The morning after the Washington Redskins' 33-17 loss at Detroit Dec. 5, Brad Johnson had more than a quarterback's usual aches and pains. He had a sore throat, too, from screaming all afternoon above the din of the Pontiac Silverdome. Johnson was sacked five times, and his long day was made more onerous by a season-high 14 penalties that cost his team 122 yards.
The Redskins hope to avoid such glitches Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts. But they'll be faced with the same underlying problem--the deafening noise of an indoor stadium filled with hostile fans--at Indianapolis's RCA Dome, where the Colts (11-2) have lost just once this season.
"I'm quite sure it'll be about the same, if not louder," said defensive end Marco Coleman. "There's nowhere for those screams and yells to go, so it's going to be right on top of us."
Against Detroit, the Redskins' offense committed 12 of the team's 14 penalties, including four for holding and four false starts. Most were a direct result of linemen being unable to hear Johnson's snap count and jumping too soon, or getting caught out of position--and, as a result, overcompensating with desperate moves that drew flags.
As they prepared this week for the Colts, the Redskins didn't bother repeating their experiment of two weeks ago, in which the offense practiced in an indoor gymnasium with a crowd-noise tape blaring the background.
"It didn't help. It didn't make a difference," guard Tre Johnson said.
Instead, Coach Norv Turner stressed tuning out distractions and cutting out mistakes.
"We were in a dome 10 days ago," Turner said. "The guys understand what we're talking about. It's a problem for the visiting team in the dome. We're going to do everything we can to make it as little a problem as possible."
For a visiting team, the noise in a domed stadium is especially disruptive to the offense.
Offensive linemen, particularly the tackles, who are farthest from the quarterback, have trouble hearing the count. It was so loud in Detroit that center Cory Raymer, just inches away from Johnson, could make out only snippets of his cadence at times.
In such situations, linemen don't even try to listen. Instead, they watch Raymer's head movement to know when the ball is snapped.
Explained Tre Johnson: "Out of my peripheral vision, I see Cory. Hopefully, out of [right tackle] Jon's [Jansen] peripheral vision, he can see my hand. And we can all move and hopefully get off the ball in time to make the proper adjustment for each play."
But like a childhood game of "telephone," the message often gets garbled as it's passed down the line.
Passing plays are especially difficult.
Because each lineman must watch the ball to know when to move, he can't also keep an eye on the defensive lineman he's assigned to block. And in the split-second it takes for him to cut his eyes from the ball to the defender, that defensive lineman lunges forward--especially when he knows it's a passing play.
"He gets a jump on you," said Tre Johnson. "If you're still in your stance, and he goes--he's got a bee-line to the quarterback."
That's largely how Detroit managed to sack Johnson five times.
Unable to hear, linemen invariably get set back on their heels in domes. There are no ways to finesse it; they simply have to work twice as hard to hold their ground.
"I think you've just got to be prepared to be a little late, a little behind off the ball and then fight your [behind] off to get back in position to make the blocks you can make," Tre Johnson said. "It's like going against a bigger, stronger man. You've got to make whatever technical adjustments you need to get the job done."
In reviewing the game film, tackle Andy Heck noticed one such glitch in his technique during that awkward split-second between watching the ball and watching his opponent.
"When I was going from watching the ball and shifting my focus out to my defensive end, I had a tendency to set out too far and open myself up to an inside move," Heck said. He vowed not to make that mistake Sunday.
One way for the Redskins to combat crowd noise would be by running the ball. That's the best way to control the clock and keep opponents off the field. Against Detroit, the Redskins all but abandoned their running game after falling behind 20-10 in the first half. Afterward, some questioned the tactic.
"If we run the ball more, that means we're doing things in the game that would tend to take a crowd out of it: We're having success in the run. We're not behind in the points because we're able to stick with the run," Heck said.
Added Raymer: "Offensively, what you've got to do is go out and score points and shut the crowd up. That's the best way to deal with it."
But ultimately, there's no foolproof solution for overcoming indoor stadium noise.
As a former quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings, who play at the Metrodome, Brad Johnson knows the advantages of playing indoors. But he's quick to add that the RCA Dome alone doesn't explain why the Colts have gone from 3-13 last season to 11-2 this season.
"The reason why they're good is: They have good players," Johnson said. "The dome is definitely an advantage, but that's not why they're winning games."
CAPTION: Tackle Andy Heck, right, says the noisy Silverdome affected how he played: "I had a tendency to set out too far and open myself up to an inside move."