By Jason Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 25, 2008
A day after the Washington Redskins failed a big test and prepared for the likelihood of beginning the season without Pro Bowl defensive end Jason Taylor, Coach Jim Zorn said he would consider the risky move of playing starters in the final preseason game.
The first-team offensive and defensive players were supposed to sit out Thursday as the Redskins finish their preseason schedule against the Jacksonville Jaguars at FedEx Field. But Zorn began to reconsider after the Carolina Panthers' 47-3 rout Saturday at Bank of America Stadium, a game in which Taylor suffered a sprained right knee that could sideline him for two weeks.
Zorn, however, must balance his desire for a strong performance from the top players against the potential for injury in another meaningless preseason game. Washington's outing against the Carolina stunned Zorn, and he would rather begin the season on a positive note.
"I'm open" to playing the starters, Zorn said yesterday while meeting with reporters at Redskins Park. "I may have to do that just based on what we did out there. It's not about disappointment, it's about doing what's right. And it's not about throwing them back out there and putting pads on and scrimmaging for two hours because we did what we did. But it's a matter of developing just a drive, maybe. Just to go back out there and get back some tempo before we have to get into the season."
Taylor's injury and the poor play of the offensive line were among Zorn's many concerns after the game. Taylor, who injured his knee during a pile-up in the second quarter, might not play when the Redskins and New York Giants kick off the NFL's regular season Sept. 4 at Giants Stadium.
X-rays taken during the game were negative and an MRI exam yesterday did not reveal damage, Zorn said, so Taylor, 33, could return in as quickly as 10 days. Washington is expected to exercise caution with Taylor, who is beginning his 12th season, which could put his streak of 130 straight regular season starts in jeopardy. The Redskins acquired Taylor, who last missed a game in 1999, on the first day of training camp after defensive ends Phillip Daniels and Alex Buzbee suffered season-ending injuries.
"I'm not ruling him out of the opener," Zorn said. "He definitely won't play this Thursday. We'll be cautious. If we have the choice of one game or 15 games, we'll take the 15."
The rest of Washington's starters will be told early this week if they have to work Thursday. "I'm not going to keep it a secret," Zorn said. It appeared the offensive line could use another extended session.
Quarterback Jason Campbell was under duress from the outset against the Panthers, the only preseason game in which he played an entire half. Although the Panthers' secondary was sharp in man coverage, contributing to Washington's ineffective passing game, Zorn said the veteran offensive line did not get the job done.
"We were very soft in our pass protection," he said. "We had to have good protection so our quarterbacks could hone in and really focus in on tight, man coverage, and we didn't do that. The first four passes that Jason threw, he had somebody walked back into him or he had somebody in his face. It's very difficult to play quarterback from that position."
Obviously, the Redskins also had problems on defense. Carolina rushed for 228 yards -- including 185 in taking a 34-0 halftime lead -- and averaged 7.1 yards per carry. The Panthers scored touchdowns of at least 20 yards on four consecutive possessions to close the first half and the Redskins experienced numerous breakdowns in pass coverage.
"I didn't sleep much," Zorn said. "I laid awake thinking about" everything that went wrong. "I don't think about giving up. These players, they have a lot of pride in what they do.
"They'll look at it and we'll all be honest about it. We'll regroup. I have no doubt about that. This is a good group. They'll take the opportunity to correct. They'll take the opportunity to reestablish themselves."
Carolina's defensive line applied significant pressure without the help of blitzes. The Panthers' defensive tackles collapsed the pocket in the middle and right tackle Jon Jansen (who sprained his right foot and could miss practice this week, Zorn said) and Pro Bowl left tackle Chris Samuels struggled against edge rushers.
On three of Washington's first four pass attempts, Campbell had "no chance," according to Zorn. "You hope you could drop back and throw on rhythm," Zorn said. We didn't have that chance."
During one stretch spanning two drives in the first quarter, Campbell was sacked three times in six plays. Carolina Pro Bowl defensive end Julius Peppers had a season's worth of highlight-tape footage on the third sack, pushing Samuels into Campbell, forcing a fumble and recovering the ball.
"I hate to say this, and he knows himself, and he did not play the rest of the game like this, but on the fumble [after] Jason got hit in the back, Chris Samuels wasn't ready for the explosion that he had with Julius Peppers," Zorn said. "Now, he anchored [the line] the rest of his time in there, but you've got to be ready for play [number] one. He takes pride in what he does, I know that, so it was hard for me to even say that."
Because of the offensive line's inability to provide consistent pass protection, "it was very challenging from a play-calling standpoint," Zorn said. "I was thinking about not putting our quarterback in a situation where he had to hold on to the ball for a real long time. That would have gotten into an even bigger mess. You saw us getting the ball out quick here and there 'cause it was hard to trust" the offensive linemen.
"I didn't feel like I had that luxury [to go downfield] because of the way that we were pass protecting. You have to feel solid in that pocket. You have to feel like they're going to be able to hold 'em off. You almost feel like putting one of those guys back there and saying, 'Okay, try this. Try to throw with somebody getting walked back in your face.' It's not easy."
The offensive line also struggled to protect Campbell in a 13-10 victory over the New York Jets on Aug. 16. Zorn attributed much of the previous shaky performance to the unit's first look at an aggressive three-four front, but "we got exactly what we prepared for" against Carolina.
"I can't send 'em all away and get a whole new group and all of a sudden go," Zorn said. "We've just got to keep working as to our techniques. We've got to keep showing them what violent football is all about. They need to look at this and kind of dig down within themselves."