while committing a pair of turnovers, but over the past two weeks have averaged 37.5 points on 480 yards of offense. Coming into the season there was a small chance that Cousins would supplant Griffin as the starter, now it’s become hard to believe that he will lose the job when the latter is healthy once again.
Prospering from Cousins’ presence in the pocket is the Receiving Corps, which was augmented in the offseason with the acquisition of DeSean Jackson. The lightning fast Jackson was cut rather unceremoniously by the Eagles, and promptly landed with their division rivals, giving Gruden, whom also has Pierre Garcon at his disposal, arguably the fastest pair of receivers in the league. Jackson has enjoyed a much better rapport with Cousins, who targeted often in the receiver’s return to Philadelphia last weekend; in the 37-34 defeat, Jackson caught five passes for 117 yards and a touchdown, after accumulating 81 yards and no scores on nine catches over the previous two games. Garcon on the other hand, has been targeted a team-high 32 times, catching 22 passes for 227 yards and a touchdown. Andre Roberts and Niles Paul have also stepped their games up, with the former racking up nine receptions for 117 yards, and the latter tacking on eighteen catches for a team-high 253 yards. The change under center hasn’t hurt the rushing attack, which has been prolific over the past two seasons. Washington has averaged 101.5 yards per game on the ground (9th overall) on 4.4 yards per carry (14th overall), led by Alfred Morris and his 253 yards on 59 carries. Lost in the Griffin/Cousins debate has been the dramatic improvement of the defense, which was pitiful in 2013. Defensive Coordinator Jim Haslett oversaw a unit that ranked third-worst in scoring defense last season (29.9), but has since seen them evolve into an aggressive group allowing 21.3 points (12th overall) on just 282.7 yards (4th overall). They’ve been particularly staunch against the run, yielding the third-fewest yards in the league on the ground (64.7). Despite their strong play, the Redskins have sustained a good deal of injuries over the first three weeks, with many coming on defense; Brian Orakpo (finger), Jason Hatcher (hamstring), and Tracy Porter (hamstring) are all listed as questionable for tonight’s contest, while DeAngelo Hall (Achilles) landed on Injured Reserve after the loss to the Eagles.