Game preview: Redskins at Falcons

Game preview: Redskins at Falcons
December 13, 2013, 8:00 am
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4 Downs: How will Redskins adjust for Cousins?

What: Redskins (3-10) at Falcons (3-10)

Where: Georgia Dome, Atlanta

When: Sunday, 1 p.m.

TV: Fox

Redskins Kickoff: noon, CSN

Redskins Postgame Live: 4 p.m., CSN+ 

The Redskins say they remain committed to Robert Griffin III in the long term. They say he’ll be the starter in 2014.

But for the remainder of this lost season, their prized prospect will be working on the scout team in practice and watching from the sideline during games as backup Kirk Cousins get his chance to impress.

And it all begins Sunday at the Georgia Dome, where the Redskins visit Matt Ryan and the similarly scuffling Falcons. Both teams are 3-10, a year after claiming their respective division championships.

While just about everyone has an opinion regarding the motive behind benching Griffin, this much we can all be sure about: the next three games will provide Cousins with an opportunity to prove he can be a starter in the NFL. 

“I think it’s a great opportunity to show what I’m capable of,” Cousins said. “Whether it’s here or somewhere else I’m auditioning, that feeling of challenging yourself, being tough on yourself and putting pressure on yourself, I don’t think that ever goes away regardless of the circumstances you’re under.”

[RELATED: Did Kyle Shanahan really have 'zero involvement' in benching RG3?]

Cousins will be making the second start of his NFL career; he led the Redskins to a 38-21 victory in Cleveland a year ago. And he’ll be doing it against a Falcons’ defense that’s yielding 8.0 yards per pass attempt (29th) and 27.8 points per game (also 29th).

The Redskins have plenty of reasons to hope Cousins fares well—and it goes far beyond winning football games in 2013 and finishing off an otherwise awful season on a high note.

The most obvious reason the team hopes Cousins wins a game (or three) is that it will increase Cousins’ trade value if they decide to deal him in the offseason. NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported Thursday night that he polled six general managers and the consensus was that Cousins could be worth as much as a second rounder. But none of the GMs, Rapoport said, believed Cousins could bring back a first.

“I think [Cousins playing well] would be awesome for the Redskins,” offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said. “When you have a franchise quarterback like Robert, there would be nothing better for us than for Kirk to come in and light it up. Then, worse case scenario, you have a very good backup quarterback or you have a guy that you can get a lot for.”

Mike Shanahan agreed, saying, “Well, that’s a problem you want to have. We made a decision a long time ago that Robert is our quarterback. He’s our quarterback of the future. …If [Cousins] lights it up, we’ve got a lot of options with Kirk. I hope that’s what happens.” 

So let Cousins’ audition begin.

With all that as a backdrop, here are three areas to monitor Sunday: 

  • Mike Shanahan said his reason for benching Griffin was to protect the second year quarterback, who was sacked 24 times in the previous five games. But how much of that was Griffin holding onto the ball too long and how much of it was the fault of an underperforming offensive line? With a different quarterback under center, the root of the problem may be easier to diagnose. Atlanta’s 26th ranked pass rush is led by Osi Umenyiora, who has 6.5 sacks.
  • Special teams were an unmitigated disaster—again—in last week’s 45-10 loss to the Chiefs. The Redskins rank dead last in punt return coverage. They are surrendering 18 yards per return and have yielded three touchdowns and a total of 559 yards. For comparison’s sake, the league-leading Seahawks have yielded 15 yards on punt returns all season. “Nobody respects us on special teams,” unit captain Reed Doughty said. “The only way to fix that is to go make some plays this week and try to change that." The Falcons are ranked 12th on kickoff returns and 27th on punts.
  • Although rookie tight end Jordan Reed had not been officially ruled out of Sunday’s game, concern about his latest concussion is growing. The Redskins’ second leading receiver has missed three straight games and, according to Shanahan, is still experiencing headaches. Reed also did not practice Wednesday or Thursday. Fox Sports reported late Thursday that Reed will be shut down for the season, though subsequent reports from other outlets suggested that a final determination had not been made.

Those are the big storylines. But here are three more than the team at will be keeping an eye on:

1—Guard Kory Lichtensteiger (stinger), safeties Brandon Meriweather (bruised sternum) and Trenton Robinson (ankle) and fullback Darrel Young (hamstring) participated fully in practice on Wednesday and Thursday, which is a strong indication they’ll be able to suit up Sunday.

2—The Falcons are coming off a 22-21 loss in Green Bay, after blowing a 21-10 lead. Ryan’s 206 passing yards were his second lowest total of the season.

3—When the teams meeting last season, Atlanta’s Tony Gonzalez exploited the Redskins, hauling in 13 catches for 123 yards and a touchdown. But the 37-year-old tight end has cracked 50 yards only twice in his last eight games this season. 

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