If nothing else, the Washington Redskins displayed a propensity for screen passes last season, and a rejuvenated deep passing game was unveiled with two highlight-reel touchdown completions in the second game of 2005. But in the zeal to master those two extremes, the intermediate passing attack has faltered.
The Redskins have been unable to feast upon in the middle of the field. No. 2 wide receiver David Patten, H-back Chris Cooley and tight end Robert Royal can be particularly effective on underneath routes of 15 to 30 yards, but the offense has not capitalized on that yet. The coaches realize that if the Redskins (2-0) are to extend their undefeated start, it will take more balanced and consistent offensive execution, with multiple receivers being involved in big plays and the passing game able to strike in all sectors of the field.
"We have a lot we need to improve on," Coach Joe Gibbs said. "We've got a long ways to go. Certainly, I don't think anybody here feels like we're satisfied with our passing game or our rushing game right now, so I think you try to do a good job of analyzing it. But certainly our work, and what we're concentrating on, are ways to get more production. I would say across the board we need to step it up. I don't think anyone is satisfied with what we're doing."
Flashy wideout Santana Moss has carried the offense thus far. He has nine catches for 255 yards, with a gaudy average of 28.3 yards per catch. He has receptions of 70, 52 and 39 yards and both of Washington's touchdowns. The rest of the team has combined on 25 catches for 211 yards -- an average of 8.44 yards per catch -- and no touchdowns.
The Redskins failed to run a play in the red zone against Dallas and completed only two passes between 15 and 30 yards (James Thrash's grabs of 18 and 20 yards). Against Chicago in Week 1, Washington completed three passes in that range -- one from deposed starting quarterback Patrick Ramsey -- with Moss accounting for two of those catches.
"We did hit a couple of intermediate passes in the Chicago game that David [Patten] caught that didn't count because of penalties," wide receivers coach Stan Hixon said. "And Cooley caught a TD pass that was intermediate, but a penalty took that away, too. It's coming and we're trying to get a mix of everything and we're still trying to get our timing right with the quarterback. We've got to see certain coverages to make certain plays, but it's coming."
Patten has just four catches for 31 yards, and Royal, who emerged as a key end zone threat late last season, has four catches for 30 yards. While their early-season production has been less than expected, it is even more imperative that Cooley become a focal point in the offense again after showing so much promise as a rookie.
Cooley became a primary red zone target in the second half of the season and was Ramsey's go-to receiver. Cooley has yet to develop quite the same feel with Brunell and has caught just five passes, the longest for 23 yards. Cooley's size, speed and athleticism make him difficult to cover, and he is particularly tough on linebackers. The Redskins have lined him up with the wide receivers and sent him in motion, but he has yet to make his presence felt this season.
"It's just a matter of what gets called, that's as far as it goes," Cooley said. "Whatever gets called is what we're going to run, and we haven't called a lot of intermediate stuff like that. That's how it's been so far."
"We need to get the ball to Cooley more," said Joe Bugel, assistant head coach-offense, "because he's a big-play receiver, especially down in the red area. But we haven't spent too much time in that area the last couple of weeks. We'd like to get down there more often, because how many 70- and 80-yard touchdowns are you going to throw each week? We'd like to say two or three, but, yeah, we need to get more people involved, especially Cooley."
The fact that Washington finally showed an ability to get behind the safeties and complete long passes in Week 2's 14-13 win in Dallas certainly bodes well for the future, and could prompt defenses to back off the line of scrimmage and take the downfield options more seriously. Or, Brunell's 70-yard completion to Moss could turn out to be an anomaly, a combination of the right play at the right time but not an overall indication of a more diverse offense (after all, the Redskins failed to get in the end zone for the first 116 minutes of the season).
"We got those [touchdowns] because of the coverage we got," Brunell said. "We were very fortunate to get those two coverages, and the safeties were sitting a little tight and we got behind them. If they're in a different coverage we don't get those."
Brunell said he does not believe the Seahawks will make any significant alterations to their defensive scheme based on those plays and doubts Seattle will double-cover Moss extensively, either. Save for the two scoring passes, he termed the passing offense "pretty sloppy" and is looking for weekly improvement.
Gibbs believes opponents may react differently to the development of a deep game -- "It's just a matter of how they interpret your offense," he said -- but expects it to take more than two long completions to change perceptions about Washington's pedestrian offense.