STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
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The Redskins begin the Jay Gruden era looking not only to rebound from their 3-13 collapse of 2013 but from a preseason in which their starting offense didn't reach the end zone. So it will be especially important for quarterback Robert Griffin III to get going sooner rather than later in Houston. Receiver DeSean Jackson begins his first year in Washington under the microscope after signing a three-year, $24 million contract days following his surprising release by Philadelphia. Gruden, the former Cincinnati offensive coordinator who will call the plays, also wants to keep receiver Pierre Garcon, who led the NFL with 113 catches last year, and ace running back Alfred Morris involved against a Houston defense that has a star in each position group in end J.J. Watt, inside linebacker Brian Cushing and cornerback Johnathan Joseph.
Despite its ugly 2013 season, Washington's defense is still coordinated by Jim Haslett. He hopes that the additions of pass-rushing end Jason Hatcher and wise safety Ryan Clark and the promotions of athletic inside linebacker Keenan Robinson and playmaking cornerback David Amerson will pay dividends. The Redskins' 3-4 scheme will be most pressed by the Texans' two biggest weapons, receiver Andre Johnson and running back Arian Foster. New Houston quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick's career 27-49-1 record is the worst of any active passer with at least 28 career starts. Look for Haslett to send outside linebackers Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan constantly after Fitzpatrick in order to disrupt the offense's timing.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Redskins ILBs Keenan Robinson and Perry Riley vs. Texans RB Arian Foster. After averaging 1,421 yards from 2010-12, Foster slipped to 542 in 2013 while missing the second half of the season with a back injury. Now Foster's back and looking to regain his status as an elite runner, a mission that begins against a Washington defense in which Robinson, who missed the final five games of 2012 and all of 2013 with torn pecs, steps in for the retired London Fletcher next to returning top tackler Riley.
Redskins LT Trent Williams vs. Texans DE J.J. Watt. The massive but agile Williams, a Pro Bowl pick the past two seasons, has never faced gifted pass-rusher Watt, whose 31 sacks the past two seasons were tops in the league. Watt's 10.5 sacks in 2013 were 10 fewer than he recorded in 2012 but the addition of top overall draft choice Jadeveon Clowney should free him up from so many double-teams and leave him in solo battles against the likes of Williams.
CB Tracy Porter reinjured his hamstring on Saturday so he didn't participate in team drills on Monday.
ILB Akeem Jordan didn't test his ailing knee in team drills on Monday.
OLB Brian Orakpo will start his sixth straight opener on Sunday in his native Houston, tied for the lead among active Redskins.
CB DeAngelo Hall will start his sixth straight opener on Sunday, tying Orakpo for the team lead.
T Trent Williams will start his fifth straight opener against the Texans, the most for anyone on Washington's offense.
Starter - Robert Griffin III. Backups - Kirk Cousins, Colt McCoy.
The big story in Washington this summer hasn't been President Obama's woes or the Nationals' dominance, it has been the struggles of Griffin, who hasn't been the same since his glorious rookie year ended with a torn ACL and MCL in his right knee in a wild-card playoff loss in January 2013. Former coach Mike Shanahan and ex-offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan lost their jobs after last season in large part because they couldn't co-exist with the supposed franchise quarterback. However, if Griffin fails to develop this year, the fingers will be pointed at him, not at new coach Jay Gruden, who did a great job molding young quarterback Andy Dalton in Cincinnati. Griffin is a gifted athlete, but he's still unpolished in the pocket, shaky with his decision-making and reckless when he runs. He's too smart and talented not to improve. Fellow third-year man Cousins has had his moments when Griffin has been sidelined and is a better pure passer at this point of their careers but doesn't have the same high ceiling and throws too many interceptions. McCoy, signed as a free agent this offseason, was Cleveland's starter for most of his first two seasons, 2010 and 2011, but is mere insurance in Washington.
Starters - Alfred Morris, FB Darrel Young. Backups - Roy Helu, Silas Redd.
Gruden coordinated a pass-happy offense with the Bengals, but he didn't have a back like Morris, who powered for 2,888 yards the past two seasons. The new coach wisely retained Shanahan's zone-blocking running scheme which should keep Morris chugging away in his third season. Young is a solid, if not massive, fullback. Helu, Washington's leading rusher in 2011, is a reliable receiver who figures to remain in the third-down back role again this year. Undrafted rookie Redd beat out three-year veteran Evan Royster and the faster Chris Thompson and Lache Seastrunk thanks to a better all-around game.
Starter - Jordan Reed. Backups - Logan Paulsen, Niles Paul.
Despite missing seven games, including the final six after a concussion, the athletic Reed set franchise records for a rookie tight end with 45 catches and 499 yards. He figures to greatly improve those numbers as Griffin's safety valve when wideouts Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson are double-teamed. Paulsen looks like a lumberjack, but he has pretty good hands for a blocking specialist. Former receiver Paul is a special teams standout who has never found a niche on offense.
Starters - Pierre Garcon, DeSean Jackson. Backups - Andre Roberts, Santana Moss, Aldrick Robinson, Ryan Grant.
Slant pass-catcher par excellence Garcon was so used to being "the guy" in 2013, leading the league in passes thrown his way, 184, and catches, 113, that it will be very interesting to see whether he and fellow diva-like wideout Jackson can co-exist without sulking. Playmaker Jackson had a career year in Philadelphia in 2013 and seems to be out to show the Eagles were wrong to cut him rather than being content to take the big contract the Redskins gave him and his former team wouldn't. The quick Roberts was signed from Arizona to start opposite Garcon before Jackson became available. Moss enters his 10th season in Washington as the franchise's most productive receiver ever other than Gary Clark who's not enshrined in Canton and might well still have a role in the slot until Robinson shows he's more than just a deep threat and rookie Grant, who had a fine summer, proves he can produce when it counts. Leonard Hankerson, the unit's biggest receiver, starts the year on the physically unable to perform list, as he continues to recover from major knee surgery last November.
Starters - LT Trent Williams, LG Shawn Lauvao, C Kory Lichtensteiger, RG Chris Chester, RT Tyler Polumbus. Backups - T Tom Compton, G Josh LeRibeus, T Morgan Moses, G Spencer Long.
The guys up front are under pressure to prevent Griffin from being the human pinball he was last year. Even Pro Bowl pick Williams faded down the stretch and wasn't as good as he had been in 2012. Newcomer Lauvao wasn't considered anything special in Cleveland. He takes over from Lichtensteiger, whom the Redskins believe will be an upgrade in the middle over released former starter Will Montgomery. Chester is probably on the way down at 31 and Polumbus is huge but not fluid. None of the backups has started an NFL game with Moses and Long being rookies. So Washington, which cut more experienced linemen Mike McGlynn and Maurice Hurt, is gambling big-time if one of the starters goes down for an extended period.
Starters DLE Jason Hatcher, NT Barry Cofield, DRE Chris Baker. Backups - DE Jarvis Jenkins, DE Kedric Golston, NT/DE Clifton Geathers, DE Frank Kearse.
With former right end Stephen Bowen on PUP and still recovering from major knee surgery last December, Baker had a superb summer and cemented the starting spot he inherited when Bowen went down. Despite his bulk, the former nose tackle is always around the ball. Cofield, 30, remains the line's leader and a sometimes-force inside. Washington hopes that Hatcher, 32, didn't have a career year in Dallas in 2013 with 11 sacks because he was heading towards free agency. He missed much of the summer following a knee scope but recorded a sack in his only preseason game. Jenkins had his moments during camp while fellow former starter Golston rolls on as a valuable backup. Free-agent pickups Geathers and Kearse combined for three sacks in the preseason finale to clinch jobs. They were helped when reserve nose tackle Chris Neild tore an ACL for the second time in three years and was placed on injured reserve.
Starters LOLB Ryan Kerrigan, LILB Keenan Robinson, RILB Perry Riley, ROLB Brian Orakpo. Backups - OLB Trent Murphy, ILB Akeem Jordan, ILB Adam Hayward, OLB Gabe Miller, ILB Will Compton.
Although Orakpo (19) and Kerrigan (16) combined for 35 sacks during their first two years starting opposite each other (2011, 2013), Washington was just 8-24 during those seasons. Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett hopes that the addition of Hatcher and Murphy, who led the nation in sacks at Stanford last year, will help free up his Pro Bowl outside backers to wreak even more havoc than in the past. If the offseason and preseason are an indication, Robinson is everything that the Redskins thought he was when they drafted him to be the heir apparent to now-retired tackle machine London Fletcher in 2012. So much so that Robinson could usurp 2013 top tackler Riley as the team's premier run-stopper. Hayward was signed from Tampa Bay to restore some order to the special teams coverage units that were awful in 2013. Jordan, a former Eagles and Chiefs starter, won another reserve spot inside when ex-Texan Darryl Sharpton went on injured reserve with a high ankle sprain. Miller, who spent time with three teams the past two years but has yet to make his debut, beat out 2012 starter Rob Jackson, 2013 draft pick Brandon Jenkins and journeyman Everette Brown to join Murphy as the outside reserves. Compton, a rookie free agent in 2013 made the roster thanks to a superb work ethic.
Starters LCB DeAngelo Hall, RCB David Amerson, SS Ryan Clark, FS Brandon Meriweather (suspended for the first two games). Backups - CB E.J. Biggers, CB Tracy Porter, FS Bacarri Rambo, S Duke Ihenacho, S Trenton Robinson, CB Bashaud Breeland.
If Washington is to be more like the 2012 NFC East champions than the 2013 division cellar-dwellers, this unit will have to take a big step forward. The Redskins allowed 60 touchdown passes the past two seasons even though three-time Pro Bowl pick Hall rebounded nicely in 2013 after a subpar 2012. Amerson, who led the nation in interceptions at North Carolina State in 2011 and was Washington's top draft pick in 2013 (second round) takes over at the other corner from Josh Wilson, who was cut. Clark, who never should been allowed to leave after helping the Redskins end a five-year playoff drought in 2005, is back after eight years with the Steelers. The question is how much the heady, physical Clark has left as he turns 35 next month. Meriweather is suspended yet again for an illegal hit. Rambo, who opened his rookie year of 2013 as a starter before his poor tackling landed him in the doghouse, is supposed to fill in, but perhaps 2013 Denver starter Ihenacho can get up to speed in time after being claimed off waivers on Sunday. Former New Orleans and Oakland starter Porter missed much of the offseason and preseason while recovering from shoulder surgery, but has veteran savvy while Biggers has speed. The aggressive Breeland has to be careful that he doesn't follow Meriweather's example. Robinson beat out 2013 draft pick Thomas because of his strong special teams play.
K Kai Forbath, P Tress Way, LS Nick Sundberg, KOR-PR Roberts.
Forbath beat out seventh-round draft pick Zach Hocker Washington's first kicker selected in 15 years despite the rookie's big leg. That was thanks to the incumbent's improved kickoff range on top of his field-goal accuracy (35-for-40 field-goal attempts the past two seasons). Way was cut by Chicago in mid-August but did enough in four practices and the final two preseason games with the Redskins to get the nod over Robert Malone, who had been with the team throughout the offseason. Roberts wasn't that impressive on returns with the Cardinals, but the Redskins will give him the first shot as the main man on both punts and kickoffs. Sundberg has been a fine snapper since coming to Washington in 2010, but he missed 19 of 32 games with serious injuries the past two seasons.