Three games into a season in which so far little has gone right, the Redskins finally may have gotten a much needed break: Sunday's opponent, Seattle, has lost its best rusher and Washington's struggling defense against the run should have edge, and the time, it needs to improve.
The Seahawks already were one of the league's weakest running teams -- they are ranked 10th in the AFC in that category -- and Sherman Smith, who hurt his knee last week against New England, has been their best ground gainer the last four years.
Without Smith, Seattle will be forced to rely even more on Jim Zorn's passing Sunday in RFK. And that will be playing into the strength of the Redskin defense. Washington realized that if it can get by this test, then two of the players who will help improve its strength against the run -- Brad Dusek and Neal Olkewicz -- could be healthy enough in another week's time to bring the unit to nearly 100 percent.
Dusek has been able to play extensively in only one game, last week's in Oakland. And he admittedly, still is not moving with his normal quickness and anticipation. Olkewicz, the club's designated middle linebacker against the run, only now is starting to practice lightly. His bad knee still isn't ready to play on.
"Without those two, we just aren't as good a defense as we are with them," the defensive coordinator, Doc Urich, said. "Brad is just a very good linebacker and we need his experience in there.
"Rich (Milot) has improved playing for Neal in the middle but he still isn't Neal Olkewicz against the run. That's Neal's strength and he loves to play against it. Rich is receiving so much on-the-job training that it's been tough for him. We certainly didn't envision him being broken in this way."
Washington is a team hungry right now for any kind of edge, even if it comes by way of an injury to an opponent. This has been such an unsettling season, starting from the early days of training camp when John Riggins retired prematurely, through this week, when news of a police investigation of two members of the team was revealed. Players and coaches all admit concentration and performances have suffered as a result.
"There never seems to be a dull moment," Coach Jack Pardee said with a forced smile yesterday. "One thing seems to happen after another.
"That's why we've talked a lot this week to the players about worrying about themselves and not getting involved in what happens on or off the field. Sometimes, though, you try to concentrate so hard on concentrating that the opposite results.
"We've got a good bunch of people here and this team will come around. It will just take time, but I think we are making progress. We have to just take care of ourselves and not get mixed up in a lot of other things that we can't do anything about."
Pardee knows that one thing his defensive players can correct is their inconsistency, especially against the run. In two of the three games so far, the Redskins have given up too many yards on the ground: 177 to Dallas and 228 to Oakland. It is no coincidence they have lost both contests.
But even with this weakness, the Redskin defense ranks sixth in the NFC.
Much of the credit has to go to the secondary, which trails only Chicago and Los Angeles in efficiency against passes.
As long as opponents can run the ball and not have to throw, the Redskins will not be as good defensively as Pardee thinks they can be.
"It all starts with getting people healed," Urich said. "We are playing with some new people in some new spots. And then we are getting folks nicked in games. Like against Oakland, Ken Houston gets his head knocked and we have Mike Nelms in for him at a new position and he slips on a running play.
"The run should have gained eight yards. Instead, it goes for 42 yards and a touchdown. Then they get 30 yards on another sweep. We had it defensed well but they still get yards. We can't have half an effort from anyone; we need to be aggressive and move all out all the time.
"Take away those two runs and I thought the rush defense was okay. At least it was adequate. But we gave up 24 points. That's too much. With the offense trying to get healthy, we have to do better than that."
Urich has been especially unhappy with the work of his front four. Coy Bacon has held up well, but Urich says Dave Butz, Karl Lorch and Perry Brooks "all need to give us a better performance. We took Perry out a lot on Sunday, we just weren't that pleased with the way he played. We need more out of him; we depend a lot on how he plays."
Opponents appear to be concentrating on running against the left side of Washington's defense, where Butz, Lorch and either Dusek or Monte Coleman play. But both Urich and Pardee say they aren't convinced this will become a trend.
"Teams are naturally right-handed anyway," Urich said. "And I can show you a few plays against Oakland, for example, that were audibles, and not called in the huddle. It was against our assigned defense, and not some preconceived plan to concentrate on just one side of the defense."
The Redskins began the season hoping to defense the run better while improving their pass rush. But after three weeks, they rank 11th against the rush in the NFC and their sack total is just four, although their per-game goal is at least three.
"We put pretty good pressure on Dan Pastorini last week," Pardee said. "We had 10 harrassments on him, even though we didn't turn those into sacks. At least we hurried him.
"Teams are running on us sometimes because they are getting ahead. Once they do that, they start controlling the clock and trying to eat up yardage. They know we have to gamble to get the ball back and so they can take advantage of some things.
"Last year, we were able to get ahead. You don't see a whole lot of teams keep on the ground if they are behind, so we saw more passes. We need to get into that situation more this year. That's why it is important to get our offense going well."
That offense is ranked 12th out of 14 conference teams. It hasn't been able to take advantage of many opposition turnovers -- Washington has eight interceptions -- which has put a lot of pressure on what is not an overly quick or powerful defensive unit.
"We're not that good yet to shut out people," Urich said. "But I know we can play better than we have been. It comes back to that one word, consistency. We just aren't playing on a good level for a whole game."