By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 30, 2009
In the month that has passed since training camp opened, the Washington Redskins have sweated through 39 practices, three preseason games and a handful of burning questions and important decisions.
In the next several days -- the final week of preseason -- they'll attempt to declare victors in the few remaining position battles, travel 700 miles for one final preseason game and pass out pink slips to one-third of the players currently crammed into the Redskins Park locker room.
If Friday's 27-24 loss to the New England Patriots game provided a final test for the first-stringers, expect the Redskins' final exhibition game Thursday night at Jacksonville to be focused more on the bottom of the depth chart. It's a game of survival for the fringe players.
By Tuesday, Coach Jim Zorn and his staff must trim the roster to 75, which means five players currently on the roster won't even make it to Jacksonville. By Saturday, 22 more will be sent to the unemployment line, as rosters across the league shrink to 53.
"There's still a lot of question marks that we have to find out some answers by some of the things that are still clouded," Zorn said. "The competition is stiff. Everybody's competing hard for a spot on this team. We're going to challenge a lot of those guys in that next game."
Leading up to Friday's game against the Patriots, coaches didn't hide the fact that the Redskins' starters would play at least a full half. But looking ahead to the final preseason game, even Zorn says he isn't certain how much playing time the first-team offense and defense will see -- if any.
"I haven't decided that yet," Zorn said Saturday afternoon. "Part of that will be how we work through these next couple of days. But we're not going to see the starters like we did this week. It'll be very cut down."
The team opened its camp last month with question marks dotting its regular season forecast. Since then, coaches have said that Todd Collins will again back up quarterback Jason Campbell, third-year lineman Stephon Heyer will start at right tackle, second-year safety Chris Horton will retain his starting job and first-round draft pick Brian Orakpo is capable of splitting time at defensive end and linebacker.
With two weeks remaining before the season opener at the New York Giants, Zorn must decide whether Devin Thomas or Malcolm Kelly has supplanted Antwaan Randle El as the team's No. 2 wide receiver; whether Chase Daniel or Colt Brennan will be the No. 3 quarterback; if rookie Marko Mitchell will make the roster as a fifth wide receiver despite his inexperience on special teams; whether there's a way in which speedy tailback Marcus Mason can make the roster; and whether he's seen enough from Dave Rayner to replace incumbent place kicker Shaun Suisham.
"I'm waiting for the last possible minute to have to make that choice because there's no clear-cut guy," Zorn said of the battle between the kickers.
In the early days of training camp, five players were battling for the Redskins' fifth wideout spot -- Keith Eloi, D.J. Hackett, Marques Hagans, Trent Shelton and Mitchell. Four players have combined for six preseason catches. The fifth, Mitchell, has five receptions by himself, including a pair of touchdowns in three games. Zorn wouldn't say Saturday whether the seventh-round draft pick from Nevada has separated himself from the pack.
"That's a good question," Zorn said. "I'm not sure about that yet, but he's definitely been impressive. One more game. He's going to be here next week to play again. We hope that he continues to show his improvements."
While Mitchell saw plenty of time with the first-team offense against New England, most of his snaps on Thursday will likely come with the second- and third-string units. Starters typically spend the majority of a team's final preseason game watching from the sidelines as younger players fight for roster spots.
Based on Zorn's comments Saturday, it doesn't sound as if injuries will be the reason for many players to miss the preseason finale. Zorn went through a list of bumps and bruises suffered against New England but didn't seem too worried. Running backs Clinton Portis and Mason both suffered minor bruises, and Randle El had a minor ankle sprain. "I think he's going to be fine," Zorn said of Randle El.
Safety Kareem Moore had a slight hamstring pull. Zorn called it minor but said he wasn't certain whether Moore would be able to play against the Jaguars.
The most significant injury last week -- cornerback Carlos Rogers's sore calf -- is slowly healing. Zorn said he hopes Rogers will return to practice this week, and he could be ready Thursday.
"For Carlos, it's not desire," he said. "It's all about a little pocket of blood on his calf muscle."
After his team was shut out in its preseason opener at Baltimore and then the Redskins' first-team offense failed to score against Pittsburgh, Zorn seemed pleased overall with the performance against a talented New England team. He noted that the offense was improved and finding its rhythm. Campbell hasn't been sacked during the preseason, and unlike many points last season, the offensive line has given him sufficient time to work in the pocket.
"I think a lot of it has to do with communication and guys being on the same page," Campbell said after Friday's game. "We're facing great fronts. We get Baltimore, Pittsburgh and now New England, so as a quarterback I feel confident now, I can get back to a lot of my progressions and have some bigger plays."
On the defensive side of the ball, the duo of Tom Brady and Randy Moss had its way with the Washington secondary -- at least until defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth knocked Brady out of the game late in the second quarter. By that point, though, Moss already had a pair of touchdowns and 90 yards on six receptions.
Following the game, Redskins defensive backs weren't discouraged.
"I felt like if we had stayed out there and played a real football game, I think we had a nice recipe dialed up to where we could get to them and confuse them a little bit," said cornerback DeAngelo Hall, who drew the tough assignment of defending Moss most of the first half. "I feel good. I feel good about this team, I feel good about this defense."
Though Zorn won't say which players will see the field Thursday and isn't certain how much playing time his first units will see, he's looking for marked improvement before the regular season begins. He cited penalties as one area of concern.
"I'd like to have a minimum-penalty game. . . . To have 15 in one game is just showing a lack of discipline in some areas," Zorn said. "Some of them, I understand what happened, I can see what happened. Part of it is just aggressive play, which we like. But you got to know how to start and finish without creating penalties."