It was widely assumed before the start of the season that the Washington Redskins would be one of the worst teams, if not the worst team, in the NFL in 2015. Currently, Washington sits atop the NFC East in a three way tie with the Giants and Cowboys, one play away from being 3-1, and in sole possession of the East. In spite of multiple injuries, many to key players, Washington has been able to persevere en route to upset victories against the Rams and Eagles, utilizing a host of young players.
The Redskins will attempt to keep their season headed in a positive direction as they travel to Atlanta on Sunday to face a Falcons offense that is currently hitting on all cylinders. Thanks in large part to monster performances from Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman, the Atlanta Falcons sit atop of the NFC South division with a perfect 4-0 record. Atlanta is coming off of its best game of the season in Week 4, demolishing the Texans 48-21. They will look to keep it rolling against a beat up, yet feisty, Washington team in Week 5.
This will be the 25th meeting all-time between the Washington Redskins and Atlanta Falcons. Washington holds a solid lead in the series with a 15-8-1 record. The Falcons have narrowed the gap somewhat by beating the Redskins in each of their last four meetings. The two teams last played in 2013 with Atlanta edging Washington by a score of 27-26.
Washington at Atlanta
Kickoff: 1 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Spread: Atlanta -7.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Washington Run Offense vs. Atlanta Run Defense
Thanks to a surprisingly solid offensive line and a trio of outstanding running backs in Alfred Morris, Matt Jones, and Chris Thompson, Washington currently ranks first in the NFL in rushing, averaging close to 140 yards per game. On paper, the Falcons run defense also looks impressive, currently ranking fifth in in the NFL, allowing 85 rushing yards per game. However, there is a catch. Unlike the Redskins, the Falcons ranking is a bit deceiving. If you go by yards per carry, which is a more telling statistic, the Atlanta defense has allowed 4.4 yards per play to opposing runners, ranking them just 25th in the NFL. The reason being that opposing offenses have had to abandon the run against Atlanta, going pass heavy in an attempt to play catch up. This has resulted in opposing offenses having only attempted 19 run plays per game against the Falcons, the fewest in the NFL.
In other words, the Falcons run defense is not nearly as formidable as the yards per game ranking would seem to indicate. Thus, the Redskins should be able to once again find success on the ground in Week 5. The key will be finding that success early, controlling the clock, and hoping that their defense can minimize the damage against the potent Falcons offense. If the Atlanta offense comes out on fire, the Redskins may have no choice but to abandon their run game as well, which would not bode well.
2. Julio Jones vs. One Very Unfortunate Secondary
Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones has proven to be an unstoppable force this season, accumulating 478 receiving yards and four touchdowns on 38 receptions. While Jones only managed 38 yards on four catches in Week 4, his services were barely needed in the blowout win against the Texans. He should bounce back in a huge way in Week 5 against a banged up Washington secondary.
The Redskin secondary has played surprisingly well so far this season, but they are no match for the Atlanta passing game, or its primary weapon, Julio Jones. Washington lost mainstay corner back DeAngelo Hall to a toe injury in Week 3, and the Redskins' top cornerback, Chris Culliver, is nursing a knee injury which could very well keep him from playing on Sunday. Even if Culliver does play, he will be nothing short of a liability against the likes of Jones. That leaves either Bashaud Breeland and/or Will Blackmon to try and handle Jones. A total mismatch any way you look at it. In all fairness, who isn’t mismatched playing against Julio Jones?
3. Can Devonta Freeman Run Wild Once Again?
The surprise of the Falcons offense this season has undoubtedly been Devonta Freeman. In spite of high expectations, Freeman struggled mightily through his rookie season in 2014. He also lost his bid for the starting running back job to rookie Tevin Coleman in fall camp. Freeman’s woes continued into Week 1 where he struggled to get going against the Eagles. In Week 2, Freeman managed to find the end zone against the Giants and took over the starting role after Coleman suffered a rib injury that same week.
Since then, Freeman has been nothing short of spectacular, accumulating 342 total yards and six touchdowns in his last two games. Freeman is the first running back to run for seven touchdowns through the first four games of a season since LaDainian Tomlinson accomplished the feat in 2005. Look for the Falcons to look Freeman’s way early and often again in Week 5. The Redskins currently boast the NFL’s second best run defense, so it will not be a cakewalk, but Freeman's explosiveness and versatility in the passing game make him difficult to contain for any defense.
If Washington stands any chance of winning this game, Head coach Jay Gruden will have to have his team prepared to execute a nearly perfect game plan. That will be a tall order against a red-hot Falcons team, especially with so many injuries standing in the way. The Redskins will likely be without star receiver DeSean Jackson once again. Go to tight end, Jordan Reed, is highly doubtful, and Pierre Garcon will play on an ailing knee. Washington quarterback, Kirk Cousins, will probably make do with a gimpy Garcon, and the likes of Jamison Crowder and Ryan Grant as his primary targets. But it won’t make any difference if the Redskins' run game fails to produce early, and the Washington defense fails to slow down Atlanta’s potent offensive attack.
As for Atlanta, they pretty much need to simply keep doing what they have been doing all season, feeding the ball to Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman. The Falcons offensive line obviously needs to keep Matt Ryan from ending up in a horizontal position, but beyond that, Atlanta should have few concerns heading into Week 5. As long as the Falcons offense performs up to its standards, and there is no reason to believe that it will not, even a mediocre performance from the defense will not keep them out of the win column against a thin Washington team.
Prediction: Falcons 31, Redskins 20
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.