By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 24, 2007
Even after all the miscues and penalties and despite getting trounced in the second half, the Washington Redskins were just a yard away from forcing overtime last night. As the final seconds ticked away and they faced third down from the fringes of the goal line, the Redskins' dream of a 3-0 start was still alive, however faintly.
But tailback Ladell Betts and the offensive line could not achieve that yard on two attempts, Betts stumbled for a two-yard loss on fourth down and Redskins were stunned by a 24-17 loss to the New York Giants at FedEx Field.
Washington wasted a 17-3 halftime lead with a toxic combination of a defense that could not make a stop on third down, and an offense that failed to convert on third down until it was essentially too late. The Giants (1-2) held the ball for nearly 20 of the final 30 minutes, simultaneously reviving their season and casting the first shadows of doubt upon a Redskins team (2-1) trying to overcome last year's dismal 5-11 record.
"Go up the first half, 17-3, and end up losing the game -- that's crazy," defensive end Phillip Daniels said. "Right now, I'm speechless. You don't get a second opportunity in this league."
Dangerous tendencies from a year ago resurfaced -- untimely penalties, third-down problems, second-half collapses, shaky pass coverage -- at a time when the Redskins seemed on the cusp of their first three-game winning streak since 2005, the last time they reached the playoffs. From the start of the second half through the moment the Giants took a 24-17 lead -- with about five minutes to play -- New York outgained Washington 208 yards to 15.
The Giants, who swept the Redskins last year, ran 38 offensive plays to Washington's 11; New York controlled the ball for 18 minutes 43 seconds in that span, and the Redskins just 5:50, with the defense gradually wilting under the workload and the offense sputtering. New York converted 8 of 9 third-down chances to snatch the lead -- helped by a pass interference on Redskins corner Shawn Springs -- while Washington's offense went 0 for 3 in that span. New York amassed 14 first downs to pull ahead; the Redskins none.
"It came down to a tale of two halves," said Gregg Williams, assistant head coach-defense. "We've got to do our part defensively to get our offensive into a rhythm, too. We were on the field too long, but we need to get them in a rhythm, too."
Giants Coach Tom Coughlin attributed his team's comeback to pride. "As simple as it might be, that is what we wanted to try to do today: Win the fourth quarter."
They ended up dominating the third quarter, too.
The Redskins had yielded just one touchdown all season, then surrendered three in the second half. The Giants moved 61 yards in 10 plays to open the half, with Eli Manning (21 for 36 with a touchdown and two interceptions) hitting Plaxico Burress for 15 yards on third and six, then Burress again for 15 yards on third and seven (linebacker Rocky McIntosh, eventually forced from the game with shoulder burners, could not stay with him). On third and eight from the 22, Jeremy Shockey made a 21-yard catch -- again finding a seam in the zone defense this time between McIntosh and rookie safety LaRon Landry -- and Reuben Droughns scored from a yard out to make it 17-10.
It was a sign of things to come, as Burress and Shockey -- whose size and agility create matchup problems for many linebackers and defensive ends -- combined for eight catches and 129 yards receiving in the second half.
"We knew it was going to Burress," Williams said. "We knew it was going to Shockey."
Manning threw an ugly interception on his next drive -- one of three New York turnovers -- then engineered an 11-play march to the end zone to tie the game early in the fourth quarter, with reserve tailback Derrick Ward (26 rushes for 94 yards) busting through for six yards to the 5 on third and five and Droughns again scoring from a yard out. "It was just kind of slipping away from us," linebacker Marcus Washington said.
Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell (16 for 34, 190 yards, one touchdown) fumbled a handoff to tailback Clinton Portis that former Redskin Antonio Pierce recovered. "Another communication problem," said Campbell, who fumbled three times and lost one. New York took over at the Washington 44 and Williams gambled on third and nine from the 33; he called for "cover-0" -- an all-out blitz with an empty secondary -- and corner Carlos Rogers failed to wrap up Burress at the 30, allowing him to scamper into the end zone with 5:32 to play.
"That's one I wish I would have played less aggressive," Williams said.
"I need to make the tackle there," Rogers said.
Washington's defense finally forced a three-and-out, however, Antwaan Randle El's nifty punt return put the ball on the New York 35 and 2:19 remained to play. So much went askew: Center Casey Rabach's holding penalty wiped out Randle El's 25-yard gain; Rabach then had a false start; and Campbell fumbled another snap. But the young passer delivered a 15-yard pass to Santana Moss on fourth and eight, and Randle El leaped for a 20-yard gain on third and 13 to the 1 with a minute to play.
The Redskins appeared harried in the crunch -- a not infrequent problem during Coach Joe Gibbs's second tenure -- and fell just short. Twice they opted to pierce the left side of New York's defense -- a vulnerability exploited early in the game -- and Portis (14 rushes for 60 yards), who leads the team with three touchdowns, was on the bench as Betts finished his turn in the rotation.
"We feel like either one of our backs are capable of being in there," Gibbs said.
All of Washington's first-half good fortune was wasted. New middle linebacker London Fletcher intercepted a pass and recovered a fumble -- the Redskins did not have an interception all season and had just six a year ago -- and the Redskins seemed to be on the verge of the rout. Fletcher's turnovers led directly to 10 points and place kicker Shaun Suisham was good from 47 yards as the half expired to provide a 14-point lead that ultimately wasn't big enough.