While the Chicago Bears' defense is expected to test the physical mettle of the Washington Redskins' offense today, the stakes of the game are likely to test the mental resolve of the entire team.
The Redskins enter the game tied with Dallas for the lead in the NFC East (each is 4-2). But coming off a 38-20 loss to the Cowboys at Texas Stadium, Coach Norv Turner said this week the challenge today is ensuring the reaction to the defeat doesn't undermine the performance against Chicago at Redskins Stadium.
As guard Tre Johnson puts it: "In the past, we would lose this game because we lost the Cowboys game, and we'd go in a downward spiral. We've got to avoid that. This game becomes that much more important. We can't start any bad habits or bad trends now."
Redskins owner Daniel M. Snyder met with Turner in the training room immediately after last week's loss to underscore the gravity of the situation. The Redskins fell behind, 17-0, before staging a rally that narrowed the deficit to 24-20 but stalled in the fourth quarter.
Still, the Redskins are a far cry better than their 0-7 mark this time a year ago.
Washington boasts the NFL's top-ranked offense. Quarterback Brad Johnson is the league's second-rated passer, with 12 touchdown throws and two interceptions. Running back Stephen Davis leads the NFL in rushing touchdowns (nine) and the NFC in rushing yards (553). And wide receivers Albert Connell and Michael Westbrook--who rank third and sixth, respectively, in the NFC in receiving yards--have caught eight touchdown passes between them.
Moreover, the team has emerged from what should be the toughest part of its schedule with an enviable record. Of the four road games they have played in the past five games, the Redskins have won three.
To build on those winning ways, the Redskins' offense needs to get out to a crisp start against the Bears (3-4). Washington has failed to score in the first quarter of its past four games, though Brad Johnson spurred comeback victories in three of those games (over the New York Jets, Carolina and Arizona).
"We can't start off slow, like we did [against Dallas]," said left tackle Andy Heck, released by the Bears this summer after five seasons in Chicago. "We'll need to come out quickly and get up on those guys. In the past, the Bears have had trouble playing catch-up football."
Neither Turner nor Johnson see a pattern to the Redskins' recent inability to score in the first quarter. Johnson said the team works especially hard on the first 10 to 12 plays in practice each week. "Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn't," Brad Johnson said. "Sometimes the defense makes great plays on you."
Against Arizona, for example, the Redskins' promising opening drive stalled on an interception.
Turner has focused this week on improving the third-down conversion rate (38 percent), reviewing both what the Redskins are doing on third downs and how they're doing it.
Avoiding third-and-long situations would help. Those situations hurt the Redskins against Dallas. "In both Dallas games, we ended up with way too many third and eight-to-12s," Turner said. "If you look at overall league stats, no one is good in those situations."
Brad Johnson has studied the figures. A team that converts 40 percent of its third downs is beating the odds. The Redskins' third-down conversion rate against Dallas was 33 percent. The Bears' defense, through seven games, has allowed its opponents to convert 33.7 percent of third downs.
On third and long, a 25 percent conversion rate is considered beating the odds. And those are the situations the Redskins want to avoid.
Hanging on to the football also will be critical. Chicago has forced more fumbles (13) than any team in the NFL. The Redskins' turnover differential (plus-7) has been a strong suit so far.
And finally, the Redskins' defense, ranked 30th in the league, must carry its share of the load.
For the most part, a healthy starting lineup takes the field today.
The offensive line has remained intact since the second week of the preseason, though Tre Johnson (dislocated finger) and fellow guard Keith Sims (broken thumb) will play with casts under their gloves.
Brad Johnson has been sturdy. The Bears, by contrast, have been hurt by the loss of quarterback Shane Matthews, who is expected to return today after missing two games with a pulled hamstring.
Redskins linebacker Greg Jones will play despite a hernia, with Twan Russell in reserve.
The status of Pro Bowl punter Matt Turk, who broke his thumb in three places last week, won't be decided until this morning. Turner's concern is that the splint that has been fashioned for the surgically repaired middle finger doesn't hamper Turk's ability to handle snaps.
Today's game is the start of a welcome stretch in the Redskins' schedule. Washington plays four of its next five contests at home. Since the former Jack Kent Cooke Stadium opened Sept. 14, 1997, the Redskins are 10-7-1 at the venue. They have won five of their past seven home games and are 1-1 there this season.
"We know what's at stake," Turner said. "We've talked a great deal about what you need to do in this league. The number one thing is: Win at home."