By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 11, 2010; 12:26 AM
Washington Redskins players and coaches knew they couldn't put their entire receiving game solely on Santana Moss's shoulders. That was clear in the offseason, when Moss had arthroscopic knee surgery and was limited in some of the team's minicamps and organized team activities.
The unlikely player who took Moss's place in the lineup then is the same one who helped turn the tide in the Redskins' 16-13 overtime win over Green Bay: first-year wide receiver Anthony Armstrong, whose improbable climb through football's ranks culminated with Sunday's game - his first career score and Washington's lone touchdown against the Packers.
Armstrong lined up in Moss's place while the Redskins veteran was recuperating in the offseason, and he made a strong case Sunday to be considered for the starting lineup, finishing with 84 yards on three receptions, including a 48-yard touchdown headed for the highlight reels.
The Redskins' running game has struggled in four of the team's five games; rushers totaled just 51 yards on 21 carries Sunday. That has actually shined light on some of the deficiencies in the passing game. As a group, the Redskins receivers have struggled to contribute. Starter Joey Galloway has only seven catches in five games. Roydell Williams has only two, Brandon Banks one. Devin Thomas lined up for just a single offensive play this season before the Redskins finally released the third-year wide receiver Saturday.
With 188 yards on seven catches, Armstrong is carving out an important niche in the offense, showing that he's a deep threat and a welcome target for quarterback Donovan McNabb.
"Armstrong is just kind of that big-play guy," McNabb said. "You never know when he'll explode for that 40- or 50- yard catch."
McNabb was among several Redskins who credited Armstrong's big touchdown catch with sparking the offense in Sunday's come-from-behind win. Before that drive - the Redskins' second possession of the fourth quarter - Moss was the only receiver to register a catch. But McNabb found Galloway for a 12-yard gain on first down and then targeted Armstrong deep. The 27-year-old wide receiver had to leap high and wait for the ball to fall into his hands.
"I was floating," Armstrong said. "I had a Red Bull, so it gave me a little bit of wings."
The touchdown changed the flow for the offense. Prior to the score, McNabb completed 15 of 28 passes for 176 yards. After it, he was 11 for 21 for 181 yards. He was also finally able to spread the ball around.
If Armstrong and Galloway can't get involved more, defenses can afford to focus their attention on Moss and tight end Chris Cooley, who have combined to account for 52 of the team's 96 receptions this season.
"Now they got to worry about number 13 [Armstrong] and 84 [Galloway] out there, running by them, catching passes underneath and whatnot," Armstrong said. "It's going to make defenses play more sound, it's going to make it easier on our offense to move the ball up the field."
Armstrong, who spent 11 weeks on the Redskins' practice squad last year, entered training camp just hoping to make the roster, and he would have accepted a role on special teams if that's all the coaches felt he deserved. But he had a chance to practice with the starters in the offseason and said that helped prepare him for these regular season games.
"It helped build trust with Donovan, it helped build trust with the coaches," he said. "You're going against the top competition on the team."
It also helped separate him from the other wide receivers in camp, which he's continued to do in the regular season.
With 408 yards on 29 catches, Moss is still unquestionably the team's top wide receiver, which becomes more clear with each passing week. On Sunday, Moss finished with 118 yards on seven catches.
"Santana, he's been consistent over the years," said McNabb. "There's a reason why he's been doing what he's doing."
After Moss, Cooley has been McNabb's top option. Moss and Cooley were both targeted 12 times on Sunday, and Cooley's 303 receiving yards on 23 catches are second on the team.
For the offense to succeed and for defenses to play them honestly, someone else has to step up. Armstrong has been showing since the offseason that he might be the team's next-best option.
"He's an outstanding route-runner," Cooley said. "He's way faster than anyone really sees. I think he's sneaky fast."
Fullback Mike Sellers was more succinct. "The man can flat-out run," he said.
As the Redskins prepare for the Indianapolis Colts next Sunday, Washington coaches will try to refine an offense that's still searching for its identity. Getting more players involved will be near the top of the to-do list.
"They keep sending balls my way," Armstrong said, "I just got to keep making plays."