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Desperate Redskins host hungry Panthers

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Desperate Redskins host hungry Panthers

What: Panthers (1-6) vs. Redskins (3-5) 

Where: FedEx Field, Landover, Md.

When: Sunday, 1 p.m.

TV: Fox WTTG-5

Redskins Kickoff and Postgame Live: Comcast SportsNet noon and 4

The Redskins have arrived at the first crossroads of the Robert Griffin III era. 

On Sunday, the season can go one of two ways when they host the one-victory Panthers. With a win, they’ll enter the bye week confident, pointed in a positive direction and looking ahead to getting back some injured starters on the other side. A loss, though, and any serious discussion of making the playoffs can be shelved until 2013. It could also foreshadow another second-half collapse.

“This is where, normally, football teams are taken over by their veterans,” Coach Mike Shanahan said this week. “It can go one direction or the other, and you expect these guys to play at a higher level. It’s either step up or shut up; it’s where you’ve got to get it done.”

Shanahan is not often so blunt when speaking publicly. But there’s no doubt that the seriousness of the situation demanded such a tone.

His Redskins are coming off their worst performance of the season, an unsightly 27-12 defeat in Pittsburgh. Receivers dropped a combined 10 passes, the defense generated virtually no pass rush and allowed a third-string running back to gain 107 yards, special teams struggled and cornerback DeAngelo Hall was ejected for losing his cool with an official.

The 15-point margin of defeat, meantime, was the largest of the season.

On paper, hosting the scuffling Panthers appears to be the break the Redskins need to bounce back. Except Washington is 1-2 at home and Carolina is not the pushover its record suggests. 

Cam Newton and his teammates have been competitive in all but one game, dropping their past four by a total of 12 points, including a 23-22 loss to the NFC North leading Bears last week. Newton has not been as dynamic as he was during his record-breaking rookie season, but the 6 foot 5, 245-pound dual threat quarterback remains a threat to break off huge chunks of yardage -- through the air or on the ground -- against a Washington defense that’s yielded 28.4 points per game as well as league-worst 2,514 passing yards and 19 passing touchdowns.

In fact, the Redskins are on pace to become the first team in NFL history to allow 5,000 yards in the air in a single season. 

Griffin, Alfred Morris and the rest of the Redskins’ offense, meantime, must find a way to get going against a menacing Panthers’ front four. Linemen Charles Johnson, Greg Hardy and Dwan Edwards have combined 15 sacks -- one more than the entire Redskins’ defense -- and Carolina ranks a respectable 15th in yards allowed per game (343.9). 

Johnson will likely matchup against tackle Tyler Polumbus, while Trent Williams is expected to handle Hardy.

Indeed, the Redskins cannot afford to look past the Panthers and forward to a week off. Not now, not given what’s at stake. 

“We still have all of our goals in front of us,” Williams said. “We can be a playoff team if we go on a run.” 

That run, however, must begin Sunday.

Here are some other storylines the team at www.csnwashington.com will be monitoring:

1—Newton vs. Griffin. Although Griffin has mostly been compared to Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck because they were taken 1-2 in the draft, the better comparison is Griffin and Newton. Their teams run similar schemes, each possesses a cannon for an arm and both are as likely to keep the ball on an option as pitch it.

Newton is passing for 243 yards per game and rushing for 44.3, while Griffin is passing for 222 and rushing for 59.5. The big difference is their touchdown to interception ratio. Newton has tossed five touchdowns and eight interceptions, while Griffin has thrown eight touchdowns and three picks.

Asked what he thought of the comparison, Griffin said: “I’d rather be compared to Aaron Rodgers or a guy like that, someone who’s won Super Bowls.”

2—Aldrick Robinson reemerges. After falling out of favor following a miscue-riddled performance in St. Louis, the speedy wide receiver is expected to receive ample playing time against the Panthers.

With No. 1 receiver Pierre Garçon expected to be sidelined again, the move was made to inject some speed into the lineup and shake things up after a big drop by Leonard Hankerson last Sunday.

“Aldrick is one of the faster guys in the NFL,” offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said. “And he’s getting better at his routes and blocking.” 

3—Special teams struggles. After a mostly uneventful Weeks 5-7, the units contributed to the Redskins’ misery last week at Heinz Field. Kicker Kai Forbath kicked a PAT too low and it was blocked, and punter Sav Rocca kicked a 12-yard punt that Pittsburgh parlayed into a scoring drive.

This week, Mike Shanahan revealed that Rocca has been punting with a torn meniscus in the knee on his kicking leg. Despite his gutsy effort, he and the Redskins know the team cannot afford another shank.

“Anytime he has a punt like he did,” Shanahan said, “you know it is bothering him a little bit.”

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The seven best undrafted free agent signings the Redskins have made since 2010

The seven best undrafted free agent signings the Redskins have made since 2010

Every NFL training camp is different, but there are a few consistent things you can count on happening at each one each year.

At some point, for example, a star will say that he's "just excited to hit a guy wearing a different colored jersey" after about a week of practicing against his teammates. Also on the list: a coach will tell reporters that his defense plans on being more aggressive and hopes to create more turnovers in the regular season.

One of the more pleasant camp traditions, meanwhile, is that undrafted rookie who goes from stand-in to stand out and makes the team by impressing in drills and preseason contests.

But while there will be plenty of time in the coming weeks for trying to figure out who'll do that for the Redskins in 2017, let's instead look back at a handful of the players who've already accomplished that in the past with Washington. Here are the seven best undrafted free agents the franchise has unearthed since 2010.

MORE: PLAYING OVER/UNDER WITH KEY STATS FOR KIRK COUSINS IN 2017

Logan Paulsen (2010)

No one will ever mistake Logan Paulsen's film for Rob Gronkowski's, but the former UCLA Bruin held down the third tight end spot for the Redskins from 2010-2014.

His two best years came in 2012 and 2013, where he posted 25 and 28 catches respectively, scored four total times and was on the receiving end of this magical fourth-down pass from Robert Griffin III against the Giants, a play that might've just been the peak of Griffin's rookie year. Now 30, Paulsen is reuniting with Kyle Shanahan out in San Francisco, continuing to exceed expectations and extending what's been a fruitful NFL career.

Will Compton (2013)

Will Compton's made a steady climb up Washington's roster since entering the league as a free agent linebacker out of Nebraska.

He was cut in his first season back in 2013 but latched onto the practice squad. He eventually debuted near the end of 2013, though, and made the 53-man squad the next go-round. 2015 was when he first started playing regularly, then last year he started 15 contests while also serving as a captain.

In 2017, he'll have to compete with Zach Brown and Mason Foster for a starting gig, but he figures to play plenty no matter the outcome and he's one of Jay Gruden's most trusted defenders. Not bad for a guy who has admitted he "wasn't confident" as a rookie:

Houston Bates (2015)

Special teams often is the avenue a college free agent has to take to make a roster, and Houston Bates is an example of one who's been there, done that. He's appeared in 24 games for the Redskins in his first two NFL campaigns and will look to recover from a torn ACL he suffered last December so he can add to that total in year three.

Before that injury, he was Washington's most active special teams player with 292 snaps in 14 contests.

Quinton Dunbar (2015)

Quinton Dunbar has not only overcome being an undrafted free agent; the former Florida Gator has also made the successful transition from wide receiver to cornerback, too.

Like his classmate Bates, Dunbar has participated often in 2015 and 2016, and like Paulsen, his biggest moments have come against the Giants. As a first-year pro, he picked off Eli Manning in the end zone to the delight of a raucous FedExField crowd, and as a sophomore, he helped complete a risky fake punt and also notched another (absolutely insane) INT in New York:

Rob Kelley (2016)

This offseason, Jay Gruden joked that Rob Kelley has worked his way up from "ninth-string" to starter. He laughed as he said it, but it may not have been that big of an exaggeration.

Kelley never rushed for more than 420 yards at Tulane, but he ripped off 704 last year for the 'Skins. Now he's the top option in a talented backfield, and while Samaje Perine and Chris Thompson are nipping at his heels for carries, Gruden has repeatedly said how much he loves Kelley. He'll be fed plenty in 2017.

Anthony Lanier (2016)

Anthony Lanier's on this list not for what he's done, but for what he's projected to do. Gruden uses not one but two really's to describe how excited he is about Lanier, and a couple of months of working with assistant Jim Tomsula might be all the lineman needs to make the jump from a project to a problem. 

Maurice Harris (2016)

Last on the list is a receiver who displayed sure hands and a knack for converting third downs in limited action last year. Maurice Harris now looks like he'll be an early option off the bench in Gruden's offense and should see the field far more often than he did in the second half of 2016.

You may not be fully sold on Harris, but it sounds like his teammates are, so don't be surprised if he breaks out and develops into another option for Kirk Cousins:

RELATED: RANKING THE REDSKINS ROSTER FROM BOTTOM TO TOP

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Need to Know: Redskins by the numbers—First-down rushing, forcing fumbles

Need to Know: Redskins by the numbers—First-down rushing, forcing fumbles

Here is what you need to know on this Sunday, July 23, four days before the Washington Redskins start training camp in Richmond on July 27.

Timeline

The Redskins last played a game 203 days ago; they will open the 2017 season against the Eagles at FedEx Field in 49 days.

Days until:

—Preseason opener @ Ravens (8/10) 18
—Preseason vs. Packers at FedEx Field (8/19) 27
—Roster cut to 53 (9/2) 41

The Redskins by the numbers

5.01—The average yards per carry against the Redskins on first down last year.

I have noted this before but I took a closer look and it’s even worse. In 2016, four running backs—Isaiah Crowell of the Browns, DeAngelo Williams of the Steelers, Jordan Howard of the Bears, and Ezekiel Elliott of the Cowboys—gained over 100 yards against Washington on first down alone. It took Elliott two games to get there but the other three made it in one. If the Redskins don’t get this fixed (this is the second year in a row they have been last in the league here) their defense won’t get much better.

3.85—The Redskins average offensive gain per carry on first down.

This is not a very good performance here — the average is 20th in the NFL. But it does represent a significant improvement from 2015, when they were last in the NFL at 3.3 yards per carry. One difference was negative plays. Two years ago, they had 63 first-down plays go for no gain or a loss of yards. Last year they had 48 such plays. Rob Kelley, who was fourth-best in the league as a rookie last year at gaining yardage after being contacted behind the line, can claim a lot of credit.

8—The number of opponents’ fumbles the Redskins recovered this year.

A total of 17 other teams recovered more fumbles than the Redskins did last year and their recoveries were exactly half of what they were in 2015, when they had 16, the most in the league. It wasn’t surprising that their recoveries fell. The numbers crunchers say that fumble recoveries aren’t “sticky,” meaning that there tends to be a lot of variance for each team each year. And that makes sense as a lot of recovering fumbles is the bounce of the ball.

But it should be noted that the Redskins forced just 22 fumbles last year after forcing 36 in 2015. You have to get the ball on the ground to recover it and the Redskins could do a better job of forcing fumbles in 2017

Stay up to date on the Redskins. Rich Tandler covers the team 365 days a year. Like his Facebook page Facebook.com/TandlerCSN and follow him on Twitter @Rich_TandlerCSN.

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