The Washington Redskins arrived in London this morning ahead of their upcoming Week 8 matchup with the Cincinnati Bengals at Wembley Stadium. Although the International Series is usually a fairly multipartisan affair, with fans of every team in attendance at the 90,000-capacity venue, the team is expecting plenty of support on Sunday afternoon.
As one of the two teams involved in Super Bowl XVII, the first NFL game ever televised live in the United Kingdom, the Redskins have had a solid following on this side of the Atlantic, despite having had the least success of the four NFC East teams since the turn of the millennium.
“That is very surprising,” said Redskins wide receiver Pierre Garcon, “but we are very excited to be supported. It definitely makes us feel like we’re at home and it makes us feel comfortable while we’re out here. It makes it a little bit of home field advantage. We definitely need that, we definitely want that, and we’re definitely going to give them something to cheer about.”
Head coach Jay Gruden was equally hopeful that the crowd would be on the side of his team, just as they were for the New York Giants, who were also the road team when they visited Twickenham Stadium last weekend.
“We expect a lot of fans rooting for the Redskins,” Gruden said. “That’s what we’re hoping for anyway. We’re excited about it. It’s going to be a great place, and I think the Redskins fans will show up big.”
Gruden was the Bengals’ offensive coordinator from 2011 to 2013, so he knows what kind of atmosphere to expect for Bengals home games. The Bengals are nominally the home team for Sunday’s game, but they can expect their usually vociferous support to be somewhat diluted by the Wembley crowd, something that could play into Washington’s hands.
“I know the Jungle in Cincinnati is a tough place to play,” Gruden said. “This is more of an even playing field for us. Even though they’re the home team, I hope the crowd comes out and roots for us. But ultimately, at the end of the day, it’s going to be our 53 against their 53, and it’s going to be a heck of a ball game, a very physical matchup, and I think the fans will enjoy it.”
But despite expecting a sell-out crowd on Sunday at the UK’s home of football, quarterback Kirk Cousins is trying to treat this just like any other game. “Every game is important,” he said. “There really is no small stage in the NFL, and London certainly isn’t one. No matter what week you’re in, you know they’re all going to count at the end of the year.”
Cousins also emphasised the importance of coming away from London with a win and going into the bye week with a positive record: “We want to be going into the bye week at 5–3, but we know the Bengals also want to be going into their bye week at 4–4. No one’s going to go away quietly, so we’ve got a lot of work to do on Sunday to be where we want to be.”
Garcon agreed that victory on Sunday could be the catalyst for the team to go on and become the first back-to-back NFC East champion since 2002: “To at least go into the bye week on a positive note would give us a bit of momentum to go on and finish the season. We know they’re going to be very aggressive. They’ve got a lot of guys that played well, they’ve got a lot of veterans there as well, but they’re going to be very aggressive. I’m sure they’re going to want to beat their ex-coach.”
If the Redskins want to win on Sunday, they’re going to have to do it without second-year running back Matt Jones, who suffered a knee injury in last week’s 20–17 loss to the Detroit Lions, leaving him unable to practise during the week.
Another potential absentee is cornerback Josh Norman, who is still in the concussion protocol, as well as nursing a wrist injury, although he did have limited involvement in all three practice sessions this week.
But Gruden said he wouldn’t make any quick decisions on any of his injured stars, including Norman: “We’re going to keep a close eye on him tonight and then tomorrow morning, we’ll make our determination then; same with [tight end] Jordan [Reed].”
If Norman is unavailable, his place as the number 1 corner will likely be taken by Bashaud Breeland, who will have the unenviable task of covering Bengals wide receiver AJ Green, who sits second in the NFL in receiving yards (775) and in plays of 40 yards or more (5). Gruden explained the “plan B” in more detail:
“If Josh can’t go,” Gruden said, “then obviously Breeland’s going to have to step up and [Quinton] Dunbar’s going to have to step up, and we have Toler also, who’s been an experienced corner. Coming from [the Indianapolis Colts] he’s obviously covered a lot of these guys in his past. So we have some guys who can do it, it’s going to take more than one probably from time to time, but when we do play man-to-man, we feel good about all three of those guys matching up and giving it a shot. It’ll be a great challenge for them; we know how good AJ is, and [quarterback] Andy [Dalton], they’ve had four and a half strong seasons together. They know each other inside and out, and Andy puts the ball in locations that it’s hard for anybody to defend, but we’re going to come out and defend them.”
But it’s more than just the Cincinnati passing attack that the Redskins will have to contend with; the Bengals have one of the toughest defensive lines in the league, and they’ll be eager to disrupt Kirk Cousins’ ability to direct his offense, something that the Washington signal-caller is all too aware of:
“It’s a very talented defense, and experienced players who have played together now for several years, and the defensive line can always have a major impact on the game, between stopping the run and being able to rush the quarterback. A lot of times, that’s what football comes down to; if you can stop the run and put pressure on the opposing team’s quarterback, you’re going to have a successful team. They’ve done that for many years now and that’s part of the reason that they have the respect that they do.”
After such a narrow defeat against the Lions last week, Washington know they have to be more clinical on offense if they’re going to retain the division title. “We shouldn’t have lost that game against Detroit,” Garcon said. “We just have to finish our drives, score touchdowns. We have to make those plays. We have to beat teams that we’re supposed to beat. We have to show up every Sunday and do well.”
Coach Gruden was left to rue a missed field goal by kicker Dustin Hopkins that hit the top of the upright with the score still 3–0 to the Lions midway through the second quarter. The height of the goalposts was increased two seasons ago as a result of the “Tucker Rule”, and Gruden voiced his opinion on Friday:
“I don’t like that rule change. It was unfortunate. Hops has been excellent all season long, and it just missed it by a fraction of an inch. But that’s the way the games have been this year; there’s a play here or there, an inch here or there, and unfortunately that one didn’t bounce our way.”
Want to share your opinion? Why not Write For Us?