There is little debate in the meeting rooms of Redskins Park about the defensive philosophy Washington's opponent will employ this weekend. Coach Joe Gibbs and his staff fully expect San Diego's league-best run defense to do whatever is possible to thwart Pro Bowl running back Clinton Portis and force Washington into passing downs, gambling that their struggling aerial game will continue to suffer.
The Redskins (5-5) have been unable to generate a downfield thrust the last four games, with top receiver Santana Moss double-teamed extensively, quarterback Mark Brunell often under pressure and becoming turnover prone and Washington scanning the waiver wire this week just to find four healthy wide receivers to dress for tomorrow's game at FedEx Field. Brunell has limited familiarity with the two journeymen receivers added -- Antonio Brown and Jimmy Farris -- and the other receiver, Taylor Jacobs, is under intense pressure to produce and justify his second-round selection in the 2003 draft. If the Redskins are to emerge from their 2-5 funk and defeat an AFC opponent for the first time since September 2003, they just may have to do it through the air.
"You would think that would be their formula," Brunell said of San Diego's likely defensive approach.
The Redskins consider themselves a run-first team, and are 10-0 when running more than they pass in two years under Gibbs, but they have not emphasized the ground game in consecutive defeats to Tampa Bay and Oakland. Portis is in rich form, running for 236 yards and a hefty average of 5.2 per carry, in those losses. Yet, a less-sharp Brunell has attempted 67 passes in that span to just 45 rushes for Portis.
The Chargers have allowed just 78.1 rushing yards per game, meanwhile, and have faced an NFL-low 218 running attempts, frustrating opponents on a weekly basis and forcing them to abandon the ground game, a problem compounded by San Diego's quick-strike offense, which can force teams to play from behind, prompting more passes. And the more teams throw, the better the odds that the Chargers' dominant pass rush gets to the passer.
"I'd say it does look tough for us," Gibbs said. "I think their defense, to me, hustles to the ball as good as anybody I've seen. They hustle to the ball and they're really talented, too, and they're big. We're probably going to have to have some heroes step up."
Nowhere is that more needed than at receiver. Moss has been silenced after a record-setting first six games, and David Patten, the other starter, underwent season-ending knee surgery last week. H-back Mike Sellers, a goal line revelation who leads the team with six touchdowns, and James Thrash, a savvy veteran with a knack for third-down catches, are out with injuries.
"That definitely makes it a little tougher on a quarterback, and it won't be easy without those guys," offensive coordinator Don Breaux said. "David, I know he wanted to do more, but he brought a lot to this team with his work ethic and approach and the kind of person he is. And James Thrash, I challenge anyone, anyone, to say they give more for a team than he does in every snap at practice and in the games."
Jacobs has been largely ineffective in his NFL career, and Farris and Brown are professional vagabonds who were cut in the preseason and after the first game, respectively, and practiced with the team only three times in the last 10 weeks. They have six NFL receptions between them.
"It presents a big challenge," said Joe Bugel, assistant head coach-offense, "but our system is not so complicated in the passing game. If you can count to 10 you can probably play in this system, but you have to be ready and we brought in guys that have been here before."
With Brunell's downfield options evaporating through attrition and tight coverage, his play has suffered. He was among the league's best with a 98.3 rating through six games, with a sparkling 12 touchdowns and just two interceptions, but has five turnovers in four games since. During that span, he has completed just 56 percent of his passes for a 66.3 rating, dangerously close to last year's 63.9 mark, when he faltered and was benched for good in the ninth game. He's had turnovers in four straight games.
"You think back [on recent games] to a degree, and there's a lot of disappointment," Brunell said, "but I don't think you can get overwhelmed with that at this point. You go in with the same thoughts: Don't turn the ball over; if the big plays are there, hit them; and run the ball well. We go into every game with the same mind-set."
Gibbs said the Redskins may have to use their running backs more in the passing game for diversification, and H-back Chris Cooley will bear heavy responsibility, too. With so little receiving depth, he will continue to be used regularly out wide in three-receiver sets, and last week losing Thrash threw many formations into disarray. The injuries could impact various aspects of the offense again this weekend, and the Redskins cannot afford to be turned into a one-dimensional passing team.
"I've known Coach Joe for a long, long time," Chargers Coach Marty Schottenheimer said, "and he's going to find a way to get the ball in Portis's hands and run the football, and he will be persistent in my view in that regard. All of us are going through injuries right now, and the more you look at our game it's a matter of attrition. You look team to team and it's amazing the number of things you've got to jockey around when you get these injuries. They affect everybody. They affect guys who aren't hurt. They affect . . . the player who is injured and have an effect on everybody."