For the Starters, a Blank Slate
Sunday, August 12, 2007
NASHVILLE, Aug. 11 -- The personnel has changed. The approach has changed. The results have not.
The Washington Redskins began this preseason as awkwardly as they concluded the last, mired in offensive stagnation. Despite a renewed emphasis on playing the starters more -- most played a full half Saturday night at LP Field -- and a commitment to expanding the preseason playbook, the first-team offense produced no points against the Tennessee Titans, extending a malaise that gripped the entire 2006 preseason.
Coach Joe Gibbs, seeking to avoid the failures of last summer in this training camp, went to lengths to buck the trend Saturday night -- bringing top wide receiver Santana Moss back into the game late in the second half and burning through timeouts on defense to secure a final first-half possession for the offense -- but headed to the locker room at halftime wearing the same sour look he sported for much of last season. Washington's starters left trailing 3-0 in what amounted to the meaningful portion of the game, and the depths of the roster scored twice in the final two minutes for a 14-6 victory.
"Obviously, we're going to have to play a lot better than that," Gibbs said.
While the problems from last year continued on offense, the defense was improved. As has been the case since Gibbs returned, the team has been unable to find the end zone -- failing to grasp Al Saunders's new system last year -- and Jason Campbell now is established as the starting quarterback. A defense that ranked 31st in the league last season came into the game looking regain its swagger from 2004 and 2005. Saturday night, the defense was far more effective -- albeit against a poor offense lacking starting quarterback Vince Young, who was benched for a violation of team rules -- while the offense failed on all accounts.
"We were struggling like mad," Gibbs said.
Campbell (6 for 14, 68.8 passer rating) made several astute throws but was not sharp overall ("I think it was a rough start for Jason," Gibbs said), and a series of experiments along the offensive line did the quarterback no favors, either. Todd Wade, a natural tackle trying to become a starting left guard, struggled against Tennessee defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, and undrafted rookie free agent Stephon Heyer (Maryland), a surprise starter with Pro Bowl left tackle Chris Samuels out with a knee injury, was overwhelmed at times by the blitz.
"As a rookie, you expect they'll come at you a little bit," said Heyer, who thought he performed "okay."
Campbell was pummeled on each of the Redskins' first two possessions, fumbling to end each drive, and nearly was sacked several other times. He threaded a perfect outside throw to Antwaan Randle El in the first quarter and flicked a 39-yard lob to Moss, but the offense lacked momentum. The Redskins mustered 122 total yards in the half (the running game was woeful with the line slumping and tailback Clinton Portis injured) and produced just five first downs on seven possessions.
The problems started on second and 13 on the opening drive. The Titans began to overload the left side of Washington's line and Heyer, who had been getting blocking assistance from the tight ends but had no support on this play, quickly slid inside off the snap. Campbell skewed the pass protection by putting a player in motion and safety Vincent Fuller came in untouched, crushed the passer and forced a fumble.
"That's on me," Campbell said of the sack.
On the next drive, the Redskins reacted as expected -- planting tight ends Todd Yoder and Chris Cooley next to Heyer -- but that made the right side vulnerable, and tackle Jon Jansen was beaten by a delayed, looping rush from lineman Tony Brown for a 14-yard sack and another fumble, this one recovered by Cooley. Gibbs said the fumbles were especially troubling.
Heyer and Cooley tried to improve communication on later drives -- pointing out blitz pickups before the snap -- but Campbell remained under pressure. He was forced out of bounds and then out of the pocket, with Haynesworth slipping away from Wade and Heyer.
"If I had the chance to do it over again, I'd do a lot of things differently," Wade said.
Gregg Williams, assistant head coach-defense, surely will take his players to task for some miscues as well, but hardly to the extremes of the offense. Middle linebacker London Fletcher, signed as a free agent to bring vitality and stability to the unit, was a force chugging from sideline to sideline. The secondary, inept a year ago, received ample attention in the offseason and all starters except for safety Sean Taylor played the entire half. Rookie safety LaRon Landry started and made a series-ending hit on quarterback Kerry Collins.
"We were all having a good time and flying around out there," linebacker Marcus Washington said.
Williams couldn't have been pleased to see his starters concede a first down on a fourth and two in the second quarter, however, the kind of play that cuts to a defense's identity, and the turnover-starved group dropped a few easy interceptions as well, which are sure to be detailed during film review Monday.