Heading into Week 6, the San Francisco 49ers will be playing the Washington Redskins on the road. In the continuing series, "Ask the Expert," this week the 49ersHub is proud to present Redskins' expert, Mark Bullock.
Mark is a freelance blogger, that contributes NFL coverage, specifically on the Redskins, for the Washington Post on Insider. You can find him on Twitter @MarkBullockNFL, where he has great insight on all things football and the Redskins. Go ahead and give him a follow, 49ers' fans!
Here are five questions on the 49ers-Redskins' upcoming matchup:
1. All the offseason talk in Washington was about QB Kirk Cousin's contract. Fill us in how those talks have progressed, if Cousins will hit free agency or if he'll be franchise-tagged again?
Realistically, a long-term deal was always unlikely this summer. Once they applied the franchise tag for the second consecutive season, Cousins' side had all the leverage. The Redskins' only contract offer was nowhere near good enough; only offering the equivalent of his franchise tag this season plus the price of a transition tag next year as the guaranteed part of a five year contract. As Cousins was likely to make that money in two years rather than five, he never came back with a counter offer.
Personally, I think Cousins would like to re-unite with Kyle Shanahan again. The pair have always spoken highly of each other any opportunity they've been given. The only way the Redskins can prevent that is either using the transition tag and matching any offers or another franchise tag, the latter would guarantee him about $34 million for 2018. It's a tough situation to forecast because they've backed themselves into a corner. They either have to pay him a huge portion of the salary cap to keep him or risk losing him for nothing, barring any kind of sign-and-trade deal, which would seem unlikely at this point. My gut feeling? I think he's a 49er in 2018.
2. The Redskins' defensive line looks much improved under DL coach Jim Tomsula. Explain how he's been working with the players and what kind of impact that's had on the rest of the defense?
Tomsula has been a revelation for the Redskins' defensive line. He was a huge factor in the promotion of Greg Manusky from outside linebackers coach to Defensive Coordinator. The Redskins' interviewed a number of candidates for the position, but in the end Jay Gruden wanted Manusky in large part because it meant adding Tomsula as well. It has turned out to be a fantastic decision so far.
Outside of Chris Baker, who left in free agency for Tampa Bay, they've had very little interior pass rush over the last few seasons. They've relied on Ryan Kerrigan off the edge as their only consistent form of pass rush, with various other players rotating inside to try and help take some pressure off him. But the Redskins drafted Jonathan Allen at 17 and he's looked the part of the top five pick that he perhaps should have been. He'll play mostly in the four-down nickel package alongside second-year defensive tackle Matt Ioannidis.
Ioannidis was a fifth-round pick in 2016 and hardly saw the field in his rookie year. But this year, thanks to Tomsula, Ioannidis has developed far beyond all expectations of him. He has raw strength and quickness, but Tomsula has helped him improve his pad level and his hand placement to make the most of his natural traits. He has two sacks from the interior through four games, but has also pushed the pocket and stopped quarterbacks from stepping up to avoid Kerrigan and Preston Smith off the edge, who share 6.5 sacks for the season so far. If you're looking for the positive impact of Tomsula, look no further than Ioannidis.
3. What's the best way for the 49ers to exploit the Redskins' defense, without Josh Norman?
Washington's defense is almost unrecognizable from previous seasons. They are stout up front (with the help of Tomsula), have speed from their linebackers and are communicating fantastically well in the secondary. That being said, the Redskins have suffered a lot of injuries on the defensive side of the ball. At one point against the Chiefs, they were missing their two starting inside linebackers, their starting two cornerbacks, the starting strong safety and his back up. They were down to the bare bones, but they still managed to hold steady against the Chiefs' offense.
If I were the 49ers, I would still look to try and establish the running game, which is always a priority for Kyle Shanahan. I think a good mix of inside and outside zone could potentially catch the Redskins' defense over-pursuing to the front side and leave them vulnerable to cutbacks. Off of that, Shanahan's standard yankee play-action concept could give them a chance to connect on a deep shot or two. Free safety D.J. Swearinger is playing well and is a leader in the secondary, but can occasionally play slightly too aggressively.
In Week 1, the Eagles ran that yankee concept, consisting of a clearing route from one side and a deep over route from the other. Swearinger knew the vertical route was just to clear him out of the play, so he signalled to Josh Norman that he was one-on-one and that Swearinger wouldn't be there to help him. Carson Wentz saw Swearinger taking away the deep over and pulled the trigger on the deep shot, only for Norman to knock it away. But with Norman out of the line up, a back up corner, likely Quinton Dunbar or rookie Fabian Moreau will take his place and they might be more vulnerable if Swearinger leaves them one-on-one.
4. Do you think its possible for Washington to win the NFC East this year? Dallas has been shaky, New York fell off of a cliff, but Philadelphia has improved.
The way they've played so far, it is entirely possible. The Giants have imploded and the Cowboys have had a bit of a stutter start. The Eagles have the advantage, having beaten the Redskins in Week 1, but there were plenty of opportunities for the Redskins to win that game. They lost because Cousins had a poor outing and Wentz managed to avoid multiple sacks that most other quarterbacks wouldn't have been able to.
But Cousins has gradually improved each week and he now has a running game to support him, which he hasn't had the past two seasons. The defense has been the biggest surprise. They've been consistently bad since well before Gruden arrived, but through the first four games, they've performed like one of the better defenses in the league. Obviously, injuries will play a factor, but if they can continue to play with the same consistency they've shown to start the season, then there is no reason to believe they won't at least contend for the NFC East title.
5. Game prediction for this week! Give me a score and a winner
I'm a huge fan of Kyle Shanahan and have been since he was the offensive coordinator in Washington. I think his opportunity to become a head coach is long overdue and he's already shown plenty of positive signs in San Francisco. However, I think the 49ers roster is still a year or two away from having the talent level and particularly the depth required to compete. The Redskins have played well enough so far to believe they should be able to get the victory, so I'll go with a 24-17 win for the Redskins.
Thanks again to Mark for taking the time to answer our questions on this week's matchup. Make sure to give him a follow at @MarkBullockNFL.