Coming off of a 43–21 drubbing against the Bills, the Washington Football Team will look to right the ship against the lowly Atlanta Falcons this Sunday. Don’t let the Falcons’ victory last week fool you into thinking they’re a serious threat; they defeated the Giants — who seem to be allergic to winning — by a measly score of 17–14. The Giants inflicted errors on themselves all afternoon, and they lost the game more than the Falcons won it. The Falcons are nowhere near as talented as the Bills, neither on offense nor on defense. Matt Ryan is visibly nearing the end of his career, and the Falcons’ defense allowed over 30 points to both the Eagles and Buccaneers in the first two weeks of the season. Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean Washington can just walk into the game expecting to blow Atlanta out. A few screws need to be tightened in order for Washington to get back to .500.
Here are three keys for Washington to pick up a much-needed win on Sunday afternoon:
Force secondary receivers to make plays
Calvin Ridley is widely regarded as one of the most talented receivers in the league, and while Kyle Pitts has gotten off to a slow start, the skill he possesses is still incredible. After those two, however, it’s Russell Gage, Cordarelle Patterson, Olamide Zaccheaus and a couple of other backups. We mentioned this same key in our Week 1 column and, to be frank, it backfired. Keenan Allen had a stellar nine catch, 100 yard outing, and Mike Williams ended up having a spectacular afternoon — eight catches for 82 yards along with the eventual game-winning touchdown. Jared Cook, Jalen Guyton and KJ Hill also had solid outings and proved to be key contributors in Washington’s Week 1 defeat. The Falcons, however, have a much worse quarterback than the Chargers and fewer potentially explosive secondary pass catchers. Washington has to contain Ridley and Pitts, and as a whole, the secondary needs to do a better job of defending the pass. If they can do that, they’re in prime shape.
Win the turnover battle
In order to be a successful football team, winning the turnover battle is vital, and Washington has failed to do that yet. Through three games, they have turned the ball over five times and only forced two. In their blowout loss to Buffalo, Washington turned the ball over three times, and their defense was unable to create any. They gave Josh Allen a short field far too often, and he capitalized on those golden opportunities. The Falcons, however, have a weak defensive line; it came into this season ranked 31st by PFF and has so far lived up to that unimpressive designation. Taylor Heinicke should have plenty of time in the pocket to make smart decisions and not be forced to throw the ball into tight coverage like he was last week. Atlanta also lacks talent and depth in the secondary, so Washington’s receivers should be able to get open and give Heinicke more confidence in his throws. The defense absolutely has to start creating some turnovers, and that starts with the defensive line. They’ve yet to demonstrate they can consistently pressure the quarterback, but if they can finally do that on Sunday, they’ll likely emerge victorious in the turnover battle.
Win the third down battle
No team is going to pick up every third down that they face, but Washington has been exceptionally poor on third down to begin the season. They are a horrific 9–34 through three games on third down and have allowed their opponents to go a combined 27–46. Only converting 26% of the time but allowing one’s opponents to convert at a 59% clip is not where anyone wants to be. The fix to this problem is simple: run shorter, safer plays on first and second down to give Heinicke and the rest of the offense more manageable third down situations. If Washington can win the third down battle against Atlanta, they’ll put their offense in favorable shape to string together long drives and will keep the defense rested.
It’s still early in the season, but this game feels like a must-win considering the WFT’s brutal schedule after this Sunday. Their next eight games after Atlanta are as follows: New Orleans, Kansas City, at Green Bay, at Denver, Tampa Bay, at Carolina, Seattle and at Las Vegas. Washington doesn’t play another NFC East opponent until December 12 when Dallas comes to town. If they can’t beat the Falcons, the next two months will look bleak unless a serious turnaround happens. However, as long as Washington can take advantage of Atlanta’s subpar defense while also containing their pass catching weapons, they’ll almost certainly get back to .500.