By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
On the first offensive play of the Washington Redskins' season 2 1/2 months ago, Coach Jim Zorn called what he thought would be a simple pass from quarterback Jason Campbell to wide receiver Santana Moss. The play was designed to build the confidence of the unit in Zorn's first game as an NFL head coach.
What resulted, though, was disaster. Moss was covered, and right tackle Stephon Heyer was beaten by New York Giants defensive end Justin Tuck, who then smothered Campbell.
Ten games later, the offense has recovered from that inauspicious beginning enough to help the team to a 7-4 record and put it in position to fight for a playoff spot over the final five weeks.
But since that season-opening loss to the defending Super Bowl champions, who bring a 10-1 record into FedEx Field on Sunday, the Redskins have struggled against elite defenses, from New York that first week to recent losses to Dallas and Pittsburgh. If Zorn's team is to progress, the coach knows those struggles must be mitigated.
"We have to handle the defenses that are very strong," Zorn said yesterday, a day after Sunday's 20-17 victory at Seattle. "We didn't handle [and] we didn't come through with points against two very difficult defenses [the previous two games]. And yet [Sunday], we came back, so we have some resiliency. I'm kind of excited where we're going."
Still, the 386 yards the Redskins gained in Seattle came against the NFL's 29th-ranked defense that has been susceptible to the pass all season. The Redskins are still averaging just 18.3 points per game, well below the league average of 22.3.
"We're trying to score 40 if we can," Zorn said.
Yet they are one of only three teams that has not scored 30 points in a game. The other two -- Cincinnati and Detroit -- have combined for a 1-20-1 record.
"We got a lot of stuff that we also can get better at," Moss said. "We can play pretty good once we get in a good rhythm. So that's what we have to do. We have to work on just maintaining our rhythm and get ourself going. It just feels like every time we get ourself going, we have to worry about sputtering."
That is particularly true against defenses that rank eighth or better in total yards allowed. In five games against New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Dallas (twice), the Redskins have averaged 285.4 yards -- 55 yards below their average production for the season.
The Redskins' season-low output of 209 yards came against the Giants in the opener. They managed 221 against Pittsburgh and 228 against Dallas the second time, the only other games in which they have failed to gain 300 yards.
Sunday's game against New York comes against the league's fifth-ranked defense; Washington's game the following week is against the Baltimore Ravens, whose defense ranks second.
"We're about to face two of the best defenses in the National Football League the next two weeks coming up," Campbell said yesterday. "We've already played Pittsburgh [which ranks first]. . . . It's not easy, especially in a first-year offense."
Each week, Zorn has been able to pick apart the performance of both Campbell individually and the offense as a whole. Yesterday, he went through a few mistakes against the Seahawks, including Campbell's imprecise pass to fullback Mike Sellers on third and one in the fourth quarter-- one that was thrown high enough that Sellers couldn't make a difficult catch -- and another in the third quarter to tight end Chris Cooley, a ball that was slightly behind him, a completion that didn't gain all the yardage Zorn felt was available.
In each case, a perfect throw could have meant a touchdown. In each case, the Redskins failed to cross the goal line. Such slight mistakes are part of the reason Campbell said yesterday: "Our best is still ahead of us. We still haven't played our best game offensively yet."
Said Zorn: "At some point, I'm hoping that we develop a higher level of point production, because we're better. We're better. Maybe we are only that good right now. I don't feel it, but something's not happening."
That first play of the season, Tuck's sack of Campbell, is significant again this week because against the NFL's best defenses, the Redskins have been inconsistent in protecting the passer. In those five games against the league's top defenses, they have allowed 2.8 sacks per game, including a devastating seven against Pittsburgh.
The Giants rank fourth in the league in sacks per pass play. Tuck is third in the NFC with 9 1/2 sacks, and the opposite end, Mathias Kiwanuka, has 6 1/2 . No Redskin has as many as four sacks.
"That'll be a major concern and emphasis," Zorn said, "because if we can protect Jason, and he can stand, [and] he has a chance to throw on rhythm, we'll continue to improve our passing game. I believe that.
"But we have to be able to mix in this game. We can't get shut down completely in one area and think we're going to beat a defense like this. We have to be able to run, and we have to make sure that we have protection to throw, [in order] to win."
That could be true throughout the rest of the season, when the Redskins' postseason fate will be determined. They have, Zorn and the players said, improved since that frustration-filled opening night at the Meadowlands. But by how much? Sunday against the Giants will be one significant indication.
"It's not about, I don't think, proving anything," Campbell said. "It's just about [getting] us to understand where we're at in a critical part of our season, that this is what we have to do to win."