Here are 10 matchups we’ll be looking for in Sunday’s Patriots-Redskins game:
Rob Gronkowski against the Washington safeties: The big tight end should again find some favorable matchups against the Washington pass defense, which doesn’t appear to have a true counterpoint to his size and speed, at least at linebacker. That means the Redskins could try and attack Gronkowski (65 catches, 928 yards and 13 touchdown catches) with a fleet of safeties, including O.J. Atogwe and Reed Doughty. Atogwe is Washington’s best defensive back when it comes to pass coverage (Pro Football Focus has him graded out at +2.6), and even though he doesn’t have the size to try and match up with Gronkowski (he’s 5-foot-11, 203, while Gronkowski is 6-foot-6 and 265 pounds), he will likely be the one up against him when Washington is operating in man coverage on defense.
Wes Welker against the Washington corners: It’s still a question as to who will be going up against Welker, who leads the league in catches (93) and receiving yards (1,253). All three of their leading corners figure to play a role in trying to slow down Welker: DeAngelo Hall (who had some very nice things to say about Welker this week), Kevin Barnes or Josh Wilson (who has apparently seen time working as the slot corner this year for Washington) will all likely have some sort of role in trying to slow down Welker. The corners who have done the best job this year against Welker are the ones who try and get physical with him off the line, attempting to jam him while working in man coverage. Expect the Redskins to at least try and do some of that Sunday.
BenJarvus Green Ellis against London Fletcher: The Patriots running game has struggled over the last few weeks, and according to one NFC scout, things could continue down that road this week against the Redskins. Washington began the season looking very good against the run (the first four weeks of the season, the Redskins were allowing 84.5 rushing yards allowed per game, one of the best in the league). And while they have stumbled at times of late, they remain relatively stout against the run, led by Fletcher, who leads the NFL in tackles with 124 tackles (69 solo). Pro Football Focus has the 36-year-old as Washington’s best run defender (they have him at +7.6 in run defense this season), and should be leading the charge when it comes to trying to sniff out the Patriots’ running game.
Nick McDonald against Barry Cofield: The fourth center to start for the Patriots this season held up very well last week against the Colts (no sacks or quarterback pressures allowed), but if he gets the call again against the Redskins (both Dan Connolly and Ryan Wendell, who are ahead of McDonald on the depth chart, are officially questionable this week), he’ll likely face a steady diet of Cofield, a 27-year-old defensive tackle out of Northwestern who some Patriots’ fans might remember as part of the Giants’ defensive line in The Super Bowl That Shall Not Be Named. Cofield talked about what it takes to beat Tom Brady this week. “You’ve got to harass him,” he told the Washington Times. “You’ve got to hit him. You’ve got to move him off his mark. You’ve got to have him at least considering the fact that there’s a rush coming. If you let him go out there and play seven-on-seven, he’s going to set records.”
The Patriots tackles against Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan: For the third consecutive week, New England’s tackles will face a pair of impressive pass rushers. On Sunday, it’ll be the relatively younger linebacking duo of Orakpo and Kerrigan -- Kerrigan has 6 1/2 sacks, while Orakpo has 6 sacks. (Washington is only one of three teams that have two linebackers in the Top 25 in sacks.) As our NFC scout told us, look for the Patriots to utilize an extra tight end as frequently as possible in hopes of keeping both Kerrigan and Orakpo out of New England’s backfield.
The Patriots offense against some early (and late) sluggishness: The New England offense had had a hard time getting started over its last seven games, as it has just one first-quarter touchdown over the last seven games (a four-yard run from Green-Ellis in the first quarter of the Nov. 27 win over the Eagles). As a team, New England has scored just 61 first-quarter points this season, easily their lowest total of any of the four quarters, and a shockingly low average of five points per game. Those numbers (combined with an inability to put the Colts away down the stretch last week) likely mean that the phrase “60 minutes” was repeated throughout the Gillette Stadium facility this week.
Bill Belichick against Mike Shanahan: These two go back more than 20 years to when Belichick was an assistant in Denver and San Francisco and Belichick was with the New York Giants and Jets. As a result, there’s very little either one of them can do that will surprise the other. Shanahan has a 5-3 edge in head-to-head matchups between the two, and it should be interesting to see these two coaching veterans match up against each other on Sunday.
Kyle Arrington against Santana Moss: If Redskins quarterback Rex Grossman is given enough time against the Patriots’ defense -- a big if, considering the state of the Washington offensive line -- the duo of Moss and old friend Jabar Gaffney could make trouble for the New England secondary. The two are very good vertical threats (Moss has 34 catches for 372 yards and two touchdowns, while Gaffney has 46 catches for 665 yards and three touchdowns). Meanwhile, the Patriots’ pass defense has struggled against the deep ball -- New England has yielded 62 pass plays of 20 yards or more (worst in the league). The good thing for the Patriots? They’re facing a quarterback in Grossman who has been known to make some very bad decisions. He’s third in the league in interceptions with 15 (he’s only thrown 10 touchdown passes), and his 58 percent completion percentage is one of the worst totals of any starter in the league. That means Arrington, who leads the league with seven interceptions, could add to his totals this week.
The Patriots’ defense against Roy Helu: The rookie out of Nebraska has put together a very impressive season with the Redskins. When it comes to running the ball, he has 97 carries for 456 yards this season, an average of 4.7 yards per carry. He’s also a threat to catch the ball out of the backfield -- he leads all rookie running backs with 42 catches, a total that’s third-best among all NFL rookies, and third on the team. New England continues to be solid against the run (the Patriots are 10th in the league heading into the weekend), but they haven’t faced many shifty, multidimensional backs like Helu this year (Reggie Bush in Miami and Fred Jackson in Buffalo are the only two that come to mind), and he’ll present a relatively new challenge for the New England defense at this stage of the season.
Andre Carter against Sean Locklear: New England’s sack leader (he’s tied for third in the AFC with nine sacks) will return to meet his old mates on a two-week sackless streak. (In his defense, he’s faced a lot of double-teams the last two weeks.) He should be getting a favorable matchup this week, however, as Washington’s starting left tackle Trent Williams was one of two Redskins who was suspended for the rest of the season because of violations of the league’s substance abuse policy. (Tight end Fred Davis was the other.) As a result, he’ll be going up against backup Locklear. It’s a considerable dropoff, as Williams was Washington’s best pass blocker (PFF had him at +5.1 before the suspension), while Locklear is one of its worst (-3.3 in pass blocking this season, to go along with 12 quarterback pressures and four sacks allowed, according to PFF).