For the Washington Redskins, today's opponents really aren't the Detroit Lions. Of course, they'll be standing on the opposite sideline at RFK Stadium at 1 p.m. But the Redskins have something even more important to worry about. Themselves.
With quarterback Jay Schroeder and cornerback Darrell Green trying to break out of slumps, the Redskins need a victory, especially one of the lopsided variety, in the worst way.
They are coming off a gut-wrenching loss to Philadelphia. The Lions are still basking in the glow of a big win over Dallas, the veteran team's first victory of the season. But the Lions are not regarded as a very good football team, and have never won a game in Washington in 13 tries.
Did somebody say mismatch? Don't even mention that word in the presence of Washington Coach Joe Gibbs.
"This is one of the most important games we've had because we've got to bounce back," Gibbs said yesterday at Redskin Park. "Obviously, we've got to get Jay going good, and Darrell Green. We had so many things crop up last week. There's a lot at stake against the Lions. There are more questions than you would expect at this time of year."
First and foremost is Schroeder, who has completed only 40 percent of his passes and has had poor outings in two of his last three games. His first few passes will be watched by fans, coaches and teammates with an eagerness and anxiety that last surfaced Nov. 18, 1985, when Schroeder replaced the injured Joe Theismann against the New York Giants at RFK.
Schroeder should look better today. He will be facing one of the league's worst defenses, although the Lions did hold the Cowboys to 17 points last week and intercepted Danny White four times. Detroit is ranked 24th in the NFL in total defense, 22nd in pass defense.
On a more positive note, Detroit strong safety James Griffin has five interceptions and is tied for the league lead with Redskins cornerback Barry Wilburn. The Lions' starting free safety is Raphel Cherry, a former Redskins starter who was cut before the 1986 season.
"I have to perform," Schroeder said the other day. "I only have 16 opportunities a year to perform. I have to make the best of them."
Schroeder may have lost his knack for hitting the long pass, but he hasn't lost his confidence. "I know it's all right," he said of his situation, "because I can play again.
"Nobody can explain it. One day you feel like you can throw it in there, the next day, it just doesn't happen that way. Hopefully, it's over and we can go on from here."
If Schroeder does not play well today, will Gibbs go to veteran backup Doug Williams? One school of thought says Williams would come into the game in the second half if Schroeder can't break out of his slump. Another school of thought says "No way." Gibbs sticks with his man, in this case the quarterback, come hell or high passes, so there's no reason to assume there will be a change during the game.
Green must cover wide receiver Pete Mandley, who has caught 30 passes for 380 yards this season, or Jeff Chadwick, who has caught 16 passes for 243 yards. Lions quarterback Chuck Long, the team's "building block," according to Coach Darryl Rogers, is still young and unspectacular, but has completed nearly 60 percent of his passes. Long, however, has thrown more interceptions (seven) than touchdown passes (six). The Lions' passing offense is ranked 14th in the NFL, but their rushing offense is last in the league, averaging only 75 yards per game.
To illustrate how bad this is, the Redskins, No. 2 in the NFL, are rushing for an average of 161 yards per game.
"We haven't held up, period," Rogers said of his team. "We haven't scored enough points. We haven't converted third downs. We haven't stopped people."
Schroeder and Green aren't the only Redskins with something to prove today. Big Ed Simmons, 6 feet 5 and about 305 pounds, is a rookie on the hot spot. He will start at left guard, replacing Raleigh McKenzie, who is replacing injured center Russ Grimm.
The Redskins were very pleased with their offensive line in the two games right after the strike. One of the reasons things were going so well, the coaches said, was that the line was healthy. Now, because of Grimm's injured left knee, two young players (Simmons and McKenzie) are forced into different positions.
For a second consecutive week, Neal Olkewicz will start at middle linebacker. Rich Milot, who sprained his left ankle two weeks ago, is better, but still not quite ready to start. The Redskins expect defensive tackle Dean Hamel to play despite a bruised right knee, which means the enticing prospect of tight end Joe Caravello playing along the defensive line likely will be shelved for this week.
Gibbs said his team has been "spotty" this season, and he is quite right. What he would love to see unfold today is Washington performing just like it did in Buffalo in a 27-7 win two weeks ago. That was the first and only well-played, complete game his veterans (offense, defense and special teams) have had this strike-torn season. Every other game the Redskins have played -- Philadelphia twice, Atlanta and the New York Jets -- has been close or a loss.