When wide receiver Santana Moss replayed the snaps of the Washington Redskins' 16-13 loss to Oakland in his mind, he could recall only one instance when the Raiders' defense was not smothering him. He was left in single coverage on Washington's first offensive play in the second half, darted around rookie cornerback Fabian Washington at the line of scrimmage and hauled in a 27-yard reception.
It was Moss's sole significant catch, and accounted for half of his yardage in the game, reflecting a trend in a passing attack that is suddenly limping. For six games, quarterback Mark Brunell and Moss had repeatedly connected for huge plays. However, Washington (5-5) lacked complimentary receivers, and, as defenses have keyed on Moss the past four games, the Redskins have scrambled for ways to rekindle the downfield attack and salvage a season that might be slipping away.
"If you've just got one good receiver," said Joe Bugel, assistant head coach-offense, "he might not catch a pass some weeks because they're going to double him. So we need other guys to step up and make plays."
Merely finding four healthy receivers for Sunday's game against San Diego is a chore, with starter David Patten out for the season after knee surgery and James Thrash (hamstring) likely out at least for this weekend. Jimmy Farris was signed Monday, and the Redskins (now 2-5 after a 3-0 start) worked out several receivers yesterday in hopes of finding someone worthy of being active Sunday, but it is too late to trade for an impact player and the free agent market is rather barren. The days of Moss getting behind the safeties time and again appear to be over, and the Redskins are searching for ways to spread the field again regardless of the person at the other end of the pass.
"It's going to be pretty tough trying to do the things we did in the past," Moss said. "We expect that. Who's going to let that keep happening when you've seen it helped us become successful? Who's going to let that happen? Those guys aren't stupid. This is the NFL here. If you're going to sit there and let somebody give you the Hawaiian Punch -- the guy does it every week, here's the Hawaiian Punch, want it again? -- that ain't going to happen. The only thing you can do is just go with what's open. [Against Oakland] there wasn't really anything open."
Teams now are successfully daring the Redskins to use someone besides Moss to beat them in the passing game. H-back Chris Cooley is one of Brunell's favorite targets, but he, too, drew plenty of attention from Oakland's defense, and, at 250 pounds, is not really a deep threat. The double coverage on Moss should leave others in favorable matchups, but has not. On Sunday, former second-round pick Taylor Jacobs caught three passes for 17 yards, but Thrash and rookie Rich Parson did not have a reception. Jacobs has plenty of speed, but often could not get open.
"I tried my best," Jacobs said. "I looked at the tape and I played hard. I went after everything I could as hard as I could."
"Everyone has to make plays, that's what we're all here to do," Cooley said. "That's what we have to do."
The coaches spent all spring and summer extolling Jacobs's promise, with this expected to be his breakout season, but he was injured again (spraining a toe in the scrimmage Aug. 6 against Baltimore) and was a spare part in this offense before Sunday. His first start was unsuccessful and his future in the organization is seemingly in the balance.
"It's time for him to start playing football," Bugel said.
The disparity between Moss and his counterparts is striking. He has five touchdowns; the rest of the wide receivers have none. Moss has 988 yards; no other wideout has even 220. He has more catches than Patten, Thrash and Jacobs combined, and has accounted for 11 of Washington's 12 pass plays of 30 yards or more.
But those explosive sequences have dried up. Moss had 10 of those catches in the first six games (when Washington was 4-2), and has had just one since (when the Redskins have gone 1-3). "That's at the forefront of our minds -- getting the ball downfield," Brunell said. Teams no longer seem surprised by his slants from the slot or screen passes to him; Moss averaged 124 yards in the first six games, and just 61 per game since. It all began to change in the seventh game, at New York, when the Giants doubled Moss exclusively and always had the safeties deep, guarding against the bomb.
Other clubs have adopted that template -- "They scouted us well," Moss said of Oakland -- and the Redskins have been unable to adjust.
"Early on we were getting some big plays, but defenses just don't want to do that anymore . . . we have to find a way to get [Moss] the ball in some plays and formations," Brunell said. "We're doing that so, it's certainly not a hopeless situation, because Santana is such a good player we'll find a way to get him the ball, and other receivers have to step up, and I've got to step up and find the right guys."