By Howard Bryant
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 4, 2006
For perhaps the first time this season, Washington Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs was the one who was publicly unconvinced. While the afterglow of last week's 17-13 win over favored Carolina had not faded and his players, even with a 4-7 record, entertained the possibility of sneaking into the postseason, it was Gibbs who had maintained a cold perspective.
The Redskins had not played consecutive games worthy of praise all season, he said during the week. Throughout a frustrating year, they created opportunities for themselves one week only to regress the next. Gibbs's challenge to his players was clear: he wanted them to prove to him that they knew how to build on their moderate successes.
What he received in yesterday's 24-14 loss to the Atlanta Falcons instead was an optical illusion, an afternoon that in large degree looked like the "Redskins football" he so desperately covets, but in the end amounted to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. It was a game replete with different, encouraging cosmetics, but the same fundamental, fatal flaws.
After Gibbs complained for weeks about the team not adhering to his methods, the Redskins ran all over the Atlanta defense. But the return of an old nemesis -- giving up two big plays to the Atlanta offense and critical interception by quarterback Jason Campbell -- trumped the successes of a strong running game, some inspired defensive play and a late blocked punt by Rock Cartwright.
"Every play counts, so you can't tear out plays," assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams said. "But minus those couple of big ones, you really have executed the plan the way you want it. But you have to count every play."
The Redskins especially punished the right side of the Falcons' defense, piling up 177 rushing yards. Ladell Betts, who rushed for 104 yards last week, rushed for a career-high 155 yards on 28 carries. Betts ran hard and he ran well. Eight of his rushes went for nine yards or more.
They slaughtered the Falcons on the ground, and then went to the air. Wide receiver Santana Moss returned from a sore hamstring and caught seven passes for 123 yards, his second 100-yard receiving game of the year, and first since Oct. 1. The highlight was a 42-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Jason Campbell, in which Moss outfought both cornerback Allen Rossum and safety Chris Crocker for the ball.
The Falcons entered as the best rushing team in the NFL, averaging 197.7 yards per game and yet the Redskins scored on their first two possessions and built a 14-0 first-quarter lead by stuffing the run. Washington's play was highlighted by stopping Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick on fourth and inches near midfield to start the second quarter. Playing his best game as a Redskin, Andre Carter notched a sack and season-best 11 tackles. Defensive end Phillip Daniels sensed a blowout.
"We stopped and we can't stop," Daniels said. "When we're choking a team, we have to keep choking them. We have to finish them off. We didn't finish them off."
The Redskins discovered the principles Gibbs demanded, and for the first time this season built a two-touchdown, first-quarter lead. They were pounding an Atlanta team that had lost four games in a row into submission. It was reminiscent of last December's run.
And then they did not score on their remaining nine drives, or the final 48 minutes of the game.
"When it's 14-0, you're sitting pretty," linebacker Marcus Washington said. "But you have to play four quarters of football. We didn't quite finish the way we want to finish."
For the final three quarters, the Redskins played a maddening afternoon of football where they forced the action. But once they lost the lead they never retook it. For the first time in three starts, Campbell looked like the inexperienced quarterback he is, suffocated under a timely, effective Atlanta blitz that forced him into costly mistakes. In this start, Campbell took more hits than in his previous two starts combined.
The defense that stuffed the run early, collapsed in the end, giving up 256 rushing yards, including a backbreaking 69-yard touchdown run to Jerious Norwood with 12 minutes 26 seconds remaining in the game. After the Redskins forced four turnovers the last two weeks, Atlanta did not turn the ball over. And when it came time to make a big play or stop one, they could not do it.
There were moments. After stopping Vick at midfield, the Redskins' offense for one series veered from its successful smash-mouth style and lost its rhythm reverting to gadget plays. On their first two drives, the Redskins piled up 134 yards, 77 on the ground. But then, associate head coach Al Saunders called a deep pass to Moss, an end-around to Antwaan Randle El that went for a loss and an out to Randle El. Both passes were incomplete.
The Falcons took the next possession 11 plays for a field goal to make it 14-3. On Washington's next possession, Betts powered the Redskins downfield only to see new kicker Shaun Suisham miss a 50-yard field goal, an attempt made seven yards longer when Chris Cooley dropped a Campbell pass on third down.
The Falcons responded by Vick hitting tight end Algie Crumpler for a 16-yard touchdown, a play made possible by Vick's 46-yard pass to Crumpler on third and five.
"I thought we played very strong, and very energized early in the ballgame," Williams said. "It really came down to three explosive plays in the ballgame. The long pass to Crumpler on third down, the long run in the third quarter and the sudden change touchdown after the take-away in the third quarter."
The take-away came with Washington facing second and 11 from the Atlanta 21 and already in field goal range. Safety Lawyer Milloy blitzed Campbell from the right. Campbell spun and flipped the ball into the air. Chauncey Davis intercepted and ran 41 yards to the Redskins 25. Two plays later, Vick hit wide receiver Michael Jenkins on a slant for a 22-yard touchdown and a lead Atlanta never relinquished.
"I tried to shake him," Campbell said. "He grabbed the back of my jersey. I tried to throw it away to set up good field goal position."
Campbell completed 18 of 38 passes for 217 yards and two interceptions, the second coming in the end zone as the Redskins attempted a frantic comeback.
"Jason," Saunders said, "played like a young quarterback today."