Redskins Continue To Search

Quarterback Mark Brunell, left, Santana Moss (89) and Chris Cooley have been involved in big plays, but the Redskins could use some more of them.
Quarterback Mark Brunell, left, Santana Moss (89) and Chris Cooley have been involved in big plays, but the Redskins could use some more of them. (By Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)
By Howard Bryant
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 10, 2006

Earlier this week, when Washington Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs was asked to describe the strength of his offense after eight games and a bye week, the coach was vague.

"That's kind of hard to say," Gibbs said, sprinkling in compliments to his quarterback Mark Brunell, before adding: "I think that's where we're at. I think it's kind of hard for me to answer that."

Two days later, Brunell mused on the identity of his football team, and while his answer was longer than that of Gibbs, it was no clearer.

"I know what I would like it to be. I would like it to be a tough football team, physical particularly at the line of scrimmage running the ball and be efficient with the pass. It is no secret that we want to run the football," he said. "It has not been the case as much as we would like up to this point. We are only halfway through and we have a lot of football left. Hopefully, we will get on a roll here, get some yards on the ground, get some more points, but then when we do throw we need to be efficient, get some completions, spread the ball around and get some big plays as well."

If the identity of the Redskins is at best amorphous, more of a wish list than fact based on statistics and tendencies, they begin the second half of the season in Philadelphia searching for pillars that will support a stretch run.

Offensively, the statistics reveal a middling affair. The Redskins are in the middle of the league, 15th in total offense, 17th in points scored, but they are 21st in passing. They are eighth in rushing yards per game, but their star running back, Clinton Portis, says he has not yet found his place in the running game.

Defensively, the numbers are worse. The Redskins are 30th in total defense, last against the pass, last in sacks, last in interceptions, 15th against the run, 26th on third down defense, and 24th in points allowed.

"I never look at the numbers," Redskins assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams said. "I look at the best options that we have on getting ready for that week, the best available guys, and the best available packages. I've looked at it that way my whole coaching career."

Unable to stop teams enough to count on their defense or score enough points to consistently create offensive mismatches -- the Redskins have scored 30 points twice this season, under 23 points five times -- that could spur a playoff run, the key, many players say, is winning what might be termed the "big-play index," the game-changing plays that conceal -- and sometimes overcome -- a team's deficiencies.

Just as offenses and defenses count on skill players to make a difference, so, too, do the Redskins look to their players to create enough big plays that could tilt the balance. In beating Dallas last Sunday, the Redskins were outgained, gave up 10 first downs on 16 third-down opportunities while converting only 5 of 13, and over the past four games have been outscored 43-0 in the third quarter.

But on the big-play meter, they beat the Cowboys when it counted, not only blocking a field goal attempt but advancing it to get in position for a game-winning score. They netted a 48-yard pass interference call that led to Chris Cooley's game-tying touchdown.

The Redskins won the big-play battle in other ways. Terrell Owens dropped what would have been a 74-yard touchdown, and in the final seconds tight end Anthony Fasano could have run virtually the length of the field on a blown coverage, but slipped and fell at midfield after an 11-yard gain.

"Big plays are a big part of it. That's from a contact standpoint, and also from a field position standpoint and those are the things that we're lacking in. Those are the things there has been a focus on here since I've been here, and really every day this year," Williams said. "We break most of our huddles on an inspirational thing. Today we had an unbelievable day in practice taking the ball away, but you need to transport that to the ballgame. That starts your team. It shortens the field for your offense and its something that good defenses are known for."

Troy Vincent was the big player Sunday, but Sean Taylor has been the Redskins player who has continually been a key playmaker.

"I wish I could say we could coach that, but usually you're born with those types of things, those instincts of being around where the opposition wants the play to be and Sean has very good instincts about that," Williams said. "He's very active in the run front, and even when he is on those run fronts, he's working very hard to create a takeaway and we talk about that all the time. You have to be good around the ball. Blocks don't score. The ball is what scores."

Winning a game on special teams is something of a reversal for the Redskins. On two occasions this season, they have netted big plays and lost. In Week 2, Rock Cartwright ran back a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown in a 27-10 loss to Dallas. Against Indianapolis, Antwaan Randle El's 87-yard punt return touchdown was wasted in a 36-22 loss.

"Big plays turn everything. Everything," cornerback Shawn Springs said. "You make one of those, you can turn the whole thing around. Everything changes."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company