Saturday's NFC semifinal between the Washington Redskins and Tampa Bay Buccaneers pits teams with opposite strengths and similar problems against each other. The Redskins' No. 2 offense takes on the Buccaneers third-ranked defense, while the Redskins 30th-ranked defense tries to hold down a 28th-ranked Buccaneer offense that relies heavily on the running game. And both teams will be without the left tackles that helped them to the playoffs.
For the Redskins (11-6), Andy Heck, who anchored the left side of the line for the full 16-week season, will miss the game with a torn hamstring, suffered last Saturday in the Redskins' 27-13 first-round playoff victory over Detroit. Fifth-year tackle Kipp Vickers takes over after getting some physical work in practice this week from defensive end Marco Coleman.
Quarterback Brad Johnson says there's no doubt that the Redskins will feel Heck's loss but insists he's not worried about the protection on his blind side.
"We've had unbelievable success with the offensive line this year, considering what it was last year," Johnson said. "Our running game has been unbelievable; our passing attack has been great at times. But it hurts when you lose someone that started for that many games. I can't worry about that. If I'm concentrating on other players and how they're playing, then it's taking away from my game. I have lot of confidence in the whole offensive line -- especially Kipp Vickers, the way he played last week, coming in [for Heck]."
The Redskins offensive line surrendered a team-record 61 sacks in 1998, but pared that number to 31 this season.
Heck, who now is able to walk without crutches, said his treatment is going well and doesn't rule out a return for the NFC championship on Jan. 23, assuming the Redskins advance.
Meanwhile, the NFC Central champion Buccaneers (11-5) will be without left tackle Paul Gruber, who was placed on injured reserve after breaking a bone in his right leg in the season finale against Chicago. Prior to that, Gruber had extended his team record in games played to 183. That ranks sixth in the NFL among active offensive linemen. He'll be replaced by fifth-year player Pete Pierson (6-5, 315), who has played mainly on special teams and backup right tackle.
Said Buccaneers quarterback Shaun King: "Any time you lose a player like Paul, it's a big loss-not only from his play, but from his presence in the huddle."
ROOKIE IN THEIR SIGHTS: The Redskins' primary goal against Tampa Bay is muzzling the Buccaneers' potent running attack. That would put the pressure on rookie quarterback Shaun King, which is just where they want it.
With Saturday's game, King, 22, will become the first rookie quarterback to start a playoff game since Todd Marinovich did so Dec. 28, 1991, for the then-Los Angeles Raiders.
The Redskins have taken pains to compliment King this week, noting that he has played like anything BUT a rookie in the five games he has started since starter Trent Dilfer broke his collar bone in Seattle on Nov. 28. King has a 4-1 record. Against Chicago, he completed 18 of 24 passes for 178 yards with one touchdown.
"He's been doing a good job," said second-year linebacker Shawn Barber. "He plays with a lot of poise; he plays with a lot of confidence. He was undefeated in college (Tulane) and is 4-1 as starter in pros. He's playing beyond his years, really."
King (6-0, 225) was a second round draft pick (50th overall), after leading Tulane to an 11-0 record in the regular season and victory in the Liberty Bowl over Brigham Young his senior year. He started 39 of 41 games for the Green Wave, taking over the top job during his freshman year.
Said Coach Norv Turner: "He's accurate; he moves around. They're protecting him a little bit in terms of what they're doing, but that's the way they play the game, anyway."
King, a Tampa Bay native, was 6 years old when Redskins cornerback Darrell Green played in his first playoff game -- a 51-7 victory over the Rams on Jan. 1, 1984.
"He's probably feeling real good playing against a guy that old," Green said of King. "I think he's done a great job this year. Whenever you're that young and you forge your way into a starting position, it speaks for itself. It means he did his homework when he wasn't starting, and they looked at him and said, `Are you ready?' and he said, `Yes, I am!' We've got to approach him like a veteran -- as a guy who has been around and gotten experience. And if we don't, we could be very sad."
ODDS AND ENDS: Redskins running back Stephen Davis, who has been upgraded to questionable, was expected to test his sprained right knee and sprained left ankle in practice this morning. . . . Center Cory Raymer (strained rib muscle) was also expected to practice and has been upgraded to probable.