Offense Remains to Be Seen

Al Saunders
Al Saunders has put several players in difficult positions this preseason to see how they respond and the results have been mixed. (John McDonnell - The Post)
By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 26, 2006

Al Saunders estimates that he has revealed perhaps 2 percent of his 700-page playbook through his first two exhibition games as the Washington Redskins' associate head coach with responsibility for overseeing the team's offense. And he does not intend to display much more tonight when the Redskins play at New England.

Saunders said he has reserved the intricate work on timing and pass receiving routes for practice, where the Redskins are developing their game plan for the first few contests of the regular season, which begins Sept. 11 against the Minnesota Vikings.

While all involved with the Redskins have expressed concern over the team's play in the first two exhibition games, both losses, Saunders said several players are making progress and that he is comfortable with the rate at which they are adapting to a new offense.

Even so, the preseason provides an opportunity for players to step up or fall back on the depth chart. Coach Joe Gibbs this week expressed considerable consternation with the offense's performance over the first two games, in which it has mustered just two touchdowns, both by reserves. Saunders said he will continue to put his players in challenging situations in the final two exhibition games to see how they respond.

"We know what the scheme is and we know what we can do schematically," said Saunders, whose offense was ranked among the AFC's best the past five years in Kansas City. "I don't want to go into a preseason game and rely on a system or a scheme to be successful, because then you're fooling yourself. What I want to see from our players is, who can block mano a mano ? Who can win one-on-one in pass routes? Can the quarterback throw the ball accurately under pressure. Can the runner make a guy miss in the open field?

"What we're doing is very basic football, but it's important football, because every one of our players, especially the offensive line, has to be so sound fundamentally that we can move on and expand what we do from a schematic standpoint."

The first-team offense expects to play at least the entire first half against the Patriots. It likely will be its last significant preseason opportunity, because the coaches are expected to use the fourth and final exhibition -- Thursday against Baltimore -- for a final evaluation of non-starters.

The first string was rusty in losses to the Cincinnati Bengals and New York Jets, with few receivers or running backs standing out. Quarterback Mark Brunell has a 46.7 completion percentage in two games, and top wide receivers Santana Moss, Brandon Lloyd and Antwaan Randle El have combined for just four catches. The starters were on the field for just 26 plays together in the first two games -- a number they could easily surpass tonight.

Adapting to Saunders's offensive system will take time, said the players, who noted they are adjusting to new teammates as well.

"It's knowing where the guys are," said Brunell, who missed Thursday's practice because of a groin strain but is scheduled to start tonight. "It's getting the ball out. I guess timing is probably the best way to describe what we're trying to get, because the ball has to get out. The defenses are too good to be holding on to that thing too long."

Adjusting to any system takes time. In 2001, Saunders's first season back in Kansas City, the Chiefs were held to 17 points or fewer in four of their first six games (although they did beat the Redskins, 45-13).

Redskins quarterbacks coach Bill Lazor said every mistake and incomplete pass from the preseason games is being analyzed, and then discussed in meetings and in practice.

"If the ball hits the ground, it could be that the receiver was too sharp on his route and got through the spot too soon," Lazor said. "It could be that the quarterback didn't take enough steps, or the quarterback took a lot of hitches, so the ball was late. So every single time we're out of step we've got to decide why, and go back to the practice field and do it again. It's got to be that detailed to be done correctly."

Still, there have been positives, Saunders said. He said he has put many players in difficult situations and forced them to respond. He wanted to see fullback Mike Sellers as an inside runner, so he called three straight plays for him last Saturday, against three different defensive alignments, and he ended up with 26 yards, impressing the coaches. Right tackle Jon Jansen, who was hampered by two broken thumbs last season, has been left without a tight end to help him against the pass rush most of the preseason, yet has thrived.

"The most important thing I can do as an offensive coordinator is find out what players can do, and then put them in a position where they can do it," Saunders said. "We would like to win every battle and game, of course, but it doesn't happen. The most important thing is to find out what you can do, so when you do start to utilize schematics as a part of our approach to the game we know what they can do. I haven't had a chance to see that firsthand yet. That's what I'm doing now."

Redskins Note: These injured players will miss tonight's game: cornerback Shawn Springs (abdominal surgery), defensive end Phillip Daniels (back), running back Clinton Portis (shoulder), defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin (knee), tight end Robert Johnson (ankle), linebacker Robert McCune (hamstring), offensive lineman Jim Molinaro (knee) and linebacker Kevin Simon (abdomen).

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