By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 28, 2008
That the Washington Redskins are 6-2 and in contention for the NFC East title midway through their season is surprising enough, given the team has a rookie coach, two new coordinators and a previously unproven quarterback.
But the tenor following a 25-17 victory over the winless Detroit Lions on Sunday, one reiterated at Redskins Park yesterday, was perhaps even more surprising: This team, which has the second-best record in the NFC, is not at all satisfied with how it has played over the first eight weeks, and if it doesn't improve, the record in the second half won't match the first.
"We're not a great football team," said middle linebacker London Fletcher, a veteran of 11 NFL seasons who won a Super Bowl with St. Louis. "We understand that. We're a good football team who has the ability to be great when we do it the way we're capable of doing it, week in and week out for 60 minutes. We got phases throughout the game. We'll do it for three quarters. We'll do it for three and a half quarters. . . . But it's going to come down to the end until we make the next step."
Moreover, the Redskins are dealing with injuries to a half-dozen starters. Though Clinton Portis, the NFL's leading rusher, sprained his ankle against Detroit, Coach Jim Zorn said he is likely to play against the Steelers.
The two most pressing injuries might be those to star wide receiver Santana Moss and Pro Bowl left tackle Chris Samuels. Zorn said yesterday that Moss -- who scored Washington's two touchdowns and had 120 yards receiving against Detroit -- is nursing a "tight" hamstring that he strained slightly late Sunday.
"He's got to wait," Zorn said. "Fortunately, we have an extra day, and we'll see at the end of this week how he feels."
Samuels was a late scratch from Sunday's game because of inflammation in his right knee. Though Samuels had an MRI exam yesterday, Zorn said doctors "are not going to do any surgery right now." There is cartilage floating in the knee, Zorn said, but the intention is to prepare Samuels to play the rest of the season.
"We're just trying to get that thing to quiet down so he can play," Zorn said.
Injuries aside, there are a litany of issues Zorn and the rest of the coaching staff would like to address in the days leading up to Monday night's game against Pittsburgh (5-2). Zorn is able to go through each game and point to a slew of mental mistakes -- penalties and missed assignments -- that have kept the margin for error so narrow.
"I think the real concern with us is that we can concentrate in critical situations, concentrate through critical situations, because we're leaving things on the field that we could take advantage of," Zorn said. "It may be that way all year, I don't know. But we're tying to get better and better as we go along. There's slight improvements, but not enough for us to feel ecstatic."
That lack of focus in all situations, Zorn and players said, could contribute to one of Zorn's chief frustrations about the offense: its inconsistent play once it reaches the opponent's 20-yard line. In 26 such situations, the Redskins have scored 14 touchdowns, a percentage (53.8) that ranks 14th in the league.
Zorn cited several positive developments in the offense -- the running game, ranked second in the league, and quarterback Jason Campbell's composure chief among them -- but gets rankled at the mere mention of those missed opportunities. In narrow wins over Cleveland and Detroit, they were able to overcome them. That might not be true over the final eight games.
Campbell said the inefficiency in the red zone is the offense's chief concern. The Redskins rank seventh in total offense but 23rd in scoring and have not managed more than three touchdowns in a game.
"I do think we could do better in that area, because we have the talent," Campbell said. "We have the ability to do it. I think it's us just continuing to focus on long drives. Toward the end of it, don't get relaxed. Keep pressing and stay hungry to get the touchdown. Let's not just settle for points."
Defensively, coordinator Greg Blache was furious over several missed assignments from his patched-together unit -- one that played without starting tackle Cornelius Griffin, safety Chris Horton and cornerback Shawn Springs -- against Detroit. Though the unit has been stout for the most part, ranking sixth in total yardage allowed and giving up only 1.5 touchdowns per game, it has struggled putting consistent pressure on the quarterback and forcing turnovers.
Washington has 10 sacks -- two in the last five games -- and only two teams have fewer sacks per pass play. In the last four weeks, the Redskins don't have an interception. Cornerback Carlos Rogers, otherwise in the midst of an outstanding season, dropped one Sunday, a recurring problem.
"We've got to catch the football," Fletcher said. "The fumbles, we get them on the ground, we've got to come up with them. Do what the discipline of the defense calls for, first and foremost, and then from there, make the plays."
In the first half of Sunday's victory, Zorn stewed on the sideline about what he considered unacceptable errors, penalties and missed assignments. At one point, he vigorously pumped his fist as he shouted into his headset.
This from the first-year coach of a team that has won six of its last seven games, that has never been out of a game, that has all the possibilities -- playoffs and division titles and beyond -- potentially ahead of it.
Over the first eight games of the season, Zorn's team has the league's top runner, a quarterback who hasn't thrown an interception and an apparent ability to win most squeakers. But neither he, nor his players, are overjoyed.
"It's just the little things that are keeping us from playing a very solid game," Zorn said. "We haven't played a solid game yet."