September 28, 2008

NFC Contenders? You Betcha!

The Redskins made quite a few believers this week in their upset of Dallas. The media will certainly count the Skins among the top contenders in the NFC if not the NFL after they dominated the ball and large parts of the game Sunday.

The Skins can soak in the glory, but only on Monday because there are still 12 more games to be played and 3-1 start can quickly turn into a disaster. What has brought them this far is consistency and aggressiveness combined with a killer instinct that previous Skins' squads never developed. If the Skins want to continue winning they have to keep that consistency which is easier said than done.

Jim Zorn has kept the Skins focused and collected thus far. After New York, he made the necessary adjustments. After New Orleans, he stuck with what worked and built on the progress against Arizona. Coming into Dallas, he made sure the Skins weren't intimidated and ended up going blow-for-blow with the big D.

And it wasn't just mindless body blows. The shots were direct and square in the mouth. A ball control offense wore down the Cowboys until they didn't know what was coming. An early dose of Campbell gave way to some strong runs by Clinton Portis. An opportunistic defense shut down Marion Barber and made a key interception late in the game.

The Skins went out to keep the ball away from Dallas' offense and they did just that. They held the ball for over 35 minutes and had their way for much of the day with Dallas' secondary.

Zorn's play calling used the pass to set up the run and the scheme seems to fit Washington beautifully. Portis improves as the game wears on while Campbell continues to avoid mistakes.

To beat great teams, turnovers can't happen and the Skins have only one in four games. Campbell has yet to throw a pick while his decision making has been superb. Several times he checked down as his downfield target was covered. Other times he avoided pressure and got the ball downfield to the open man. He hasn't been biting off more than he can chew and Zorn has given him his complete trust.

This trust was something Joe Gibbs never gave Campbell. Whenever there was a positive, Gibbs failed to build on it. Not so with Zorn. The offense can't be this flawless all season, but Zorn has already proven his ability to bounce back. Consistency will be the main thing down the stretch and with Zorn we should see more of it in the offense.

Only time will tell concerning the long-term consistency of the offense, but one thing is for sure: the Skins are damn aggressive. After killing the clock with passing the last two weeks, the Skins threw non-stop en route to four straight scoring drives. Then Zorn unabashedly ran right down the Cowboys throats on the final drive that put them up two scores. No deception, just simple, smashmouth football.

This consistency and aggressiveness give the Skins that killer instinct which have given them three straight wins. They have won these games on their own terms, killing the clock in all three.

This success has been monumental for the Skins and now that they have opened up everyone's eyes, they have to keep on the delivering. Contenders? For now, but let's keep it rolling.

September 16, 2008

Victory Is Sweet But Questions Remain On Offense

With a thrilling 29-24 victory over the New Orleans Saints, the Washington Redskins found the win column and some offensive prowess to boot.

Jason Campbell was impressive throwing for over 300 yards and Santana Moss proved once again how devastating he can be when healthy as caught seven balls for 164 yards including a 67 yard game winning TD catch from Campbell.

Clinton Portis added 96 yards on the ground with two scores, playing in a way he hasn't in quite a while. In fact, the running game really stood out to me for the following reason. The Redskins mixed up the play calling in such a way that it allowed Portis to face less men in the box as the game wore on.

Jim Zorn actually opened the playbook and continually ensured that Campbell would dial up his receivers. This wasn't the case in week one and in many games which Joe Gibbs coached with Campbell. There often has seemed a reluctance on each coach's part to let Campbell get the ball to his playmakers, but yesterday we saw how good Campbell can be when he is given a looser reign.

In week one, Zorn seemed to call the most basic pass plays and the running game was very predictable. If Campbell completed a pass, Zorn seemed to think it would automatically free up Portis.

This week, Zorn kept up a constant passing attack, forcing the Saints to respect Campbell. As the game wore on, Portis began to see fewer men in the box and bigger holes. He ran with speed and power and the hesitation seen in week one was gone.

The offensive line was fairly effective only giving up two sacks while opening up good holes for Portis especially in the second half.

And of course Moss put on a show all day with Campbell. He took advantage of Aaron Glenn's injury in the fourth quarter burning a battered secondary all day. Antwaan Randle El also got in on the action with four catches and Chris Cooley came back from a quiet game with a workhorse-like five catches including a nice first down grab on a second-and-22.

The big issue with the offense is that they failed to put the ball in the endzone in the first half despite five trips into New Orleans' territory. That cannot happen against teams like Dallas and Philadelphia. Those teams are much better equipped on defense so drives can't be wasted.

Overall, it was a phenomenal offensive effort, but the Skins will be playing much tougher defenses in the upcoming weeks so they had better hope their strong second half performance translates into season long success.

I think if Zorn stays aggressive the Skins have a chance to field a good offense. Campbell has always been fairly interception free so the main concern will just be getting the ball early and often to his playmakers so that the running game will open up as the game heads towards the late stages.

The defense also played well as they only gave up 17 points (the other score was courtesy of a horrible Durant Brooks punt). One of the scores came off of a short drive that stemmed from a Randle El fumble on a punt return.

So, in essence, the Skins only gave up two long scoring drives and looked solid for most of the game. The front four applied decent pressure and Jason Taylor notched a sack. The linebackers were their usual steady selves and the secondary improved drastically from week one to week two.

HB Blades filled in for the injured Marcus Washington and had six tackles. He looked very comfortable and I wouldn't be surprised to see him play a lot more in the future.

LaRon Landry played spy on Reggie Bush for a large part of the day and prevented any big plays. He played with more fluidity in his second game back from a sore hamstring.

However, the big star had to have been seventh round rookie Chris Horton who recorded two interceptions and a fumble recovery along with three tackles. Horton had a good nose for the ball and could very well replace Reed Doughty who just appears to be a step behind on so many plays especially through the air.

Lastly, the cover 3 defense used on the touchdown from Brees to Robert Meacham was atrocious. Firstly, Shawn Springs should never be left covering flats when he is the best corner on the team. Secondly, the Skins have been burned often when in zone defense and I don't understand why they even consider using it. They really don't have the athleticism to use it and it takes the linebackers away from the line of scrimmage where they excel. Anyway, I didn't like the call and I impore Greg Blache to can the zone.

The game was a joy to watch. One of my favorite Skins games in a while. I just hope and pray there will be more like it throughout the year.

September 10, 2008

Colston To Miss 4-6 Weeks With A Thumb Injury

The Skins were given a huge break with the announcement that Marques Colston will miss this week's game after undergoing surgery to repair a torn ligament in his left thumb.

This really helps the Skins ailing secondary as they are hoping to see Shawn Springs and Fred Smoot return healthy after suffering minor injuries this past week.

Springs has a bruised calf that forced him to miss last week's game vs. the Giants because he couldn't put weight on it. He is needed back so the Skins can play more man coverage as the season goes on.

Man coverage really frees up Laron Landry as Springs can effectively shut down one half the field with little help so it is important to see him come back soon.

Smoot bruised his hip in the Giants game and will most likely return along with Springs into the lineup against the Saints.

The Saints will now look to the speedy Devery Henderson and newly acquired Jeremy Shockey for more output and they will also most likely activate last year's first rounder Robert Meacham. Meacham is coming off a huge preseason and the Skins would be wise to not overlook him.

On a quick side note, this will mark the return of Mark Brunell to Washington. He was let go in the offseason and is now backing up Drew Brees in New Orleans.

More to come.

Merriman Puzzles Me

Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman came into week one with a torn PCL, a devastating injury that requires months of rehabilitation after a difficult surgery.

Four doctors had advised Merriman, known by the nickname Lights Out, to pack it in and receiver the surgery.

However, Merriman decided to take his tough guy persona to a new level by playing on his gimpy knee last week against Carolina. He ignored the doctors' advice and declared he would be playing for as long as he could.

Well toss that statement out.

After just one game, Merriman realized his foolish mistake and has now decided to end his season.

The questions is: why did Merriman take such a big risk against 4 professional physicians' warnings only to pack it in after such a short time.

I like bravado as much as the next guy, but what Merriman did was beyond foolish. Torn ligaments are no joke, but Merriman decided to treat his like it was just a sprain.

His injury was career-threatening especially if he played on it. I guess that thought didn't bother Merriman as he suited up.

Did he play just so he could tell his kids that he played on virtually one knee? Did he really think he could play through it for a whole season? Or was he simply in denial about the injury?

Whatever the reason, the Bolts' front office needed to assert themselves and ensure that Merriman wouldn't risk his career like he did. Where was Norv Turner in this? All he said after the game was that Shawne "looked very explosive and physical." What a load of garbage, Norv. We all know he wasn't even close to full strength.

I don't understand how the organization allowed Merriman to play in his condition when they had certified doctors on their side. The situation makes no sense and things could have gotten dicey had Merriman further injured himself.

AJ Smith commented saying, "Shawne informed me he did not feel right and thought it best to shut it down." Wow. I just think Smith should have put more pressure on Merriman to not even play in the first place. The team has invested a lot in him as a player and to have him place himself in such a situation puts the team in a bind.

So even though Merriman emerged from Sunday's game in no worse shape, I really felt he should have never considered playing. How did that one game benefit him?

So Shawne, was it really worth it?

September 8, 2008

Ugly Start To The Season

Jim Zorn was certainly joltd back to reality last Thursday as the Giants spoiled his coaching debut, winning 16-7 over the Skins.

The game could have been much worse had the Skins not made some defensive adjustments after the first quarter. They were also helped by a more passive gameplan by the Giants after they built a comfortable lead early on.

Zorn had a whole half to comeback as the defense gave up zero points in the second half and yet the offense failed to score. Four times the Skins were stopped a yard short on third down pass completions and they went 3-13 overall on third down.

When you get in a hole early there is no way you can afford to go through the second half with no urgency, but the Skins did just that. They failed to capitalize on good field position throughout the third quarter. A 25 yard Clinton Portis run failed to bring about a scoring drive and Jason Campbell turned in a listless performance.

However, I see Zorn as being the main problem. Campbell would hit a few receivers and get into a groove only to have Zorn call an ineffective draw. Zorn didn't seem to mix up his plays in the right way whatsoever.

When Campbell hit receivers things looked good. He ran the slant route to perfection with Moss and Randle El. He missed a couple of deep throws, but I didn't think that Zorn called a game that worked in the offense's favor.

The running game was unimaginative and Chris Cooley was only thrown to three times. Countless patterns were run short of the sticks. The tempo, praised by many players to be so upbeat, was rather downtrodden.

The one thing to look at was that Campbell had great success running from the shotgun. He was 10-15 from the gun, but was only 5-12 from under center. Zorn announced to the Washington Post that he would be employing the shotgun more frequently in the future.

Nevertheless, Zorn failed to manage the clock properly late in the game and even though it was his first time out, it's common knowledge that when you are down two scores, you run no huddle. Especially considering Campbell is at his best when playing from the no huddle. In the future, Zorn must get everything under control if he wants to win close games.

The O-line improved as the game went along and aside from the first play from scrimmage, they gave up only one sack. More improvement is needed, but Joe Bugel knows how to make the proper adjustments and I don't see them struggling against a like the Saints have this week.

Defensively, the absence of Shawn Springs was evident as Plaxico Burress torched the Redskins secondary for 10 catches. Springs should be back at full strength and he'll be needed to cover Marques Colston.

The defensive line did not put pressure on Eli Manning consistently although they did notch two sacks. I think as Jason Taylor recovers from his sprained knee, things will improve, but Manning was comfortable in the pocket for most of the game. That's not something that can happen again this week as Drew Brees is a significantly better passer than Manning.

London Fletcher was the star on defense, making 17 tackles while McIntosh and Washington stayed quiet throughout the game.

The defense dropped two picks which really hurt the team's chances. Fred Smoot had one interception, but dropped an easy one at the goal line which led to a Giants field goal. Laron Landry dropped another when Manning was under pressure from a blitz.

Whenever Manning was rushed he made poor decisions and so the Skins really need to look hard at that game tape and say, "wow look what happens when we generate some pressure." They need to keep up that rush every passing down. Not just one out of every ten plays.

So it wasn't a good start at all, but if the Skins just adjust the play calling and allow Campbell more opportunities to get the ball to his playmakers, things could turn aound quickly. Unfortunately I've seen the Skins squander talent far too often and so I'll remain skeptical until I see some change.

September 3, 2008

Let's Get This Party Started

Believe in now. That's what the NFL has been telling every team and fan base this offseason. And it's convinced me.

The Redskins have put together an up and down preseason, but just a glance at their roster doesn't make me think how bad will we be, but how far can we go?

Jason Campbell is the key to the offense and he's kept us in suspense as to how he'll perform this year. When I look at him I see a guy with all the intangibles, but he has yet to gain the confidence needed to lead a team in any situation.

Jim Zorn is doing all he can, but the ball is in Campbell's court. This is his team and he needs to show the NFL world that he is ready to take them on his shoulders.

Anyway without further ado, it's time to break down tomorrow's opener and it couldn't get much closer.

At first glance the Giants have an advantage. They are playing at home and are receiving their Super Bowl banner so the momentum goes to them.

Looking at the matchups, the game gets a little tighter. The Giants are playing without Osi Umenyiora, and Michael Strahan retired so the current defensive ends who are Justin Tuck and Matthias Kiwanuka are a bit of a downgrade. Neither of the latter two players have played without the former two drawing most of the attention from opposing teams' offensive lines.
I like the Skins' chances in the trench battle. Jon Jansen will be replaced by Stephon Heyer who shut down Strahan in a game last year. The rest of the line should settle in nicely against the Giants front four.

This should allow Washington to experience some success in the running game early on. The offensive line will have its best run blocking guard in Randy Thomas and this should get Clinton Portis some quality touches.

If Portis runs well early, the pressure on Campbell should vanish and he can sit in the pocket and pick apart secondary on underneath routes. The Giants don't have the best corners, but Sam Madison really came on at the end of last year while Aaron Ross is a shutdown corner in the making. Corey Webster is weakness the Skins should challenge. Campbell has yet to prove he can throw a consistent deep ball and so it would be wise for him to stick to the quick rhythm throws that really play to his strengths.

The Skins have a good chance to wear down the Giants defense by controlling time of possession and the line of scrimmage, but the defense will need to get the job done.

This is where I see the problems flaring up. Jason Taylor is questionable for the game and if he misses it or plays under 100% the Skins defensive line will also have trouble controlling the line scrimmage.

The Giants have a running back by committee. Brandon Jacobs, Ahmad Bradshaw, and Derrick Ward will all get touches. Ward tore the Skins up last year in week three, rushing for over 100 yards. He is a nifty runner with good vision as oppsoed to the lumbering Jacobs. Jacobs runs upright, but is big enough to push the pile and pick up extra yards. Meanwhile, Bradshaw is the speed demon. He can catch and provides that burst which makes him a threat to score whenever he touches the ball.

I think the Skins will have trouble stopping this trio. They are all so different and that's what makes them so tough to get a bead on. I could see the running game being very successful for the Giants tomorrow night.

As for Eli Manning and his receivers, there will be less success. Manning is lucky to only have to face Andre Carter and possibly an injured Taylor, but he will still be pressured. I think Greg Blache might use a variety of blitzes, sending Reed Doughty from the safety spot and an occasional corner blitz.

These manuevers would be wise to employ as Manning jars easily. Throw his timing off and he can get intop a gamelong funk. Add the fact that Plaxico Burress always seems to drop passes against us and he could have a frustrating day.

I think the Skins linebackers will have a huge impact on the game as they will need to cut off the run plays that make it past the line of scrimmage. Since there will be a substantial number of them, London Fletcher has to plug up the holes and there is no reason to assume he won't.

Special teams is a split decision. John Carney is old, but accurate while Shaun Suisham is coming into own. I call that a draw. Jeff Feagles is unmatched when it comes to downing punts inside the 20 while Durant Brooks sees his first real action. The return game features an up and comer in Dominik Hixon for NY while Rock Cartwright anchors a solid kick return game for the Skins. Advantage Skins. Disappointing punt returner Antwaan Randle El needs to revert back to his Pittsburgh form while RW McQuarters is adequate.

The coaching match-up will be fun to watch as well. Tom Coughlin, so often criticized, is coming off his first Super Bowl win as a coach. He has all the confidence in the world right now and will call a good game.

On the other hand Jim Zorn is calling his first game and we will probably see a few mistakes. He has looked great so far, but this is taking it to another level. Advantage Giants.

The pick: I think the Skins build off success in the running game and control the ball while the Giants will struggle in the passing attack, limiting what they can do offensively. The Ginats will get a big play or two to keep it close, but the Skins won't blow a first half lead this time. Jim Zorn will win his coaching debut 20-14 and the Skins will knock off the defending Super Bowl champs in their own house.

Hey, believe in now!

September 1, 2008

Safety Is The Key

All good things must come to an end. For the Washington Redskins the good came to an end in a big way last Saturday against the Carolina Panthers.

The Skins were trounced by the Panthers 47-3 as they were dominated in every aspect of the game. The Panthers amassed over 400 yards off offense, striking early and often against a suddenly helpless defense.

Jason Campbell was eaten alive by a ferocious pass rush while the defense was carved up by what could be the new premiere two-headed rushing attack of Johnathan Stewart and Deangelo Williams.

The defense began the night solidly with an interception by Kareem Moore and a sack by Jason Taylor. Carlos Rogers also looked fabulous early on in coverage. However, as the defense remained on the field due to offensive futility, things got real ugly real fast.

Safety play left much to be desired. LaRon Landry's hamstring had better be 100% if the defense wants to retain its status as a a top ten unit. I see a good FS (Landry in this case) as being the key to our defense, the X-factor so to speak. When he plays Reed Doughty can play closer to line of scrimmage (where he excels) with far less responsibility when it comes to pass defense. Last night proved that when Landry doesn't play, the secondary can't hold up. The key to defensive dominance seems to be a great FS because the Skins defense has been downright awful when they don't have one (see Dallas last year and Tampa in 2005).

Doughty was exposed as a liability in pass defense just about every time he had a coverage assignment while the defensive line was blown off the ball. The battle in the trenches was agonizing to watch as Carolina had their way with the Skins' front seven.

Gaping holes led to bursts into the secondary for both Panther backs while poor angles by the defensive backs led to touchdowns.

Adding insult to injury, Jason Taylor was injured and could miss the season opener against the Giants. The injury appeared to be much worse than it was, but fortunately, Taylor's flexibility saved him.

On offense, there was a positive in my opinion. Clinton Portis ran very hard. He went all out and showed a burst of steam that I haven't seen in a while. His numbers weren't great, but he had a nice hop in his step. Too bad that was the only good thing for the offense.

Campbell hesitated often and the offensive line gave him no room for that. Pete Kendall was schooled several times by interior linemen; Casey Rabach was dominated on a few draw plays and that cost the skins several downs; Chris Samuels was badly beaten on a bull rush that knocked him into Campbell, forcing a fumble; and finally Jon Jansen continued to perform poorly in pass protection.

The line was to blame for much of the struggle and as Campbell kept getting hit, he started to revert back to some of his old habits. He missed throws, failed to protect the ball, and looked quite overwhelmed.

I know it's just one preseason game and yet it was a shame that I didn't see any fire or confidence from Campbell after the first quarter. As a leader, Jason must be a spark in tough situations. He wasn't last night and hopefully Jim Zorn will drill into him the importance of stepping up to be the guy everyone looks to with the confidence that he will keep them in any game.

All I can take away from this game is that it was preseason and it really doesn't reflect who the Skins are. I expect it to serve as a wakeup call for a team that was still on its honeymoon with Zorn at the helm. If it doesn't then it's gonna be a long season.

QB Surprises

Joe Flacco was named the Ravens starting QB today, one of many surprises in the QB battles going on around the NFL.

Flacco was a 1st round pick out of Delaware and the Ravens were hoping he would be ready to start right away. With the poor performances of Troy Smith and Kyle Boller, Flacco will undergo trial by fire and begin his career as the starter.

The Skins will be playing the Ravens in week 14 and if Flacco is still starting, the defensive could potentially have a field day with the Ravens patchwork O-line.

Elsewhere, Matt Leinart was beaten out by the ageless Kurt Warner, winning the Cardinals QB job. Ken Whisenhunt gave Leinart the shaft, indicating the former Heisman winner might not have a successful future in the NFL.

I was surprised Leinart wasn't given another shot, but Whisenhunt sees his players everyday and knows what they can do and the dedication they have. Clearly, Leinart must have been lacking in some aspect that Whisenhunt wants to see.

Leinart was injured last year, and I don't think he's ever been given the vote of confidence he needs in order to be a good QB. It looks like that might never come with the Cards.

The Skins beat Warner and Arizona last year (Warner was played with a injured elbow). This year they play in week three in the middle of a tough stretch for the Skins. We need to win that game as the Cardinals are having several internal problems and are ripe for the picking. Plus, we haven't lost to them in a while.

Finally, the 49ers declared that JT O'Sullivan is now their starter over former first overall pick Alex Smith. Smith struggled with injuries and poor play since taking the starting job under Mike Nolan. The spread offense system he ran in college left him unprepared for more complex NFL offenses. Sullivan outplayed him the preseason and Nolan and the organization swallowed their pride, going with the best player.

The Skins play the Niners in the last week of regular season play. Recently the Skins have been the dominant team. But this is a new season and we might know something different by it's end.