ASHBURN — When the 2017 schedule was released, the Redskins’ Week 2 matchup against the Los Angeles Rams seemed like one of the easier games to pencil in as a win.
The Redskins struggled out of the gate last Sunday, while the Rams trampled the Scott Tolzien-led Colts 46-9. Yes, the Colts are bad, but the Rams were too last year. The blowout shows improvement, and Los Angeles is now favored to win at home.
With tough games against the Raiders at home and the Chiefs in Kansas City coming in Weeks 3 and 4, the Redskins need a win Sunday. Lose, and they’ll be in a 0-2 hole with games against two of the NFL’s best teams coming before the bye. Here’s a look at several critical elements that will likely decide who wins and loses.
When the Redskins have the ball
On offense, the most important thing for Washington and Kirk Cousins to do will be to establish a rhythm. Cousins made good throws in spots against the Eagles, but looked uncomfortable and struggled to get the easy completions that made him one of the most efficient quarterbacks in football last year.
Things won’t get any less pressure-based against Wade Phillips’ defense, especially with defensive tackle Aaron Donald expected to play for the first time this year and with defensive end/outside linebacker Robert Quinn’s snap count likely to increase from the 50 percent he played against the Colts.
Cousins will need better protection — the four sacks he took on Sunday was the same amount Los Angeles got against Tolzien — but he’ll also need to get the ball out quickly and have his receivers in the right spots for incremental, chain-moving gains. Jamison Crowder (14 yards against the Eagles), Jordan Reed (36) and Vernon Davis (zero) should have space to work underneath, where Phillips usually has his linebackers play man-to-man. The Redskins can get favorable matchups against linebackers Alec Ogletree and Mark Barron 1-on-1, and will need to take advantage.
“You can design plays all you want for a person, but they can double them or they can roll to him or they can have zone coverage underneath him and somebody behind him,” coach Jay Gruden said. “It’s not always that easy just to throw a ball to one guy. So you try to move him around and get him in different spots. Like Jordan [Reed], you try to play him in the slot, you try to play him outside, and you try to play him in the core. And then Jamison [Crowder], you try to play him inside, outside, and you try to play him in the core.”
The Redskins also need to — say it with me — recommit to the run game. If the Rams’ defensive front is going to be prevented from teeing off on Cousins, Washington needs to stay multi-dimensional.
When the Rams have the ball
The Redskins can downplay the role familiarity with Sean McVay will play in Sunday’s game, but one thing is certain: They know he’ll pass the ball. Rams quarterback Jared Goff was 21-for-29 with a career-high 306 yards against the Colts. Goff looked better than he did at any point his rookie season, and distributed the ball effectively with four pass-catchers over 50 yards.
Washington will have to decide what to do against Sammy Watkins, while also containing Robert Woods, big slot receiver Cooper Kupp and the Rams’ tight ends. Slot cornerback Kendall Fuller had a good game Sunday, but Kupp’s size and strength will be challenging. Against Watkins, the Redskins could have Josh Norman shadow him, or keep Norman on the left side like they did against the Eagles. A good start to the season for Bashaud Breeland may make that decision a bit easier, but the diverse attack LA put on the field in Week 1 presents challenges.
Jonathan Allen, Ryan Kerrigan and Preston Smith all had good games against the Eagles, and those disruptive players in Washington’s front-seven should be able to win against the Rams offensive line and pressure Goff, which the Colts defense couldn’t do.
When Goff isn’t throwing, LA has a high-end weapon on the ground in Todd Gurley. Gurley’s effective in the receiving game, where he gained 56 yards against the Colts, but he’s still one of the most dynamic running backs in the game with the ball in his hands.
“A big threat,” defensive coordinator Greg Manusky said Thursday.
The Redskins did well containing the Eagles’ run game, but Gurley presents a different challenge.
“We made some plays,” Manusky said. “I mean, Ryan [Kerrigan] made a couple of plays, Zach [Brown] made a couple of plays inside, [Jonathan] Allen made a couple of plays. They’re doing a good job of making sure we make them a little bit one-dimensional and they started throwing the ball.”