ASHBURN — The first critical NFC East game of the season is upon us as the Redskins host the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday at FedEx Field.
So far, the league’s weakest division in 2015 has become one of its best. Dallas (4-1), Philadelphia (3-1) and Washington (3-2) are a combined 10-4. Maybe it will take more than nine wins to carry away the NFC East title this season.
That makes this Sunday’s game critical for the Redskins, who have clawed out of an 0-2 hole but still have difficult road games littering the second half of their schedule. They have to at least hold serve at home against a division opponent. Here are five key storylines to watch as Washington faces Philadelphia for the first time this season:
Keeping up with Carson
Carson Wentz has been nothing short of spectacular. The Eagles’ rookie quarterback has one interception in 135 pass attempts. Can he keep it up? Philadelphia is trying to make it as easy on him as possible. Wentz spreads the ball around to a group of solid, if unspectacular receivers, has a solid running back in Ryan Mathews and a playmaker in Darren Sproles along with good pass receivers at tight end. He doesn’t have to be perfect. But Wentz has carried more than his fair share so far. Not bad for a guy who well into training camp was expected to back up Sam Bradford while learning his trade.
No Jordan Reed?
The Redskins won’t change a ton offensively even if star tight end Jordan Reed (concussion) can’t go. He hasn’t practiced all week, but was listed as questionable by the team on Friday. They still have capable receivers in DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon and Jamison Crowder. Expect veteran Vernon Davis to fill in for Reed. This is why Washington brought Davis in. Niles Paul will get more snaps, too. But Davis has shown enough life this season at age 32 to think he can handle that role in the short term. He can still get open with 10 catches in five games. The Redskins might change some things in the red zone, though, where Reed draws so much attention from opposing defenses.
Contain Fletcher Cox
Easier said than done. The interior of the Redskins offensive line will be tested. Cox has four sacks in four games and has more than lived up to his massive contract extension in the offseason. The NFC defensive player of the month in September, Cox is capable of collapsing the pocket at any time. He will be in Kirk Cousins’ face. A lot. That also allows Philadelphia’s corners to take more risks. It doesn’t hurt that under new coach Doug Pederson, the Eagles offense stays on the field far longer than it did under Chip Kelly’s turbo pace. That lets the defense gain valuable rest. Right guard Brandon Scherff has been very good so far for the Redskins. The second-year pro will have his hands full this week.
Eagles offensive line
This is a problem. Philadelphia has done well to keep Carson Wentz safe. He is also mobile enough to escape trouble and still make plays. The Eagles rank 10th in sacks allowed per pass attempt (5.19 percent). But right tackle Lane Johnson just had a 10-game suspension upheld by the NFL. That leaves rookie Halapoulivaati Vaitai protecting Wentz on the right side. The fifth-round pick out of Texas Christian shows some promise. But this is a tough gig. Expect the Redskins to attack him all sorts of ways with Ryan Kerrigan, Preston Smith and sacks leader Trent Murphy (4.5).
DeSean Jackson’s revenge tour
His fire has cooled somewhat against his former team. Jackson is friendly with Eagles coach Doug Pederson, an assistant with Philadelphia during Jackson’s years there. Chip Kelly is long gone and he bore the brunt of Jackson’s ire. Still — Jackson always plays well against the Eagles and won’t lack for motivation this week. He’s only caught four passes total the last two weeks and is in a contract year that’s not acceptable to him. In three games for the Redskins vs. Philadelphia since it cut him in March 2014, Jackson has 13 receptions for 283 yards and a touchdown.
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