WASHINGTON — Call it a dress rehearsal if you would like. Even that might be too strong a word for what the Redskins have in store tonight at FedEx Field against the Buffalo Bills.
Traditionally the most important preseason game, the third contest will feature most of Washington’s starters on offense and defense. But this is still primarily about the players fighting for roster spots, not squeezing an offseason’s worth of work out of the first teamers. Here are five things to watch for during Friday’s game:
How long do starters play?
Any healthy starter will be out there, including quarterback Kirk Cousins. But let’s not go crazy here. Don’t expect three full quarters from them. The Redskins made clear last week that they value health over snaps in a meaningless game when they benched almost every key starter. They will rely on practice to generate the necessary repetitions instead. Some starters could play into the third quarter. Most will be done by halftime, if not sooner. And few, if any, will see a down in the fourth preseason game against Tampa Bay.
Running back reps
Neither Matt Jones (left shoulder separation) nor Chris Thompson will play on Friday. That gives a great opportunity to the three young backs competing for time – Keith Marshall, Mack Brown and Robert Kelley. They will get to play with the first teamers and prove themselves against most of the Bills’ starters. And there will be plenty of snaps to go around. It’s not ideal to miss Jones and Thompson. But the coaching staff will have a really good idea if any of the three young backs can play after tonight. That’s not a bad thing with the first wave of cuts coming on Tuesday and final cuts the week after.
With the team stocked at inside linebacker, it’s likely only four outside linebackers make the team. Ryan Kerrigan and Preston Smith aren’t going anywhere. Neither is Trent Murphy. So who among Houston Bates, Lynden Trail and Willie Jefferson can make noise tonight? Bates is a known commodity. He was on the active roster for much of last season and flashed repeatedly in preseason games. Plus he’s a very good special-teams player. Trail and Jefferson will earn a spot by producing on third down. The Redskins don’t have their expected depth at that position without Junior Galette (torn right Achilles tendon). There is an opportunity here. But while Trail (6-foot-7, 270 pounds) and Jefferson (6-5, 246) look the part, they have to make plays tonight to show they can hang if Kerrigan or Smith gets hurt during the season. Neither brings much value on special teams.
There is some value in the third preseason games. Kirk Cousins has been adamant that he wants to play – but he also said he doesn’t need three full games, either. The chance to go against a different opponent in a game-like atmosphere on your home field does help. And so Cousins will try to find his timing with wide receivers DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon – neither of whom played last week either. A couple of solid offensive series will give the Redskins some confidence that their passing game is on track heading into the Sept. 12 opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Look out for tight end Jordan Reed, too, who missed the first two preseason games, but is expected to play tonight.
The Redskins have avoided the rash of catastrophic injuries that crippled them last summer – save Junior Galette’s torn Achilles before training camp even started. But there are some nagging minor ones to keep an eye on. Defensive end Chris Baker (quad) was hurt against the Jets and limited at practice this week. Thompson and Jones are obviously out at running back. Wide receiver Jamison Crowder also has to be a concern now. He missed the first preseason game with a hamstring injury, returned to play last Friday against the Jets, but hurt his knee in the process. He was kept out of practice all week and won’t play tonight. It’s not considered serious for now and he won’t play against Tampa Bay. But Crowder, who had 59 catches last season, is an important piece of that passing attack and the Redskins need him healthy.
Follow Redskins reporter Brian McNally on Twitter.