The Washington Redskins' offensive line is braced for a slugfest Sunday, when the burly Chicago Bears roll into town with one of the most physical defensive fronts in football.
But the Redskins' line may be hampered in the fight because both starting guards will be wearing small casts inside their gloves. Left guard Keith Sims has a broken thumb, and right guard Tre Johnson has a dislocated finger. Lining up across from them will be 600 pounds of defensive tackle in the form of Jim Flanigan and Mike Wells, who helped Chicago hold Tampa Bay without a touchdown last Sunday. Behind a woeful offensive performance, however, the Bears lost, 6-3.
Sims and Johnson practiced this week and are expected to play Sunday, but the Redskins have little depth if their guards' injuries worsen during the game. That's because the Redskins were forced to cut Rod Milstead, who started 11 games at guard last season, when punter Matt Turk broke his finger last week, necessitating the signing of a backup punter. That leaves Brad Badger, who played most of last season at left tackle, as the sole backup guard on the depth chart.
Redskins trainer Bubba Tyer said the injuries, while painful, shouldn't inhibit the guards' play.
Offensive line coach Russ Grimm characterizes it as "more an annoyance than a hindrance." Only half in jest, Grimm sees a silver lining in the setbacks.
"With two guys with casts on, that eliminates two hands for holding [penalties] right there," Grimm said.
With Washington (4-2) tied for first in the NFC East, Sunday's game against the Bears (3-4) may be the biggest test yet for the offensive line. The unit has exceeded expectations, quickly earning the confidence of quarterback Brad Johnson, who has been sacked just eight times, and the gratitude of running back Stephen Davis, whose 553 yards make him the NFC's top rusher.
But the Bears' defense is a handful.
Chicago has recorded 22 sacks, the best in the NFC, with 11 players sharing in the statistic. The Bears' 13 fumble takeaways lead the NFL, and their total of 17 takeaways is second in the league. Chicago is especially stingy in red zone defense, allowing opponents just five touchdowns in 18 attempts inside the 20 (27.8 percent).
"They're a physical front," Grimm said. "It's a blue-collar group that I think prides itself on defense. They play hard, and they fly around the field."
Added left tackle Andy Heck, who spent five seasons with the Bears and faced their defense daily in practice: "They're big, strong guys--blue-collar guys who are going to come with their lunch buckets, ready to play all day."
It's hard to say who draws the most difficult assignment because the Bears present different looks and formations, flip-flopping both the tackles and ends from one play to the next.
The Bears also use eight-man fronts a good bit, bringing up the free safety and strong safety to squelch the run.
"As determined as they are to stop the run," Heck said, "we are determined to run the ball."
Davis has been tenacious this season, rushing for nine touchdowns. He was held to 62 yards in last week's 38-20 loss to Dallas. But Davis carried just 14 times in the game (for a 4.4-yard average) after Washington fell behind 17-0 early.
For the running game to get going against Chicago, nearly the entire offense must get involved, Grimm said.
"Any time you play this style of defense, it takes really everybody," Grimm said. "The wide receivers are going to have to get involved in the blocking and the running game. As an offensive line, if one guy misses a block, you're not going to make any yards. We have to be more consistent."
And running consistently against Chicago is especially hard, according to Coach Norv Turner.
"You can still get your running game going, but they do a good job of stopping you and having no gain," Turner said. "Right now, we've been one of the best teams in average [rushing yardage] per attempt and the fewest number of no-gains. This team could present us more situations where you get nothing and then turn around and get six, because they are able to shut you down at times."
One thing that has helped the offensive line play well this season is continuity. Because the Redskins have been relatively injury-free, Turner has been able to keep his five starting linemen intact for 10 weeks, since the second preseason game.
Last season the Redskins used five combinations on their offensive line. Only center Cory Raymer started all 16 games at the same position.
"That's the biggest plus right now: the continuity factor," Grimm said. "It has been three preseason games, plus six games in the regular season, plus the bye week. You're talking about 10 weeks that particular group has been together."
And it shows in the nice rapport between Sims and Heck on the left side and Johnson and rookie Jon Jansen on the right.
As they prepared for the Bears this week, it was hard to tell that Sims and Johnson had casts on their fingers. They are small, sturdy casts--mainly to protect against further injury--that slip inside their gloves. Johnson doesn't expect the injury to be a factor once the ball is snapped Sunday.
"In practice it's harder because you're thinking about it," Johnson said. "On Sunday, it won't bother me at all."
CAPTION: Andy Heck (64) on incoming Bears' defensive front: "They're big, strong guys--blue-collar guys who are going to come with their lunch buckets." Heck should know: He was a Bear for five years.