Former 49ers linebacker and KNBR analysis and color commentator Gary Plummer previews the 49ers opponent this Sunday - the Washington Redskins. **
Clinton Portis is second in the NFL in yards from scrimmage, and his production is unbelievable. What any 49ers fan needs to know is, when they see a healthy Frank Gore, it's almost the same guy as Portis. Obviously both are University of Miami products, both are tough guys, both love the game of football — you can see how they play with passion. Portis is an all-around back, just like Gore. He doesn't just run the football, he can catch the ball coming out of the backfield and he's an excellent blocker as well. Those are the guys that the fans admire the most, not the prima donnas who don't block and don't want to block. He's just a guy who loves to play the game.
Portis has been blessed throughout his career with good offensive lines. The line in Washington was a damn good offensive line, but two injuries have really hurt them. Pro Bowler Chris Samuels is on IR and Jon Janson, the other tackle, has been playing with a bad knee and has missed some games. He'll be a game-time decision on Sunday, which obviously affects everything.
This Sunday, you have two of the best in the NFL at their positions in linebacker Joe Staley and Portis going at it. That's always fun to watch. To me, it's amazing to see, week after week, Willis' closing speed. I can only imagine somebody like Portis, who's used to being able to outrun linebacker, not being able to do it. So, that's got to be a little bit disconcerting I think.
Quarterback Jason Campbell is a don't-lose-the-game quarterback, and if you look at the statistics, it's remarkable how similar they are between Campbell and Shaun Hill in terms of touchdowns, interceptions, and completion percentage. So, when you have a great defense, like the Redskins have, combined with a smart quarterback, it's a very good formula for success.
What's happened with Washington is they've been able to move the football, but they've struggled mightily when it comes to scoring lately, averaging one touchdown per game for the last four games. They've moved the ball, but they aren't getting in the end zone. As everyone knows, things are much easier defensively when you get in the red zone, because the defensive field is smaller and you don't have to worry about getting beat deep. It just packs it in there. When that happens, you have to make plays. You have to rely on your playmakers. It's very difficult to sustain 10-, 12-, 13-play drives and then walk away with a field goal, which is what has happened to the Redskins lately.
That's good news for a 49ers defense that is 7th in the NFL in red zone defense. The 49ers have only allowed three rushing touchdowns since Mike Singletary's taken over, which is another reason why they have been so great in the red zone. That's a key stat.
The Redskins do have a deep threat in Santana Moss, but he hasn't been all that effective because he's really their only deep threat. Antwaan Randle El works underneath and across the middle, while tight end Chris Cooley is excellent at working the middle of the field and those short routes.
Cooley, Moss and Randle El have 47 third-down conversions combined, and they are averaging 10 yards per catch. What that tells you is those guys understand how to work things underneath, with Cooley having the most of the trio with 19 third-down receptions. That makes them very powerful, having three different guys who can move the chains.
Despite the job that the Redskins top trio have done on third down catches, the last month has been a struggle as the Redskins have only a 28.6 percent conversion on third down. It gets frustrating for an offense to continually try to make first downs, that's why you need a playmaker to beat people deep and kind of take the pressure off of your offense. But when teams know there's only one guy, like Moss, who they have to worry about in terms of a deep threat, it's easy just to run a safety over the top of someone like that and play man-to-man on the other guys.
In terms of the matchup with Cooley — he's a physical guy. He does an awful lot of pushing off, which is easy to get away with as a tight end. Watching Michael Lewis the last few weeks, other than the touchdown on a deep ball against St. Louis, he's been playing great. So, I would expect for him to matchup against Cooley. But like I've said all year long, you have to change things up. So, Manny Lawson should also be locked up on him sometimes man-to-man, and then at other times it might be man-to-man with a safety over the top. One of the best ways to defend a tight end is to jam him at the line of scrimmage. So, the 49ers may have someone like Lawson jamming Cooley at the line of scrimmage and then letting Lewis take him after that.
The Redskins are one of the top defenses in the league, and what's made them so good is that they are smart. They don't make very many mistakes. They hustle to the ball with great effort. They have great leadership. They have a bunch of veteran guys in Shawn Springs, Cornelius Griffin, Jason Taylor, Marcus Washington, London Fletcher. Then they went out and added DeAngelo Hall, who's now starting for them. There are a bunch of Pro Bowlers in that group.
They have struggled a bit rushing the passer. They're 28th in the NFL in sacks, which is amazing because you look at them defensively and they're 8th in the NFL in terms of rushing yards given up— and in passing yards, they are 6th.
How have they done that without a pass rush?
Because they have unbelievable depth. Springs and Hall as their starting corners have both been to the Pro Bowl. Then they've got Carlos Rogers, who's been a former starter, and Fred Smoot, who has been to the Pro Bowl as backups.
LaRon Landry is a lot like Michael Lewis in that he's going to come up and take a bunch of big hits every game. So, he can be pretty intimidating back there.
With a lot of those guys being older guys on this defense, some of them have missed time during the season due to injury. But when all of them have been on the same field and been able to all play together, they have not lost a game. Last week against the Eagles, nobody expected them to beat Philadelphia, but they were able to do it because all of those guys were back.
This team is built on great defense with a guy who's been around forever in coordinator Greg Blache. They do play a lot of man-to-man coverage, and that means you have to beat your one on one matchups. I don't see the 49ers having the kind of speed to beat a lot of guys, especially the number of quality guys the Redskins have.
I think the way to overcome that is by running bunch routes where you get three wide receivers together. It's not quite like a pick, because we all know that's illegal, but the traffic allows it to just happen naturally. When you use those bunch routes, defenders end up running into each other.
Crossing routes are another great weapon against that scheme. They are tough to throw because you need a lot of time to get the ball off, but the Redskins defense has been one of the worst in the NFL in quarterback sacks.
It's going to be a fun matchup watching Isaac Bruce and Shawn Springs, who have played against each other before because they were both in the NFC West. It's going to be interesting because Bruce is a much different player than he used to be. He used to be a speed burner before, and he just would dominate people. Well, that's not his strength anymore. His strength is route running. For Springs, it's the same thing, he used to have top rated speed and OK technique. Now, he has great technique. So, two guys who have transformed their games in order to play as long as they have, to me, that's fun to watch.
I think this will Redskins defense will be a challenge for the 49ers offense. It's a very consistent defense that's smart and doesn't make mistakes. They play with a lot of effort and energy, and that all is a formula for success.
There's been exciting play on both sides of the ball lately for the 49ers. Obviously the rejuvenation of Bruce has been fun to watch in the last month or so of the season. I think this final game is one where the 49ers can continue to step forward. You finish up 5-4 under Mike Singletary and it's a heck of a thing for this team to hang their helmet on all offseason. It gives them a foundation to build upon, and it gives you a better idea of where you stand with some of the heavy hitters in the NFL. The competitiveness that this team has been playing with, I think as a fan, that's what you're looking for most. Obviously you want wins, but you want to have hope every time your team goes out there. Frankly, that was something the 49ers didn't instill under Mike Nolan. But each and every week under Mike Singletary, the team has done that. They've given the fans hope that not only can the 49ers win games, but that Singletary is also a guy who can turn this franchise around.
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