ASHBURN — The Battle of the Beltways resumes after a four-year hiatus when the Redskins travel to Baltimore for the first regular-season game there between the teams since 2008.
It’s not exactly a rivalry. Different divisions, different conferences. Even the Nationals and Orioles play one series in each home park every year during the baseball season.
That’s not how it works in the NFL and so “rivalry” isn’t the right term for this game – though Baltimore wide receiver Steve Smith and Redskins safety Duke Ihenacho were kicked out of last year’s preseason game between the two teams at M&T Bank Stadium for fighting. Even the coaches – Jay Gruden and John Harbaugh – got into a shouting match. Here are five storylines to watch for during Sunday’s game:
Third down, sit down
The Redskins simply have to be better on third down. When it is 3rd-and-8 or greater opponents have completed 14-of-21 passes against them to convert the first down. That’s absurd. And probably unsustainable. Not even the worst defenses in NFL history are this bad on third down (57.5%). New personnel is filtering into the lineup thanks to injuries. Duke Ihenacho should get the start at strong safety with Donte Whitner behind him, but pushing for playing time quickly. Kendall Fuller had a nice game against the Browns in his NFL debut as a slot cornerback. Despite his early struggles, Washington needs cornerback Bashaud Breeland (ankle) back – though it probably won’t be this weekend.
Move the ball
That hasn’t been a problem all year for the Redskins. It’s finishing drives that matters. They were better in the red zone last Sunday against Cleveland with four touchdowns on five attempts inside the 20. That has to continue. But while Baltimore’s defense ranks in the top eight of all major defensive categories (points per game, yards per play, yards per game, third-down percentage), it has to be mentioned the Ravens have played three of the NFL’s worst offenses – Cleveland (25th), Jacksonville (22nd) and Buffalo (31st). And the Raiders – a solid offense – dropped 28 points on them last week. Baltimore has a good pass rush with the ageless Terrell Suggs, among others. And the secondary is improved. The defensive line is stout. But expect the Redskins to still get their yards. Kirk Cousins has been sacked just seven times in four games. Whether they can finish those drives again is the question.
Kickers are people, too
This is one game where each kicker has the respect of his teammates. Redskins players were thrilled when Dustin Hopkins was named NFC special teams player of the month in September. He made five field goals against the Giants to help win that game and is 12-for-12 on the year with no missed extra points. Meanwhile, Baltimore’s Justin Tucker is 11-for-11 with a game-winning kick against Jacksonville. The two men have combined to hit none kicks from beyond 40 yards. Both teams are in good hands if it comes down to a late kick.
Continued offensive line improvements
Give credit to running back Matt Jones, who has pushed his yards per carry to 4.5 yards. But some of that has to be on the offensive line, too. The right side has been stable with Brandon Scherff and Morgan Moses and Trent Williams is just doing his thing at left tackle – when he’s not making a guest appearance at left guard for fun. But the addition of Spencer Long at center – if he can handle that transition smoothly – and the return of Shawn Lauvao (ankle) at left guard this week give the Redskins a glimpse of what they hope will be their line the rest of the season.
The Redskins have been hit hard at safety (DeAngelo Hall, David Bruton) and center (Kory Lichtensteiger). It remains to be seen if their backups can play better. Bruton, especially, had his struggles early on. All of them are on IR. The players who are out for this week: Rookie inside linebacker Su’a Cravens is a loss as a hybrid linebacker who can cover. But he never did make it back to practice this week after a Sunday concussion. Cornerback Bashaud Breeland says he’s made progress with his ankle injury. But he also hasn’t practiced yet and Sunday is probably pushing it.
Baltimore, meanwhile, is again likely going to miss rookie left tackle Ronnie Stanley (foot injury). James Hurst would protect quarterback Joe Flacco for the second straight week in that case.
Follow Redskins reporter Brian McNally on Twitter.