The Washington Football Team will look to return to its winning ways when it travels to Cleveland to play the Browns on Sunday. (A comprehensive preview of the game can be found, HERE.)
Here are three keys for Washington entering the Week 3 matchup:
The Cleveland Browns want to run the ball, and they were very effective in doing so the first two weeks of the season. The Browns currently have the NFL's second best rushing offense at 176.5 yards per game. Nick Chubb leads the team with 184 rushing yards, but Kareem Hunt (158 yards) is not far behind. Both are averaging at least 5.8 rushing yards per attempt.
"It throws you off," head coach Ron Rivera said about having to deal with two running backs. "You're constantly going in and out with these guys, and now you've got to find a rhythm on defense on how to approach this. It gives a boost to the offense -- especially the offensive line -- when you've got a guy that all you need to do is give him a crack. They've got two guys that can do that."
Washington is currently 11th in the league in rushing defense (108.5 yards allowed per game), but there are reasons to believe the unit is even stronger in this category.
Sixty-seven of Arizona's 160 rushing yards in Week 2 came from quarterback Kyler Murray -- something Washington will not have to worry about with Baker Mayfield, who has a career rushing average of fewer than nine yards per game. Washington's defense also limited Cardinals' running back Kenyan Drake to 3.3 yards per carry until the final drive, at which point the game was already decided.
Containing the Browns' two-headed rushing attack will require the defensive linemen to play disciplined and the linebackers to be sound in their tackling technique, as both Chubb and Hunt rank in the top 5 in yards after contact.
"These guys -- they love contact, they seek contact, get up into their crease, that hole, very quickly," linebackers coach Steve Russ said. "We've got to do a great job of making sure when we make contact, we're doing it on our terms. We want to be able to get these guys thick. You hit them on the edges and they're going to get a lot of leaky yards. We've got to be able to employ our power. Like I said, roll our hips by throwing our uppercuts and -- again -- running your feet on contact is going to be key with these guys because they don't like to go down on first hits."
When Cleveland gets into passing situations, it will be imperative that Washington pressure quarterback Baker Mayfield.
The Browns have a host of talented pass-catchers, starting with perennial Pro Bowl wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry.
And if for some reason they cannot get open, Mayfield may look for his trio of tight ends, which includes prized free agent signing Austin Hooper.
The Browns' offensive line is much improved from a year ago due to the offseason addition of right tackle Jack Conklin and the drafting of Jedrick Wills Jr. 10th overall in the 2020 NFL Draft. Wills immediately slid in at starting left tackle to help the unit protect Mayfield, who has only been sacked twice.
However, the Browns have not seen a defensive line like Washington's, which will be hungry to get after Mayfield after struggling to contain Murray a week ago.
"I like our group, I like our guys, I like our defense, I like the people in our room," defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said. "It'll start with me; I'll do some things better and help our guys, and everyone will do their part. That's the way I approach it."
Perhaps the most worrisome commonality between the first two games was that Washington faced a double-digit deficit after the first quarter.
And the discrepancy between the first- and second-half statistics are even more staggering. Washington has been outscored, 37-7, and outgained, 419-232, in the first half before totaling 35 points after the break, including 25 points in the final quarter. That was enough to beat Philadelphia in the season-opener, but it was not enough to climb out of a 20-0 hole against the Cardinals a week later.
If Washington falls behind in Cleveland, the Browns will simply rely on Chubb and Hunt to slowly wear down a defense built on rushing the passer. That'll also put even more pressure on an inexperienced offense still looking to find its identity.
But if there was ever a time for Washington to put forth a complete performance, it would be Sunday. The Browns have one of the worst passing defenses in the NFL, and they could be without linebacker Mack Wilson and cornerback Denzel Ward, who are both listed as questionable. The Browns are already without two starters in cornerback Greedy Williams and defensive end Olivier Vernon.
Offensive coordinator Scott Turner said the team has been exploring all options in terms of starting faster, but he believes it comes down to putting his players in the best situations to succeed and then executing the given play call. Quarterback Dwayne Haskins Jr. largely agrees.
"The biggest thing is going in there, trusting what Coach Turner calls, trusting in the guys up front to protect and trusting in the receivers to get open," Haskins said. "And then trusting in myself that I'm going to make the play happen and find the first down and find the checkdown and not necessarily push or try to make something happen out of nothing."