ATLANTA — The Redskins open the preseason on Thursday night with a road game against the Atlanta Falcons.
Last year’s regular-season game at the Georgia Dome didn’t exactly go as planned in a 25-19 loss. The stakes are a lot lower here, though. It’s a chance for Washington’s coaching staff to get the regulars a few series and then get a hard evaluation of rookies, backups vying for a job and roster long shots who will get plenty of playing time that will dwindle as camp goes on. Here are five things to watch tonight:
Rashad Ross and Ryan Grant
The backup wide receivers will get plenty of action tonight. First, the Redskins aren’t going to play Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson more than a few offensive series. But also Jamison Crowder (hamstring) and Josh Doctson (left Achilles tendon) are hurt. Ross and Grant have both had their moments during camp. Grant even earned some repetitions with the starters in three wide-receiver sets during practice. But we’ve seen him play well in the preseason before and then not carry it over to the regular season. First things first. He needs to get a few good games in while he has the chance. Ross is the primary kick returner and that should help him stick on the 53-man roster. He can get behind the defense, but it’s important he limit those nagging drops.
Nickel cornerback battle
Dashaun Phillips appeared in six games for the Redskins last season after injuries struck. That experience has carried over into training camp. But he’s splitting reps now with third-round pick Kendall Fuller (Virginia Tech). With so little time spent in a base 3-4 defense because of the number of receiving threats on the field, teams better have options. Neither player has much experience. Phillips was an undrafted college free agent from Tarleton State in 2014. Fuller might have been a first-round pick if not for microfracture surgery on his right knee last September. Phillips had the first-team reps at Monday’s practice. The coaching staff mixed and matched starters and reserves on Tuesday.
Defensive line rotations
The Redskins have been all over the map this summer. Chris Baker is the lone exception. He exclusively takes first-team reps. But the rest of this group? Defensive coordinator Joe Barry is looking for what works. Trent Murphy has been moved to outside linebacker so take his name off the list. Jerrell Powe had a heart procedure so he’s out. You’re down to nine players right now on the line. Kendall Reyes, the free-agent signing from San Diego, has been productive in practices recently. Ricky Jean Francois is steady as always. An intriguing name is Ziggy Hood. The former first-round pick has taken over a few practices at camp, but Kedric Golston is still getting the most reps inside. Stephen Paea looks recovered from last year’s foot injury and is the strongest player on the team. If you’re looking for a long shot, see how Corey Crawford does tonight. He was on the practice squad all last season.
Intrigued to see how second-round pick Su’a Cravens looks at inside linebacker and in which packages the coaches use him. The thought is he can run with tight ends and running backs. Does he hold up against the run, too? Fuller will get his opportunities. Fifth-round pick Matt Ioannidis, a defensive tackle, has held his own against the reserve offensive linemen in practice, but struggled to do much against the veteran starters. Let’s see how he looks tonight. Quarterback Nate Sudfeld has struggled over the last week. He had three interceptions in a row in one practice and twice had passes batted down in another. He appears skittish under pressure. All of that is to be expected. Sudfeld was a sixth-round pick for a reason. He still flashes a big arm and has the size coaches like. It will take time for him to settle in. So probably don’t expect the third team to move the ball all over the field. It will be a nice debut for him, though.
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Another rookie who will get plenty of chances is Keith Marshall. Practice is one thing. Jay Gruden wants to see some production on the field. The 5-foot-11, 222-pounder is a great blend of speed and power. It’s not just about splash plays for these young backs – including Marshall, Mack Brown, Robert Kelley and Kelsey Young. The staff will look for how well they know their assignments, their footwork, their decisiveness, how they read blocks. Performing well in pass protection wouldn’t hurt, either. Matt Jones has had a sore knee in camp so it’s unlikely we’ll see much of him tonight beyond the first few series. Chris Thompson will probably get the majority of first-half reps before turning it over to the youngsters.
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