Although no one associated with the Redskins is saying so publicly, there is a strong feeling among the players that if they are going to get untracked this season, they better begin Sunday at 1 p.m. against the injury-depleted Detroit Lions.
The Redskins should be able to beat the Lions, who have new faces in the starting lineup. Injuries to their top two quarterbacks and a lopsided loss to Tampa Bay have the Lions reeling, while Washington is coming off a surprising performance against Houston.
Even though they are playing on the road, Coach Jack Pardee's players may not find themselves in a more favorable position all year to pick up a win, though the oddsmakers say Detroit is a one-point favorite.
"If we hold our mistakes to a minimum and play the way we can, we should be okay," said Pardee about the contest in the Silverdome (WDVM-TV-9). 9). "We are going to have to play well against the teams we can match up with. We can't be up and down and play well against the Oilers and bad against Detroit and still expect to win."
The Lions entered this season riding the momentum of a strong 1978 finish. They were young and rebuilding but buoyed by the knowledge that some had picked them to win the NFC Central Division.
But after losing first Gary Danielson, then Joe Reed to injuries, Coach Monte Clark finds himself facing the Redskins with a rookie quarterback. Jeff Komlo, a ninth-round pick from De Matha High and the University of Delaware, who was supposed to spend this season learning by watching from the sidelines, will start today.
Other new faces will be rookie Bo Robinson at fullback, rookie Eddie Cole at middle linebacker and veteran Gene Washington at wide receiver.
To complicate Clark's problems, his secondary also has been hurt by injuries and his team played sloppily most of the way against Tampa bay.
"You've got to figure they feel they have to win this game before things get away from them," said Redskin tight end Jean Fugett. "So we better expect almost anything they can think of."
Washington certainly can expect Detroit to probe and test the Redskins' rushing defense, which was shattered by Earl Campbell last week. The Lions gained 231 yards on the ground last year against Washington, with Dexter Bussey and Horace King doing the most damage.
The Lions have an extremely young offensive line which may be missing its newest, but most talented player, rookie tackle Keith Dorney, who is hampered by leg problems. Against Tampa, the line played well enough for Detroit to pick up 142 rushing yards.
Komlo completed five of 21 passes for 45 yards after Reed pulled a stomach muscle. Pardee expects the young quarterback either to hand off the ball, throw long to receivers Washington and Fred Scott or to dump it off to tight end David Hill.
Hill fast is becoming one of the league's premier tight ends. A pro Bowl selection last year, he has what Redskin strong safety Ken Houston says are "maybe the best hands of any receiver in football today."
Houston says Hill "presents problems because if he can touch a ball, he usually holds onto it. So he doesn't need to have perfect position or run perfect routes every time to be effective.
"He's a tough one and he's getting better. He is so consistent; that's the one thing you notice about him. He never seems to have a bad game."
The Redskins' secondary picked off three Houston passes last week and will be tough for Komlo to solve. Washington may gamble by using more 3-4 defense this week. And Pardee could begin with Coy Bacon instead of Joe Jones at one end spot, although Jones was running with the first team in practice today.
Detroit is certain to concentrate its running on middle linebacker Don Hover and rookie outside back Rich Milot. Houston had particular success going up the middle, although the Lions utilize power running techniques much less than the Oilers.
No matter what Detroit does offensively, Washington must keep mistakes to a minimum. In its last two contests -- Cleveland in the preseason and Houston last week -- the Redskins have committed glaring offensive errors that have been converted by their opponents into game-winning points.
"We just can't turn the ball over," said quarterback Joe Theismann. "But I still thought the way we played last week was encouraging. We ran the ball well, we took advantage of their mistakes and we were able to drive for scores.
"You build off those things. We just have to keep improving on what we have been doing."
Pardee has tried since early in the exhibition season to turn the Redskins into a ball-control, errorless team. He admits that he does not have an explosive team that can rebound quickly from deficits. If Washington falls behind, it could be in trouble even against the Lions.
Detroit's defense, however, is wobbly. End Al Baker had 23 sacks as a rookie (the Lions' Silver Rush had 53 in all) but has been inconsistent this year, the linebacking is questionable and injuries have hurt the secondary.
Tackle Terry Hermeling will have to handle Baker, a 6-foot-6, 260-pound second-year man from Colorado State who has a tendency to be overaggressive and take himself out of running plays.
Veteran tackle Cleveland Elam, obtained from San Francisco in a trade, is out with a hand injury. His place will be taken by Ed Gallagher, a former Giant. The other tackle, Doug English, also made the Pro Bowl while end Dave Pureifory started the last part of the 1978 season.
Clemson rookie Jon Brooks has earned a starting spot as one linebacker, joining rookie Cole and quick Charlie Weaver, who may be slowing up in this, his ninth season.
The Lion cornerbacks, Ken Ellis and Luther Bradley, play tight man-to-man coverage, making it difficult to complete passes to wide receivers. Ellis starts in place of injured Walt Williams (knee). Pardee says free safety James Hunter "is a good center fielder with a good range. He makes it tough to go long on them too."
Theismann was limited to 14 passing attempts against Houston and as long as the Redskins can move the ball with John Riggins, Benny Malone and Clarence Harmon, they again will throw sparingly.
Pardee indicated that John McDaniel, who rejoined the team this week, would see action as wide receiver, probably replacing Danny Buggs at times. McDaniel caught the game-winning touchdown last year against the Lions.
Fugett, who pulled in two touchdown passes last week, will continue to alternate with rookie Don Warren at tight end. And newcomer Lonnie Perrin will help out on kickoff returns.
"I think Detroit might be sending up a few smoke screens this week," Pardee said. "They do have a quarterback problem, but I'm sure Monte is getting everyone to pull together more and play harder.
"Even with their injuries, they still have good personnel. If they get some good games from their key people, they will be tough. We can't let up just because they have a few injuries."
With Tom Skladany on the injured list, Detroit's punter is Larry Swider, who averaged 43.3 yards last week . . . Benny Ricardo is still handling field goals . . . Fugett says the Silverdome is not an ideal place for football. "It's hard, you step on the field and you can't hear anything," he said.