The spotlight will be on tackle Andy Heck and running back Skip Hicks tonight when the Washington Redskins face the Buffalo Bills in Washington's preseason home opener.
New team owner Daniel M. Snyder has stressed that winning is important, even in the preseason. The Redskins beat New England in their preseason opener a week ago, and certainly seemed to take matters more seriously than the Patriots.
Still, it is only the preseason, and the jockeying for starting jobs and roster spots is at least as important as the outcome. The Redskins must make some decisions soon, and this could be an important night for evaluations as Coach Norv Turner and his assistants prepare to pick starters at left tackle and tailback.
Heck gets his first Redskins start after being moved ahead of Joe Patton on the depth chart at left tackle this week. Hicks starts at tailback a week after Stephen Davis started and ran well with the first-team offense against the Patriots.
Turner said yesterday that it might take the entire preseason to settle the Hicks-Davis battle, but the left tackle competition could be decided sooner.
"With the offensive line, you want to get it set as soon as you can," Turner said following the team's practice at Redskin Park. "But when you do get it set, you want to make sure it's with the best five guys. The running backs, I think, that's going to play out over time. It's easier to sub a running back than a left tackle."
This game will be particularly important for Heck, and he acknowledged that yesterday.
"It's a huge day," he said. "You only have four preseason games, and your starters don't play much in the last one. That's not a lot of time to prove yourself. This is a big test. If you talk about the SATs and your GPA, this is the SATs."
Upgrading an offensive line that surrendered a franchise record 61 sacks last season is a top priority for the Redskins, and the starters are set at the other four positions. Now the Redskins need to find a left tackle to protect quarterback Brad Johnson's blind side.
They thought Heck would be the answer when they signed the veteran as a free agent late in the offseason, but he has struggled at times in training camp. Patton continued to work with the starters until angering Turner by missing a blocking assignment that led to Johnson being sacked on the Redskins' fourth offensive play in New England. Heck was with the starting offense when the Redskins returned to the practice field last weekend.
Patton's play was criticized by Snyder this week, and some club officials say Patton could be cut by the end of training camp. But first, the Redskins must see some good things from Heck, who says he's picking up his new team's offense.
"I feel more comfortable," said Heck, a graduate of W.T. Woodson High. "When I hear the call in the huddle, it's more like second nature to me. I don't have to think about everything. There's still a little ways to go, but I'm getting there. Now I can worry about my techniques instead of what my assignments are."
Hicks rushed for 71 yards against the Patriots after taking over for Davis. Now he must demonstrate to the coaches that he can grind out the tough yards between the tackles as well as break an occasional long run. Turner says he plans to play his starters at least a half tonight. Some starters, he says, might play into the third quarter.
Brett Conway and Cary Blanchard are scheduled to split the place-kicking duties while rookie Jeff Hall watches. The Redskins hope to pare to two kickers soon, and Hall's missed field goal attempt from 23 yards last week put him in a precarious position.
No 1. draft pick Champ Bailey starts at the cornerback spot opposite Darrell Green, and tackle Dan Wilkinson returns to the starting defense after missing the New England game with a sprained ankle.
On offense, Johnson demonstrated last week that he can move the ball with short passes to running backs Larry Centers and Brian Mitchell and tight end Stephen Alexander. But Johnson had only one completion to a wide receiver in 1 1/2 quarters against the Patriots, and the Redskins would love to see starting wideouts Michael Westbrook and Albert Connell get the ball early and often tonight.
"We've made a lot of progress over the last 3 1/2 weeks," Johnson said yesterday. "I feel like we could go out and play a [regular season] game right now and be successful. But we need to take advantage of every rep we have in the preseason. There are going to be days when we light people up, and there are going to be days when we struggle."