At one point this game looked like it might be a fun one. Two young, electric quarterbacks leading teams with big playoff aspirations on "Monday Night Football."
The narrative has shifted over time. The 49ers remain firmly in the playoff hunt, but quarterback Colin Kaepernick has not taken the leap many expected, whether because he lacks receiving targets or because of his own performance.
The Redskins aren’t in any playoff race, done in by their own inconsistent play. And the honeymoon period for quarterback Robert Griffin III officially has ended. The 3-7 record isn’t just his fault and he’s capable of strong games, but he’s a work in progress in the passing game. For Washington, a win might not turn its season around, but it certainly would take some sting off recent defeats and make the Redskins feel a little better.
ESPN.com 49ers reporter Bill Williamson and Redskins reporter John Keim break down the matchup.
John Keim: Bill, we’ve been consumed with Griffin’s up-and-down season. But he’s not the only young QB enduring growing pains. Why has Kaepernick not had the season many expected? Is it just injuries to others?
Bill Williamson: It starts with a lack of receiving weapons. He hasn't had much to work with beyond Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis for much of the season. Kaepernick has had his moments and his Total QBR is 62.5, which is 11th in the NFL. He had Total QBR performances of 99 and 99.8 in Weeks 7 and 8, respectively. So, he has ability. But he has struggled in the fourth quarter all season.
Like Griffin, Kaepernick is in his second season as a starter and it hasn’t been as smooth as his first season. John, which quarterback do you see having the better game Monday night?
Keim: Well, one quarterback is facing a pass defense that has struggled and that’s Kaepernick. Opposing quarterbacks have a 99.2 passer rating against Washington compared to 74.8 when facing the Niners. I also see both defenses trying to force the other quarterback to beat them. Teams have done this against Griffin sometimes by sitting on the play-action and, because of it, taking away favored routes. Griffin has been up-and-down and has been under a harsher microscope overall than probably any young quarterback. I wonder how he’ll respond Monday after a difficult game and subsequent few days. He’s a competitor so he won’t back down. But the matchup for Kaepernick is just better and more conducive to success.
At the start of the season this game looked like it would be a big one. But the Redskins are 3-7 and have lost two straight and the Niners, while better off, have lost two straight. Again, is this just about injuries, are they not playing as well, or did they just have a two-game stumble?
Williamson: I think it’s a stumble. The 49ers were 6-2 and on a five-game win streak before losing to Carolina and New Orleans. The 49ers lost those two games by a total of four points. San Francisco could have easily won those games. San Francisco has played outstanding defense all season. The offense has struggled in the past two weeks. But I can see this team getting it together pretty quickly.
John, can you see the Redskins hanging in this game?
Keim: The problem for Washington is that to win a game like this the Redskins must do more than play well on one side of the ball -- and probably need a good effort in all three phases. That’s something they haven’t really had this season and I don’t know why I’d expect that to begin Monday against a good team. But hang for a while? Sure, but it will be difficult. They’ll need a turnover or two early to help. While I think Kaepernick will have a stronger game, it’s not like he’s been lights out and the Redskins could make him work for a while; they’ve been good at making teams one-dimensional (yet still struggling). However, they’ve had problems against mobile quarterbacks this season and his ability to extend plays will be big. I don’t think this will come down to a final drive as it has the past two weeks for Washington.
It does look like the Niners’ defense is still one of the best. We know about the big names on this group, but what makes them so effective overall? And how have they fared against option quarterbacks?
Williamson: This defense has been top notch all season. It’s well-coached, and varied. It is tough against the run and its secondary has been strong against the pass. The Saints scored just two touchdowns at home against San Francisco. That tells you something about this defense. The pass rush has sagged some with Aldon Smith out for five games due to personal reasons. He’s been back for two games and is still working his way into shape. The 49ers need to get him back in a groove. As far as option quarterbacks, they have fared pretty well against them and I don’t expect this week to be different.
John, can you see the Redskins’ offense challenging the 49ers’ defense?
Keim: Challenging? That will be tough because the Redskins need to prove they can throw the ball against a good pass defense. This is, by far, the best defense Washington has faced. In fact, of the Redskins’ first nine opponents, none is currently ranked in the top 16 in yards allowed, though two teams are in that category for points allowed (Philadelphia, San Diego). The Redskins will have to make big plays in the pass game early, something they haven’t done a lot of this season, and it sounds as if the 49ers will try to stop the run with just their front seven, making it tougher to move against them. Washington also continues to have issues in pass protection and Griffin still sometimes hesitates and therefore misses open guys. The Redskins have also turned the ball over quite a bit, not a good thing against a team that is plus-6 in turnover differential.