- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 10, 2018

ASHBURN — For the last few years, the Washington Redskins haven’t been able to figure out the Carolina Panthers.

In 2015, the Redskins were blown out in Week 11, derailing their designs on the NFC East. A year later, after another loss to the Panthers, the Redskins went on to finish a single game out of the playoffs.

Teams change from year to year, but Carolina still runs the same scheme with quarterback Cam Newton — and it’s a scheme the Redskins haven’t been able to solve recently.

If that’s going to change when the two teams meet Sunday at FedEx Field, here are some variables in the equations the Redskins need to control:

His name is Cam. Cam Newton.

Cam Newton was NFL MVP in 2015 and played like one against the Redskins. Over the course of the Panthers‘ 44-16 win, Newton threw for 246 yards and five touchdowns. He wasn’t quite as efficient in 2016, but still threw for two touchdowns and 300 yards.

Newton presents the challenge of the modern day quarterback: He’s as lethal on the ground as he is with his arm. While the Redskins have done a good job of containing Newton’s scrambling in the last two meetings, the quarterback is averaging 41.3 yards per game under new offensive coordinator and former Redskins coach Norv Turner. That’s not a career best, but Newton his nine rushing attempts per game would be if the stat stands by the end of the season.

And in 2018, Newton is having his best passing season since his MVP season. He’s completed 65 percent of his passes and throwing a touchdown pass on 5.4 percent of his attempts (13th-best in the NFL).

Christian McCaffery is Newton’s new favorite weapon

Fantasy football owners were drooling when Rivera said in training camp he wanted second-year running back Christian McCaffery to 25-30 touches per game. That hasn’t exactly panned out — but McCaffery is still averaging 22.5 touches per game and leads the Panthers in targets with 32.

There’s a good reason why: McCaffery is a dynamic weapon who can line up in the backfield and also play in the slot. The diversity has helped Carolina’s offense, allowing them to exploit mismatches.

Last week, the Redskins faced Alvin Kamara, who has a similar skill set as McCaffery. Those types of players are becoming en vogue in the NFL and Redskins coach Jay Gruden explained why.

“I think that type of guy is hard to find really,” Gruden said last week. ” You know, running backs that can handle the running between the tackles and also get out in space and win on pass routes and also be effective in pass protection. It’s not easy. That type of body, that type of skillset, the quickness in and out of your cuts, the hands, the route definitions that you have to have, the protection, the strength you have to have to run between the tackles and outside, they just don’t come along every day.

“When you do get one, it’s fun to play with them because you can utilize them in so many different ways.”

Taking advantage of Panthers‘ passing defense

Gruden referred to Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis as the best linebacking pair in the NFL — and the Redskins coach isn’t wrong. Davis, too, will make his debut Sunday after missing the first four games stemming from a performance-enhancing drug suspension. 

When together, Kuechly and Davis practically eliminate the middle of the field, which presents a huge problem for a Redskins offense thrives on intermediate routes.

But as a whole, the Panthers have regressed defensively. They rank 26th in defensive efficiency, in large part due to a woeful passing defense that ranks 27th, according to Football Outsiders. Last year, the Panthers were seventh overall and 11th in passing. 

Washington, however, needs Alex Smith, who posted just a 69.9 passer rating against the Saints, to be better. He left too many plays on the field.

“You want to be real with yourself,” Smith said. “I think every guy in there has got to look at themselves in the mirror and be real with themselves, things they have to get better at, need to get better at to help this team and we all have them. If you do that and then you do move on.”

The team’s short week doesn’t help the Redskins, but Smith said preparing for the Cardinals helped since Arizona runs a similar scheme under coach and former Panthers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks.

Paging Jordan Reed

The Redskins went midway until the third quarter to target tight end Jordan Reed. That’s inexcusable and the Redskins know it.

“He is one of our biggest playmakers so we’ve got to make sure we get him more involved,” Gruden said.

In Washington’s two wins this season, Reed has averaged 56.5 yards per game and that number dips to 38 in losses. Admittedly, that’s a small sample size and Reed had 55 yards in a Week 2 loss to the Colts.

But the Redskins know they need more Reed.

Stay disciplined

Cornerback Josh Norman said Wednesday the Redskins‘ communication problems on defense had been “nipped in the bud.” For his sake, he better be right.

Norman has been heavily criticized after he was briefly benched against the Saints. The cornerback was on the receiving end of too many big plays — which has been an issue for the defense overall.

Even in the games in which the Redskins have looked good, occasional coverage breakdowns have plagued Washington.

“That’s something I take ownership of,” Norman said. “That’s something I have to get my guys prepared for. … And we will.”

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