The formula for beating the Philadelphia Eagles today should be relatively simple: Stop their running game and pressure a young, inexperienced quarterback into making poor decisions.
For the Washington Redskins, the NFC East matchup looks decidedly in their favor. The game pits the Redskins' struggling defense against an offense in the throes of rebuilding, as rookie quarterback Donovan McNabb, 22, makes his first NFL start. And the Redskins' offense, ranked second in the NFL, stacks up well against a defense that has had reasonable success against the passing game, but has been less effective against the run.
However, the Redskins (5-3) know recent history is not in their favor at Veterans Stadium, one of the NFL's more hostile venues--from its unforgiving artificial turf field to its raucous fans. The Redskins have won just once there during the regular season this decade, a 26-21 victory in 1996.
Today's game against the Eagles (2-7) is an opportunity for them to redress past injustices and poor performances. Most important, the Eagles' offense offers the Redskins' 31st-ranked defense a major opportunity to start rehabilitating its reputation.
McNabb, whose selection as the No. 2 overall pick in April's college draft was jeered by Eagles fans, has played in portions of six games and compiled unimpressive statistics. He has completed 43.1 percent of his passes (22 of 51) and thrown one interception.
But to Redskins Coach Norv Turner, the 6-foot-2, 226-pound McNabb is a player to be feared.
"He can make big plays with his arm, throwing the ball up the field, and he can move around," Turner said. "A guy that has those capabilities--who can keep the ball alive with his feet, and then has a big strong arm and can throw the ball anywhere on the field--he's capable of making a big play at any time."
Far more reliable is Philadelphia running back Duce Staley, the NFC's second-leading rusher, whose totals (172 carries for 742 yards) put him just ahead of Washington's Stephen Davis and just behind the Dallas Cowboys' Emmitt Smith (185 carries for 748 yards, but now injured). But when McNabb takes off running, he can be as tough to bring down as Staley. That means Redskins defenders must do a far better job tackling than they did in last Sunday's 34-17 loss to Buffalo, in which Bills quarterback Doug Flutie and running backs Jonathan Linton and Antowain Smith got hit and wriggled away time and again.
"They had a lot of yards after the initial hit," said defensive end Marco Coleman, who challenged his teammates in the locker room after the loss to play with more intensity. "The first guy would hit him, and the guy was still running. We have to be aggressive from that standpoint."
The key, Turner says, is getting more players in on the tackle.
"When you have good tackling is when you get two or three guys to the ball--not having to tackle one-on-one a great deal," Turner said.
The Redskins' offense should be well rested, if nothing else, having been on the field for just 19 minutes against the Bills. Their inability to sustain drives hurt, and quarterback Brad Johnson wants more consistency, fewer three-plays-and-punt situations and minimal turnovers today.
Philadelphia's secondary is its strength, however, as former Eagles Rodney Peete and Irving Fryar have preached all week.
"They feed off making big plays--creating a lot of problems with blitzes, turnovers and sacks," Peete said.
That means the Redskins' offensive line will have to play one of its better games.
The unit, which has limited opponents to 10 sacks this season, will have its first change in the starting lineup since the preseason. Backup Brad Badger, who started 16 games last season at left guard and left tackle, will replace injured left guard Keith Sims (knee).
"They blitz enough that they're going to make some plays on us," Peete said. "We're going to have some negative plays. We just have to be able to respond."