The headline matchup on Saturday will be Tampa Bay quarterback Tom Brady against a young, star-studded defense. It will pit the NFL’s No. 3 scoring offense against its No. 3 scoring defense. But it’s important to consider what Washington must do on offense to keep Tampa Bay off the field and keep its elite defense rested to gain an advantage. Here are three keys for Washington’s offense.
1. If Alex Smith starts at quarterback for Washington, can he be more mobile than he was Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles? If he struggles to navigate the pocket again Saturday, it’s unlikely Smith can be effective against Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers have one of the league’s better pass rushes even without linebacker Devin White, who probably won’t play while on the covid-19 reserve list. The Bucs hit the quarterback 7.3 times per game this season, tied for second most in the league, according to Sportradar. Coach Ron Rivera said Tuesday he is considering rotating Smith with backup Taylor Heinicke, who has good mobility.
2. How does Washington stay balanced? The team is at its best when the running game and passing game work in tandem, but that might be difficult against the league’s best run defense. Tampa Bay allowed 80.6 rushing yards per game this season, nearly 10 yards fewer than the second-best team (Indianapolis, 90.5). This stingy front, led by Ndamukong Suh inside, is trouble for Washington. Since running back Antonio Gibson suffered a toe injury in Week 13, Washington has had the league’s third-fewest yards per attempt (3.81).
3. Washington must play complementary football. Sometimes this season the defense has carried the team, such as against San Francisco in Week 14. But the sequence just before halftime Sunday was a good example of what Washington will need. The defense forced a three-and-out. The punt return unit, which is averaging the league’s fourth-worst yards-per-return rate (4.5), got a jolt from Steven Sims Jr., who went for 20 yards. Then Smith conducted a nine-play, 55-yard drive in a minute to give Washington a lead it never relinquished.
Washington could use cornerback Fabian Moreau more against Tampa Bay’s bigger personnel. Moreau, an impending free agent, sat behind Kendall Fuller and Ronald Darby almost all season, but he stepped in for Jimmy Moreland in the slot Sunday and played almost as many defensive snaps (35) as he had since Week 2 combined (49). It was a sudden, surprising return for a corner who started in the slot last season but, at 6-foot, 204 pounds, was considered out of position.
Washington might need him against Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers’ tight ends — Rob Gronkowski (6-foot-6, 268 pounds) and Cameron Brate (6-5, 245) — and running back Leonard Fournette are big and powerful. Tampa Bay could use its size to create mismatches against the 5-11, 182-pound Moreland in coverage and on the ground.
“Fabian just has the misfortune of having a good group of guys around him as well,” Rivera said, explaining the lengthy absence. “You look for opportunities to get a guy out there, and sometimes you go beyond it and you don’t get him out there as much as you’d like. He’s a guy we’d like to play a little bit more.”
Right tackle Morgan Moses said Sunday night that he considered retirement this past offseason after the death of his father, “Big Moe,” in April. Moses was close with his father, a constant presence at training camp, and Moses said he sought help with a counselor. He ultimately decided Big Moe would have wanted him to play, and now he is having one of the best years of his career.
Last week, rookie safety Kam Curl said he’d never played in a game of Sunday’s magnitude. His father, Greg, thought the only one in the same ballpark was the Oklahoma state semifinal Kam’s senior year at Muskogee High School. The spotlight didn’t seem to bother Curl, whose excellent press coverage on Eagles tight end Zach Ertz keyed a first-quarter interception.
The play underscored Curl’s remarkable rise from a seventh-round pick out of Arkansas to a key cog in the defense. He first forced his way onto the field in big nickel, stepped in at strong safety after Landon Collins suffered a season-ending Achilles’ injury and then became integral, registering 88 tackles, five quarterback hits, four passes defensed, three interceptions and two sacks in 11 starts. The most remarkable part: He might not have fallen to Washington in the draft if the coronavirus hadn’t canceled his workouts with other teams.
FedEx Field will not have fans in attendance for the playoff game, the team announced Monday. The team cited local coronavirus-related regulations.
A half-hour after the game ended Sunday, defensive end Chase Young reappeared on the field with his phone in hand. He was FaceTiming his mother, Carla. He walked from the tunnel to the Eagles logo at midfield, and he squatted down while surveying the empty stadium.
“I just had to take it in, being a rookie,” he said. “I’ll never get that back. I can never rerun that, so I had to go out there.”
Washington’s third-string quarterback, Steven Montez, has taken a more active role since the release of Dwayne Haskins. In practice, the undrafted free agent from Colorado mimes snaps and plays a few steps behind the quarterback, and on Sunday, after Washington’s second touchdown, he ran up to Smith near the bench. It looked like they had an animated conversation about routes or coverages, based on Smith’s hand motions.