NFL

NFL Talking Point: Anatomy of a playoff upset - How can Washington stun the Buccaneers?

By Sports Desk January 09, 2021

The Washington Football Team may not be the biggest underdog of the Wild Card round - the oddsmakers have bestowed that ignominy on the Chicago Bears - but you would be hard-pressed to find many backing the NFC East champions to prevail at home against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Saturday.

Washington's playoff run was the one nobody expected. A division winner at 7-9, Washington turned things around after going 2-7 through the first nine games.

It is the kind of postseason push that, in 2020, could only have happened in the dismal NFC East.

And it may have ended in disappointment had Philadelphia Eagles head coach Doug Pederson not controversially benched Jalen Hurts for Nate Sudfeld during the Week 17 finale.

Despite being blessed with a young and fearsome defense, Washington's fairytale run is expected to come to an end at the hands of Tom Brady and the surging Buccaneers, who finished the season 11-5 following a four-game winning streak.

But what is the avenue to Washington subverting those expectations and condemning Brady to a second successive Wild Card round exit?

Here we examine the matchup and the numbers to assess how Washington can pull off a huge upset.

Get Gibson going, or get the ball out quick

Washington have relied predominantly on the pass in 2020 but arguably their most dynamic player on offense has been rookie running back Antonio Gibson.

Gibson's 11 rushing touchdowns in the regular season are the second-most by a rookie in franchise history.

Only two rookies, Jonathan Taylor and James Robinson, had a larger number of rushes of 10 yards or more than the 21 Gibson racked up during the regular season.

Quarterback Alex Smith, improbably in the mix to contest a playoff game just over two years on from a life-threatening leg injury, was pressured on 30.3 per cent of his dropbacks during eight regular-season games, the second-highest rate in the NFL.

With the Bucs pressuring quarterbacks at the second-highest rate in the NFL (27%), the wise play might be for Washington to lean on Gibson and the run game.

Yet the Bucs' defense is, by yards per game, the best in the league at defending the run having given up an average of 80.6 rushing yards this campaign.

If Washington cannot get things going with Gibson, the onus will be on Smith or his potential replacement Taylor Heinicke to get the ball out quickly to negate the pass rush.

Smith, whose team-high six passing touchdowns are the lowest tally for the leader of a playoff team since Jim McMahon in 1986, ranked 13th in the league in time to throw, which measures the average duration between the snap of the ball and a pass attempt, according to the NFL's NextGen Stats.

Either Smith or Heinicke may have to expedite that to prosper against the Tampa Bay defense, though they will need to do so while averaging a significantly higher number of completed air yards per pass attempt than the former's 2.5, which puts him second last in the league, ahead of only recently released team-mate Dwayne Haskins (2.4).

Setting things in motion

Finding a way to prevent the Buccaneers' defense from attacking downhill and wrecking Washington's gameplan is imperative for their potential success.

One way in which they may look to do that is through the use of backfield motion before the snap to get the defense flowing horizontally.

Just four teams employed motion on more plays during the regular season than Washington, who utilised it on 505 offensive snaps.

Washington's success on those plays was limited as they averaged just 4.69 yards on plays featuring motion. The Pittsburgh Steelers (4.15) and Philadelphia Eagles (4.27) were the two teams to perform worse in that regard.

Yet there is hope they could have success with motion against the Buccaneers, who ranked 18th in NFL in defending plays using motion, against which they gave up 5.51 yards per play.

If Washington's inefficient offense cannot find a way to move the ball on Tampa Bay, they will have to what they have done all season: lean on the defense, which will look to ruin Brady's day and carry them to victory.

Will Young meet old?

Should 43-year-old Brady meet 36-year-old Smith, they will have the oldest combined age of two starting quarterbacks in a playoff game in NFL history (80 years and 41 days).

Many believed Brady to be nearing the end of his legendary career after his time with the New England Patriots ended with a Wild Card loss to the Tennessee Titans.

However, he threw for 40 touchdowns in the regular season, becoming the first quarterback to reach that tally in his first season with a new team.

He has benefited, though, from excellent protection, having been pressured on just 17.2 per cent of his dropbacks.

If Washington can pressure Brady, they can turn him into a vastly different quarterback.

When pressured, Brady has completed just 52.3 per cent of his passes for 1,095 yards for five touchdowns, six interceptions and a passer rating of 66.8.

Those numbers should greatly excite a Washington pass rush led by Chase Young, who in 2020 became the first rookie to have at least 7.0 sacks, three forced fumbles and three opponent fumble recoveries in a season since Terrell Suggs in 2003. 

Washington's pressure rate of 25.4 per cent is the seven-highest in the league and consistently helped them stymie opposing offenses, who have scored on 31.4 per cent of drives against them, the fourth-lowest rate in the league.

The path for Washington surrounds consistently getting the Tampa Bay defense working sideline to sideline while their own wreaks havoc against Brady. The problem is that their performance this season suggests one of those tasks will be significantly harder than the other.

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