NFL Preview - Washington (3-10) at Atlanta (3-10)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - The demotion of Washington Redskins franchise quarterback Robert Griffin III has attracted more attention in the nation's capital than President Barack Obama's "selfie" during the memorial service for Nelson Mandela.
The look on First Lady Michelle Obama's face while her husband snapped a photo with Denmark's Prime Minister Helle Thorning Schmidt and British Prime Minister David Cameron could resemble some of the facial expressions of Redskins fans upon learning the news that head coach Mike Shanahan has shut down Griffin III for the final three games of what has been a disappointing season.
Shanahan will hitch his wagon, and possibly his job status, to fellow second-year QB Kirk Cousins and the experiment begins Sunday against the just-as-lowly Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome.
Cousins understands that this is still Griffin's team and Shanahan doesn't want to risk further injury to the former Heisman Trophy winner.
"Even as I start this week, I believe that this is Robert's team going forward into next season," Cousins said. "The reason they're resting Robert is because this is his team, he is the franchise quarterback. They wouldn't rest him if that wasn't the case. So my job is to help this team get a win against Atlanta and then the last two weeks after that. I'm going to try to excel in my role as a backup quarterback to Robert."
It was rumored Shanahan wasn't enthused about the relationship between his starting quarterback and Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, but said he received approval of the switch under center. The move makes sense to some, including opposing players who noticed RG3 wasn't the same as he was in his thrilling rookie season. Giants defensive back Antrel Rolle saw a difference a few weeks ago.
"A lot of teams have been getting after him a whole lot better this year for whatever reason. I don't know if it's he can't escape the way he used to escape or his line isn't holding up," Rolle said. "I just know he has been getting hit. He's been getting sacked a whole lot more than we're used to seeing."
Griffin has been a human pin cushion the last few weeks and was sacked five times in Sunday's 45-10 home loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. Griffin threw for 164 yards with a touchdown and an interception before being removed in favor of Cousins. RG3 has been sacked 24 times in the last five games and finished the season with 3,203 passing yards, 16 TD passes and 12 interceptions.
He rushed for 489 yards with no scores after posting 815 yards on the ground and seven TDs in 2012.
Griffin handled the news of his demotion well and wants what's best for the Redskins.
"Coach decided to shut me down for the rest of the season, so, I talked to coach, he talked to me about it and I expressed my desire to play," Griffin said Wednesday. "Of course, I want to be out there to finish the season with my guys -- see it through. He explained to me his reasoning, and at the end of the day, coach's decision is what we go with. It's what we've always done. At the end of the day, I have to sit here and do whatever I can to help Kirk, do whatever I can to help this team win and that's what we've got to do for the next three weeks and get ready for the offseason."
The Redskins, losers of four straight on the road, are in a different place from the NFC East title run of 2012, when they ripped off seven straight wins to clinch the division and host a playoff game. Washington hopes to snap a five-game losing streak against a Falcons team that is also embroiled in a down season after a glorious campaign the year before.
Much like the 'Skins, Atlanta has an identical 3-10 record and was the NFC's No. 1 seed just a season ago. The Falcons had home-field advantage and made it all the way to the conference championship game, only to lose to the San Francisco 49ers. Quarterback Matt Ryan had a lights-out campaign in 2012, passing for a career-high 4,719 yards with 32 TD strikes and 14 INTs. This season he has thrown for 3,677 yards with 21 touchdowns and 13 picks.
In Sunday's 22-21 loss in Green Bay, Ryan threw for 206 yards with a pair of scoring passes and an interception. The one more commonly known as "Matty Ice" has had to deal with down years to targets Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez, the loss of Julio Jones early on and an inept rushing attack.
At least Gonzalez has caught a pass in 208 straight games. Running back Steven Jackson has been healthy for just nine games this season and has totaled only 410 yards with three touchdowns. He entered his first stint with Atlanta after eight straight 1,000-yard campaigns with St. Louis.
Jackson, though, is averaging 73 rushing yards per game over the last three weeks for a Falcons team that has lost six of its last seven games and he is liking how the Falcons have been patient with the ground attack in recent weeks. Jackson hopes it will be something to build on for next season as he enters the twilight of his career.
"I think it gives you something to build off and definitely a lot of things to teach off of in the offseason," Jackson said. "(We can) see what we did effectively these last few weeks and hopefully continue on these next three weeks and build off of that.
"I'm sure as an offensive coordinator, you're not getting the bang for your buck on the yards right away, you kind of get a little discouraged and want to move away from it," Jackson said of the early part of the season. "When you have a back like myself, you tend to wear a defense down as the season goes on and as the game goes on I get better."
The Falcons will play two of their next three games at home and have lost back-to-back contests at the Georgia Dome. Atlanta is 2-4 at home and the Redskins sport a 1-5 road mark. The Falcons defeated the Redskins, 24-17, last Oct. 7 at FedEx Field and are unbeaten in the past three meetings between the teams. Washington, though, is 15-7-1 in the all-time series.
Ryan is 2-0 in his career against the Redskins.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
With Cousins getting the start on Sunday, it leaves one to imagine if Shanahan wants to see if he will bring the former Michigan State star with him if Washington's brass decides to make another switch at head coach.
Cousins has proven to be a reliable quarterback so far and completed 7-of-16 passes for 59 yards in relief of Griffin versus the Chiefs. Cousins appeared in a 45-21 blowout loss to Denver back in October and threw a pair of interceptions.
Cousins played in three games during his rookie campaign, compiling 466 passing yards with four TDs and three INTs. He talked about his chance of proving himself as a starter in the NFL.
"I think it is a great opportunity to show what I'm capable of, but football is a team game, and I'm only as good as the guys around me," Cousins said. "I know these guys are going to give everything they have to help me, and I'm going to do the same for them, but this is about the Washington Redskins and doing the best I can this Sunday to get a win against the Falcons."
Cousins has dependable receivers in Pierre Garcon, Santana Moss and Jordan Reed, who could miss another game because of a concussion. Aldrick Robinson and Logan Paulsen are other options for Cousins, but expect more work out of second-year running back Alfred Morris. Morris eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark for a second straight season with 31 yards last week and hasn't rushed for 100-plus yards in four straight weeks. He has 90 or more yards rushing in five games this season, however.
Morris had 115 yards on the ground in last season's loss to Atlanta. Redskins backup running back and Penn State University's all-time leading rusher Evan Royster is done for the season with a high ankle sprain, leaving Morris and Roy Helu Jr. responsible for most of the carries.
Atlanta is banged up on defense, as safety Thomas DeCoud (concussion) may not suit up Sunday and linebacker Sean Weatherspoon is nursing a balky shoulder. Weatherspoon had a 71-yard interception return for a touchdown last week against the Packers. Safety Zeke Motta, who sustained a minor hand injury at Lambeau Field, saw a lot of action Sunday and finished with six tackles. He will most likely get the starting nod against the 'Skins with DeCoud still dazed.
"I felt like I did all right," Motta said of his performance at Green Bay. "I executed on most of my plays. There are some certain plays that I'd like to get back, but I can look at it and see where I need to improve and work on those things this week."
Linebacker Paul Worrilow leads the Falcons with 101 tackles and defensive end Osi Umenyiora has 6 1/2 sacks. In his first season with Atlanta, Umenyiora is quite familiar with the Redskins having played for the rival New York Giants the majority of his career.
The Falcons only had so much time to prepare for Cousins instead of Griffin and that will work in Washington's favor Sunday. In a game that will most likely feature a lot of Morris and Jackson running between and around the tackles, the Redskins will end their losing ways and start to build in a positive way for next season.
If this is Shanahan's last few games roaming the sidelines for the Redskins, his players might as well send the two-time Super Bowl winning head coach off on a good note.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Redskins 24, Falcons 20
12/15 11:31:39 ET