Joe Theismann became the quarterback the Redskins long had envisoned today.
Getting superb protection, he mashed Atlanta's Grits Blitz with his dazzling passing to guide surprising Washington to a decisive 16-7 triumph over the frustrated Falcons.
Theismann's steady, confident performance, which he described as his best as a professional, was just the boost his teammates needed to pull away to their fourth straight triumph after an opening loss to Houston.
There were standouts everywhere Coach Jack Pardee looked after his emotional victory, which kept Washington tied for the Eastern Division lead with Philadelphia and Dallas.
Showing maturity and fine judgment, Theismann completed 19 of 26 passes for 233 yards, keeping Atlanta constantly off balance with his fine mixture of short and medium passes to seven different receivers. He even survived a late-game, one-punch knockdown from defensive tackle Mike Lewis.
The Redskin defense, after giving up a touchdown on the Falcons' first possession, throttled quarterback Steve Bartkowski, limiting him to six completions in 26 attempts while picking off three passes. The defense's domination was so great that Atlanta never again crossed its 15 after the initial series.
Wide receiver Danny Buggs, filling a void when end Ricky Thompson was hurt in the first period, pulled in a career-best 10 passes for 134 yards before his hometown fans.
Cornerbacks Lemar Parrish (one interception) and Joe Lavender (two) covered receivers Wallace Francis and Alfred Jenkins so well that Pardee said, "They allowed our other guys to do what they had to. It all boils down to those two holding their own."
Mark Moseley, again showing why he is perhaps the league's most dangerous field goal man, contributed successful kicks of 45, 53, and 37 yards, the last coming at the end of the third quarter to give the Redskins a nine-point cushion entering the final 15 minutes.
Despite Theismann's stunning display, Washington still managed only one touchdown, a one-yard run by John Riggins with 55 seconds left in the first half. Atlanta later held the Redskins on four downs from the four yard line, causing Pardee to say later he probably should have tried for a field goal.
"I don't think I've seen a quarterback ever play better than Joe did today," Pardee said. "His reading of their defense, his coolness, his decision-making, they were all just right. This is a tough, agressive defense and he stayed in there and did the job."
Theismann worked overtime all last week, studying a Falcon defense that had blitzed him 55 times in 68 plays last season, when he completed only 12 of 33 passes. Today, he made up for that embarrassment with what offensive coordinator Joe Walton said was "the kind of quarterbacking we thought he could turn in. This is what we had envisioned. He was sensational; you couldn't ask for more."
Theismann, said Walton, "did exactly what we had prepared for. You could see his confidence grow. This was the best he's played in the two years I've been with him."
The Redskin quarterback benefited greatly from an outstanding job by his offensive line. He was sacked just once, as he was trying to escape from the pocket in the fourth period. Otherwise, he rarely was even touched as he threw. That's how solid the blocking was in front of him.
"They didn't blitz as much as we expected," said center, Bob Kuziel. "Maybe 15 or 20 times. I don't know why, but maybe our running kept them off balance. We controlled the ball and we ran on them. We knew to beat them we had to keep them off the field and make their defense play and we did.
"Joe is doing a fantastic job. We are playing well because he is playing well. No one in football is playing any better than he is."
With the backs, normally his favorite targets, kept in the backfield to help pick up the blitzes, Theismann passed almost exclusively to his wide receivers today. They responded against mainly one-on-one coverage with 12 receptions, two by John McDaniel.
Cut by the team in preseason, then brought back, McDaniel replaced Thompson, who was sidelined with a hip pointer in the first quarter.
"We've been blitzing for three years but the last two years we've been covering mostly one-on-one and we've done the job," said Atlanta cornerback Rolland Lawrence. "Today we didn't do the job. Give them credit. They were good."
Said Atlanta Coach Leeman Bennett: "We got physically whipped. We didn't execute well and, in the second half we had to rely almost exclusively on the pass and you can't win like that."
The Falcons were forced to pass because the Redskins' fast-improving rushing defense shut off fullback William Andrews, limiting him to 59 yards and his team to 70 on the ground.
Throwing into a veteran, crafty secondary, Bartkowski had little success. After Atlanta's 85-yard scoring drive, he could produce a net of only 75 more yards. The Falcons finished with 156 yards; Washington had 359.
With Theismann throwing 26 times, Washington ran just well enough to keep Atlanta guessing. The Redskins gained 131 yards on the ground bogging down only when they neared the Falcon goal line.
"I only called two audibles all day," Theismann said. "And I threw only four bad passes, passes I tossed away. Otherwise, I felt I was in control."
Yet Washington did not start controlling the game until Riggins leaped over from the one just before the half to put his team in front, 13-7. Before then, Atlanta had kept threatening with its constant barrage of long passes.
Washington took the lead first when Moseley booted his 45-yard field goal. The Redskins took the opening kickoff and drove to the Atlanta 28, mostly on passes of 28 yards to Clarence Harmon and 11 to Buggs.
Bartkowski then put together a masterful march. Mixing runs with a 35-yard completion to Francis behind Parrish and a 13-yarder to Jenkins, he moved the Falcons to the Redskin eight. Then a third-down pass was picked off at the goal line by Parrish.
But the interception did not count because Parrish was called for holding -- "I held him, slightly," Parrish admitted -- and two plays later, Andrews backed over from the one. Tim Mazzetti kicked the extra point for a 7-3 lead.
After Moseley missed badly from 49 yards, Washington threatened again. Theismann's keeper gained 10 yards and passes to Buggs for 14 and 15 yards set up a third down at the five.
Theismann rolled to his right and seemed to have a path -- and three blockers -- to the goal line. Instead he tried to pass to McDaniel in the end zone and Ray Easterling tipped the ball into the hands of teammate Frank Reed.
Lavender, playing the most aggressive football of his career, gave his team another shot when he tipped and caught a Bartkowski pass and returned it to the Falcon 43.
Following three running plays, Moseley kicked his ninth field goal of the season, from 53 yards, and with 2:53 left in the second quarter cut the lead to 7-6.
Atlanta then dug itself a bad hole. Penalties for holding and tripping pushed the ball back to the Falcon six, and a 40-yard punt gave Washington possession at the 46 with 1:52 before intermission.
On second down, Atlanta came with an all-out blitz. Theismann stayed in the pocket, waited, waited, then unleashed a strike down the middle to Buggs just as the pass rush engulfed him.
Buggs hauled in the spiral at the 10. Lawrence, a Pro Bowler, dragged him down at the one.
Buggs sprained his big toe on the play and his loss would have left the Redskins with one legitimate wide receiver, but Buggs came back in the second half.
On first down from the one, Riggins leapfrogged into the end zone and Moseley added the conversion for the 13-7 halftime margin.
The Redskins probably could have put the contest away on their first possession of the third period, set up by a Lavender interception at the Falcon 30. Benefiting from face mask and personal foul penalties Washington had a first down at the four. Benny Malone picked up two yards, Riggins one and then one again before slipping as he went around left end.
Pardee, feeling his team would need two scores to win, decided to go for a touchdown on fourth and inches. Malone, running behind Riggins, leaped but was knocked back from the goal line by Easterling.
Moseley did not stay on the sideline the next time. Theismann moved the Redskins from their 24 to the Atlanta 19 on passes of 14 yards to Don Warren, eight to McDaniel, 10 to Buggs, six to Fugett and eight to Harmon before Moseley was good from 37 yards as the third quarter ended.
Washington, which had the ball 10 minutes that period, thwarted the falcons in the fourth with more ball control. Lewis showed his team's frustration in the final two minutes when he belted Theismann, who had tried to help up the Atlanta player.
Theismann's knockdown was the only blemish on an otherwise delightful day for the Washington quarterback.
"I admit I enjoyed this one," he said. "My line treated me like a mother hen. I have to say it was my best day as a pro. Now I want to build from here."