Defensive Coach Richie Petitbon of the Washington Redskins sounded the alarm this week, predicting, "Joe Montana will probably throw 50 passes against us."
Petitbon wasn't kidding. At 9 p.m. EDT Monday (WJLA-TV-7), the Redskins will play the San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park, a house of wind and, quite often, a house of pass defense horrors for the visiting team. That's because of Montana, one of the National Football League's most resourceful quarterbacks.
Told of Petitbon's prediction, San Francisco Coach Bill Walsh gave a mock cough, as though a potato chip had gagged his breath. "Fifty? Maybe more like 30 or 35," he said.
Petitbon had predicted 50 passes by Montana before the Redskins' 24-21 victory in the NFC title game in January at RFK Stadium. Montana finished with 27 of 48 for 347 yards with three fourth-quarter touchdown passes. "Well, I guess if the game goes like that title game, he could (throw 50)," Walsh acknowledged.
Because of Montana's rare ability to throw with precision, even when under great pressure, and because of the Redskins' troubled pass defense that yielded five touchdown passes to Miami's Dan Marino last week, odds makers favor the 49ers by two points. The Redskins' coach, Joe Gibbs, conceded, "If you programmed an offense that would give us trouble, Montana and the 49ers would be it."
Don't forget, however, that the Redskins merely set the league scoring record with 541 points last year and have another passer of keen accuracy, Joe Theismann.
Conclusion: Remember that 48-47 Redskins loss at Green Bay on a cool Monday night last October? This game has the potential to be an explosive carbon copy.
At this time, injuries seemingly have unglued the 49ers' defense. Right cornerback Eric Wright is out for a month with a knee injury incurred on the first play of their 30-27 victory in Detroit last week.
Consequently, all-pro cornerback Ronnie Lott (who is expected to play despite an ankle injury) will move to Wright's spot and recently acquired veteran Mario Clark will start at left cornerback. Don't be surprised to see Theismann zero in on Clark, using either of his acrobatic receivers, Charlie Brown and Art Monk.
Also, left defensive end Fred Dean, San Francisco's pass-rushing fury, remains a contract holdout. His replacement, Jeff Stover, suffered a season-ending knee injury last week and Lawrence Pillers will take his place Monday. "Our defense just hasn't jelled yet," Walsh said.
The Redskins' spirits remained optimistic despite the rude nature of Miami's 35-17 victory in the opener at RFK Stadium last Sunday. "If we get things together this week," running back Joe Washington said, "people will forget that game."
So much, then, for the 49ers saying that the Redskins will be emotionally fueled by last week's loss. So much for the Redskins saying that the 49ers will be emotionally fueled by losing the NFC title game that was made controversial by two disputed pass interference calls against the 49ers on the Redskins' game-winning drive.
Reflect to that game. A 21-0 Redskins lead was dissolved as Montana threw three touchdown passes over the first eight minutes of the fourth quarter: a 76-yarder to wide receiver Freddie Solomon, who curled over the middle and beat cornerback Darrell Green, and five- and 12-yard passes to wide receiver Mike Wilson. He beat cornerback Anthony Washington both times.
This quick-strike offense erased all the Redskins had accomplished with John Riggins controlling the clock with 36 carries for 123 yards and two touchdowns. The Redskins held a time of possession advantage of 38 minutes to 22.
Surely, pressure will be on the Redskins' pass defense. Charles Mann will replace Todd Liebenstein (bacterial infection) at left end.
Competence must replace confusion in the secondary. Strong safety Tony Peters said of last week's game, "It wasn't the type of performance that will get me back to the Pro Bowl . . . It was mostly mental things. It's all coming back, but this team doesn't have time to wait for me. I've got to be a pacesetter."
Free safety Mark Murphy said, "I think we can expect a lot of what Marino did -- a lot of quick passes. They throw to their backs a lot, use it like a run."
The five-year career of Montana, 28, has moved on an upward spiral, with 78 touchdown passes and just 44 interceptions. "When Joe drops back," said Dwight Clark, who has caught 297 passes over the last four years, more than any other player in the league, "he knows what is going through Bill Walsh's mind."
"We're trying to get the ball downfield more than we normally do," Montana said. "We're taking chances now. Normally, Bill's offense is basically ball control, with high-percentage passes. Most of our patterns aren't over 15 yards. We have them, but if we don't hit them, we go back to ball control.
"Now, we're realizing that we have speed that we haven't taken advantage of with certain teams, guys like Renaldo (Nehemiah) and Freddie Solomon."
Fifty passes? Montana laughed. "Oh, I don't know about that," he said. "I guess we could. Depends on the game."