Three keys to a WFT victory against the Raiders on Sunday

By Gibson Hirt

As renowned paper company boss Michael Scott once said, “Well, well, well, how the turn tables.” 

Just three weeks ago, only the Detroit Lions had a worse record than the Washington Football Team. Three victories, one huge upset and numerous quality defensive performances later, Washington finds themselves riding a three-game winning streak into Week 13 and the only team in all of football to go undefeated in the month of November. They currently hold the NFC’s final Wild Card spot and travel to Las Vegas to take on a Raiders squad who, to be frank, have been of the more confusing teams in what has been a rather confusing NFL season. They’ll look like a dangerous Wild Card team some weeks — Weeks 1–3 and 6–7, for example — but will look like a team that had their coach resign mid-season and two of their last three first-round picks released in other weeks. Although the Raiders emerged victorious on Thanksgiving afternoon last Thursday, they still committed an absurd 14 penalties that cost them 110 yards and very nearly the game if not for a 14 penalty performance from the opposing Cowboys. Nonetheless, Sunday will be a big matchup for both teams who are right smack in the middle of the playoff push in their respective conferences.

Here are three keys for Washington to get back to .500 on Sunday against the Raiders:

Prevent the deep ball

There are few players who have had a weirder career than DeSean Jackson. After making three Pro Bowls as an electrifying top receiving option on the Eagles from 2008–13, he has sported five different jerseys since then and currently finds himself as a top-three option in the Raiders offense. After a short stint with the Rams to begin the season, Jackson seems to have found a home in Las Vegas. In four games with the Raiders, he has 140 yards and a touchdown on just four catches, including a touchdown last week against the Cowboys. Jackson caught a crossing route, broke one tackle, and was gone for six in an instant. While Jackson isn’t going to receive a ton of volume, he makes his mark on the deep ball. He has the speed to blow past any defender in the NFL in the blink of an eye. Despite Jackson’s presence, however, the Raiders’ offensive ceiling has been lowered dramatically since Henry Ruggs III was released. While Jackson has done an impressive job maintaining his status as a weapon in the deep-passing game, Ruggs legitimately got open downfield multiple times a game, something that is difficult to replace. Since the bye, Washington’s safeties have been playing quality coverage against three teams with talented receiving cores. Vegas’ wideouts are by far the weakest group Washington has faced on their winning streak, especially with Darren Waller likely not suiting up. As long as the Football Team can keep Jackson in front of them, they should have an easy time keeping the Raiders out of the endzone, especially with Waller expected to miss the contest.

Play off the run game

It’s been said time and time again, but the majority of Washington’s success has come off their ability to run the ball. During Washington’s win streak, Antonio Gibson and JD McKissic have been the stars engineering most of the offensive success Gibson has been the workhorse, receiving at least 19 carries in each of the last three games. McKissic has been the receiving back, garnering multiple targets every week. Unfortunately, McKissic had to be carted off the field late in the fourth quarter on Monday Night. He remains in concussion protocol and has yet to practice this week, seriously jeopardizing his chances of playing on Sunday. If McKissic is forced to sit out, expect Gibson to have an even larger role on Sunday. Seeing the ball handed off to Gibson 30 times would not be surprising; in fact, that is exactly what Washington should do. Scott Turner needs to run the offense based on run plays. That means hammering the rock on first and second down, thus giving the offense third and manageable on (hopefully) most drives. The Raiders allow 126 rushing yards/game, the seventh worst in the NFL. Once Vegas is committed to stopping the run — which they might not even be able to do — play-action will catch them by surprise and will allow Taylor Heinicke to take shots downfield, something he is a-ok doing despite maybe having the same amount of arm strength as Jared Goff. If the offense can utilize this style of play effectively, they have a great shot at obliterating Vegas’ struggling defense.

Continue to dominate the trenches

Quick disclaimer: this is more of an appreciation section than a key to victory, but it is well-deserved. The big men on the o-line are some of the least appreciated players on a football team. This is mainly because they never have the ball in their hands, besides the occasional trick play, but what they do is extremely valuable. For Washington, their o-line has been one of the best in the league; they have four players ranked in the top 15 at their respective positions according to PFF. This is even more impressive considering the adversity they have faced this season. Washington is on not their first, not second, not third, but fourth-string center. It feels like whenever Washington gets an o-line back from injury, another man goes down. Even through all of the problems that have arisen, Washington’s big men have found a way to persevere and get the job done. People always acknowledge running backs when they have monster performances, but in reality, the o-line deserves a chunk of that praise. 

This is an enormous game for Washington. After Sunday’s contest in Vegas, Washington’s remaining opponents all reside in the NFC East. Two games against the Cowboys and Eagles plus a road bout against the Giants to close the season might very well play a huge role in determining the final Wild Card spots in the NFC. In order for Washington to put themselves in the best position to succeed heading into next week, they have to win this game against the Raiders. As long as Washington’s defense prevents big plays and the Washington offense continues to pound the rock effectively, next week’s matchup against the semi-struggling Cowboys will look a whole lot more interesting.