An article in the Nov. 2 Sports section indicated that Denver Broncos running back Tatum Bell scored two touchdowns against the Washington Redskins last month by running left. One of his touchdown runs was to the left side, the other to the right. (Published 11/8/2005)
The New York Giants made no effort to disguise their intentions in Sunday's 36-0 victory over Washington, plowing repeatedly into the right side of the Redskins' defense and coming away with bundles of yardage in a performance that has renewed concerns about Washington's run defense.
During one stretch of his career-best 206-yard outing, running back Tiki Barber took 12 straight runs in that direction -- from early in the first quarter until early in the third quarter -- and amassed 100 yards, including a 59-yard run down the sideline.
"They rushed the football on us," Coach Joe Gibbs said. "We don't like anybody doing that. It kind of has been something that's happened to us a little bit here recently."
With a defense focused on stifling the run, the Redskins led the NFL by allowing only 3.1 yards per carry last season -- about a half-yard better than any other club -- but that figure has swelled to 4.5 yards this season, and Washington ranks 25th overall, allowing 130 yards per game. The Redskins have given up repeated big outside runs to the right side, a problem that only intensified Sunday when Barber opened the game by taking a pitch 57 yards. The Redskins have conceded a run of 34 yards or more in four of the last five games, and in the other, against Kansas City, running back Priest Holmes took a screen pass to his left 60 yards for a touchdown.
"We've got to get this fixed," defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin said. "We have to put the fire out. Every team has got a big play on us every week going back to the Seattle game. It starts today. That's the last one. We can't give up any more big plays like that."
Griffin was forced out of the game on the opening drive when he aggravated a hip flexor injury, and the line has been riddled with injuries in recent weeks, softening the run defense. The Redskins began to make adjustments in the second half Sunday, with weak-side linebacker Warrick Holdman replaced by former Pro Bowler LaVar Arrington in the base formation. Arrington could get his first start in more than a year Sunday night against Philadelphia, another big divisional game.
Regardless of the personnel, the Redskins are looking to return to their fundamental core. Their tackling against the Giants was poor and they took poor angles on the ballcarrier, were caught out of position and unable to adjust when the Giants hammered away at their right side.
For much of the season, New York has favored its right side, putting the tight end there and running to that "strong" side. The Giants lined up the same way Sunday, with the Redskins dropping a safety on the strong side and often blitzing from that direction as New York suspected, then running outside plays to the opposite side with great success. The Giants believed the Redskins were suspect on their right side after watching other teams register big gains to that side.
"We were able to take advantage of their weak-side running game," Giants center Shaun O'Hara said. "It started off with the first play of the game, and we just continued to do that."
"They kept running to that side and did a heck of a job," Redskins middle linebacker Lemar Mashall said. "We couldn't counter it. We couldn't answer it. We couldn't weather the storm. And you see the result."
The Redskins have failed to get enough penetration from the defensive line, and with Griffin and fellow starters Joe Salave'a (foot) and Phillip Daniels (ankle) all having serious injury concerns for Sunday, Washington's depth could be further challenged with inexperienced players such as Ryan Boschetti, Demetric Evans, Cedric Killings and Nic Clemons perhaps called on to assume more significant roles. The Redskins lack natural tackles, moving Evans and end Renaldo Wynn inside at times, whereas last season veteran Brandon Noble worked in a tackle rotation, a big departure. (Noble is out for the season with a knee injury.)
"Somebody's got to line up in a Redskins uniform," defensive coordinator Greg Blache said of his depleted line. "We'll find a new lineup and go fight another battle."
The linebackers have been shuffled from last season as well. With key middle linebacker Antonio Pierce departing for the Giants, Marshall, who excelled replacing an injured Arrington on the weak side in 2004, moved to the middle, with Pro Bowler Marcus Washington on the strong side. But teams have been able to work away from Washington's side this season, taking on Holdman, whom the coaches preferred to Arrington in their scheme. But Holdman was benched in the second half Sunday, leading many to expect Arrington to assume that position against the Eagles (he could also get extensive time as a defensive end, given the injuries).
The defensive slide began five games ago, when Seattle's Shaun Alexander peeled off two big runs to his left in the second half of the third game, with his 34-yard gain the longest allowed to that point. The following game, Denver's Tatum Bell went to his left for touchdown runs of 34 and 55 yards. Holmes (Kansas City) took a screen pass to his left 60 yards for a touchdown, bisecting the defense in the process. San Francisco back Frank Gore sprinted 72 yards to the left for his first NFL touchdown, and Barber was relentless, taking 13 of his 16 first-half carries to that side.
Philadelphia running back Brian Westbrook is cut out of the same mold as Holmes, Bell and Barber, and he, too, excels on quick cutbacks and misdirections, which have given Washington's ultra-aggressive defense fits (the Eagles have the fewest rushing attempts in the NFL, however). Linebackers and safeties have sometimes neglected to fill their gaps or provide adequate run support, or sacrificed the ideal angle to go for a huge hit (as free safety Sean Taylor did Sunday), resulting in additional yardage for the opposition.
"A couple of times we make a mistake by being so aggressive," Gibbs said. "We come up and we probably had a chance to get the guy down, but we try to explode on him and miss a tackle."
Players believe that they must work on something else this week as well.
"There was no enthusiasm" Sunday, Daniels said. "We just seemed like a bunch of guys like a deer in the headlights, a lot of guys just wondering who is going to make the plays instead of going out and making the play. That's how it was to me. Whoever is on the field first is going to set the tone, and we can't let the other team go down the field and get a long run and set the tone early in the game."