Cleveland's Brian Sipe, once burdened with a nickel-and-dime passing reputation, has become a big-money thrower this season. Sunday, the Redskins hope to cash inon his booming confidence.
Washington wants to force Sipe to forego his running game and toss up something on the order of the 43 passes he tried last week against Pittsburgh. s
If that happens, the Redskins feel they have a golden opportunity to make a big deposit on their playoff hopes this season.
"I'm sure the Browns will test our rushing defense," Washington Coach Jack Pardee said about Cleveland's tactic for the 1 p.m. game (WDVM-TV-9). "They'd be foolish not to.
"But we'd like to have him pass. It would be going against the strength of our defense. If we are going to need some interceptions and some turnovers, so the more he passes, the more chances we have of getting those mistakes."
Much of what Sipe does will be dictated by the health of running back Greg Pruitt. Pruitt maintains that his sore knee will not allow him to play; the Redskins say they will believe that when they see him on the sideline in street clothes.
It would seem Pruitt would be anxious to make a quick recovery after watching films of Washington's game last week against Philadelphia, when the Eagles' Wilbert Montgomery tore up the Redskins' questionable rushing defense.
The Browns had considerable success in the exhibition season against Washington running around either end, forcing Pardee to bench linebacker Pete Wysocki for rookie Rich Milot.
But Pruitt was healthy for that game. Without him, Cleveland is limited to fine fullback Mike Pruitt and veteran Calvin Hill, who is a better receiver now than runner. Still, the Browns are favored by 3.
To cover up obvious defensive problems, Pardee will run a shuttle system at Sipe, substituting players according to the situation. Among the backups likely to receive lots of playing time are former Brown defensive back Tony Peters, rookie cornerback Ray Waddy, tackle Paul Smith and middle linebacker Neal Olkewicz.
"We've had a good week of practice, especially on defense," Pardee said. "The players have responded to what we've asked. Our defensive line had to get off the ball better and be more aggressive and they are improving that way all week. That's all we can ask for."
This is the end of a stretch of four straight road games and the Redskins dearly would love to come away with a triumph.
A win would leave them with a 5-2 record going into the season's final nine games, which include six at home and five against opponents .500 or worse.
Although a victory Sunday is not crucial in insuring a playoff appearance, it would give Washingtona valuable cushion to fall back on in case of any upsets further down the road.
There also is the matter of the Redskins proving they can beat a winning team. Washington's four victories have come over struggling opponents and not over any of the NFL's powerhouses.
At least on offense, these Browns are a league force. They are ranked first on total offense and, thanks to Sipe's explosive throwing, they are among the best at scoring quickly with bombs.
As much as Washington has prepared for that tactic, Pardee says he fully expects to give up a long score or two in the game.
"Sipe has burned everyone so far," he said. "He's throwing that well. They're giving him good protection and his receivers are getting loose deep."
Sipe also has mastered the art of drawing teams offside. Pardee says his combination of a head bob and a staggered cadence at the line, "results in four or five offside penalties a week. He'll follow through on the play and go long. If he connects just once out of the five, it's worth the effort. They'll refuse the penalty and get a touchdown."
The Brown receivers are not especially quick but Reggie Rucker, Dave Logan and tight end Ozzie Newsome, in particular, is emerging as a dangerous third-down target.
Since the Redskin front four has had an inconsistant pass rush all season, Washington most likely will have to resort to blitzing to hurry Sipe. And that will put some pressure on an already burdened secondary, which has been carrying the defense through the early stages of the season.
What Pardee wants to avoid is getting into an old-fashioned shootout with gunslinger Sipe. He conceded the Redskins aren't equipped to match quick touchdowns with the likes of foes such as the Browns and the Eagles.
Not that Pardee feels his team can't score on Cleveland. Everyone, from the Steelers to the Jets, has moved the ball on the Brown defense. The last two weeks, that unit has given up an astounding 86 points. It also has surrendered 361 rushing yards to Pittsburgh.
The Redskins will try to get their own running game untracked so they can control the ball and keep Sipe off the field. But opponents also have riddled Cleveland with a short passing game, a speciality of Joe Theismann.
To shore up their defense, the Browns have moved Lyle Alzado from the right to the left side and inserted veteran Jack Gregory at right end. Middle lineman Dick Ambrose will start after sitting out two weeks with a bad back.
There will be a lot of pressure on the Washington offensive line to continue its fine protection of Theismann, who has been sacked only seven times so far this season.
In Alzado and Jerry 'sherk, Cleveland has two of the game's best pass rushers. Again, however, the line will benefit from Theismann's quick release. He hasn't been holding the ball long enough for opponents to get near him very much.
Theismann wil get back his favorite receiver, Ricky Thompson, who returns after missing a week with a hip pointer. But tight end Jean Fugett, troubled by a knee, is a doubtful participant, although he has been known to make quick recoveries on game days.
"It's a game we can win, but we have to play well to beat them," Pardee said. "We can't show up and make a lot of mistakes and get involved in a high-scoring game."