USAToday: Inside Slant

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USAToday: Inside Slant

Postby ANT7088 » Sat Sep 02, 2006 12:20 am

Joe Gibbs shouldn't care that his Redskins are winless in the preseason after three weeks. However, the Hall of Fame coach has to be worried that his starters have been outscored 44-0 and have been getting worse by the week.

"What it comes down to is that our players have to say to themselves, just as I have to say to myself: What can I do to help the football team?" Gibbs said the day after the Redskins were drubbed 41-0 at New England in the usually most indicative third preseason game. "'Am I where I was last year — conditioning-wise, playing-wise, mentally — at this time?'"

Last year at this time, the Redskins were 1-2 in preseason but coming off a victory over eventual Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh. Washington went on to a 10-6 season and made the playoffs for the first time in six years.

But these Redskins are leaving observers wondering if this is yet another Washington team — (remember the signings of Deion Sanders and Bruce Smith in 2000, the arrival of the Steve Spurrier in 2002 and the return of Gibbs in 2004?) — that's all hype, no results.

Star running back Clinton Portis, No. 1 cornerback Shawn Springs, top defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin and sacks leader Phillip Daniels are all hurt. New receivers Brandon Lloyd and Antwaan Randle El have combined for five catches in the supposedly recharged offense of new associate head coach Al Saunders. New defensive end Andre Carter has been a non-factor and new safety Adam Archuleta has spent most of his time chasing ball-carriers down from behind.

Mark Brunell is the second-lowest rated quarterback among the NFL's 32 starters and backups Todd Collins and Jason Campbell haven't played well either. Special teams has had one of its two field-goal attempts blocked, allowed a kickoff return touchdown and has the third-worst net punting average. Needless to say, August in Washington wasn't pretty.

Even the defense that dominated the past two years has allowed the most points, the second-most rushing yards and the fourth-most yards in the NFL this preseason.

"You don't like some of those things that go on, but in those things are correctable errors," said assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams, whose starters gave up 13 plays of at least 10 yards (three of 35 yards or more) to the Patriots. "It's never as bad as it seems. It's never as good as it seems."

The offense has generated the fewest points, second-fewest rushing yards, third-fewest first downs and fifth-fewest yards.

"We can't get too bent out of shape about it," Randle El said. "I'm not sure (that) we haven't clicked because we've made some plays. It's one (missed) block here, one dropped pass here, one overthrow here. It's the preseason. We'll get it going when the time is right."

Perhaps. Randle El played on a Steelers team whose starters didn't reach the end zone last summer but went on to win the Super Bowl. And Gibbs has won Super Bowls after 0-4 (1982) and 1-3 (1991) preseasons.

"We've been in messes before and we understand how to get out of them," said Gibbs, whose team won its last five games of 2005 to go from near-elimination to NFC wild card. "When you go through tough times, it's always interesting to see how you get out of it."

The good news is that the injured starters should all be back by mid-September at the latest, that second-round linebacker Rocky McIntosh should be starting soon enough, that Saunders has shown virtually none of his complex offense and most important, that no one remembers the preseason if the regular season turns out differently.

"I would rather go through it now than go through it later," Pro Bowl receiver Santana Moss said.


COACHING: Joe Gibbs, 15th year, 15th with Redskins (157-82).

REMEMBERING: 2005 record: 10-6 (2nd in NFC East); lost in divisional round game at Seahawks, 20-10.

PREDICTING: 2006 regular season record 10-6 (2nd in NFC Central); lose in NFC divisional round game.

NOTES, QUOTES

— Running backs coach Earnest Byner isn't worried that his players didn't give happy talk answers the day of the trade with Atlanta for big back T.J. Duckett on Aug. 23. Quite the opposite.

"If they didn't care, if they weren't shocked, then we have the wrong type of people," Byner said. "You can understand how the guys feel. We had started to get somewhat of a (rotation) going. They had gotten their minds set on some of the things they wanted to achieve. There's nothing wrong with that. If they don't, then we have the wrong type of guys."

Although Duckett practiced for the first time on Aug. 24, he was given the ball four times just two days later at New England.

"I can't say it's going to be an easy battle," Duckett said. "It's going to be hard (catching up). I'm going to have to learn and I'm going to make some mistakes. But I'm out here working to get better."

Ladell Betts, who figures to drop from the No. 2 back to No. 3 when starter Clinton Portis returns from a partially dislocated left shoulder and Duckett becomes fully acclimated, even gave the new man some pointers in practice.

"T.J. jumped right in the huddle in the walkthrough, started slapping fives and broke the ice," Byner said. "He's going to fit right in. The reality is these guys will take T.J. in. They will do some things to try to help him and they'll compete."

— Offensive line coach Joe Bugel is raving again about left guard Derrick Dockery, who lost weight during the offseason.

"Losing those 25 pounds, he's got his balance, he's not on the ground and he runs a lot quicker," he said. "It was a blessing in disguise. He worked out in Atlanta with some different things and got himself into tip-top shape. He's the real deal right now."

Dockery took boxing lessons to improve his technique and Bugel has noticed the difference.

"The hands are the most important thing," Bugel said. "If you've got strong hands, you can block."

— Cedric Killings played regularly as an undrafted rookie in San Francisco in 2000 but had to wait five more years before really contributing to an NFL team again, last season in Washington. Fellow defensive tackle Ryan Boschetti wasn't drafted either, but he carved out a niche the last two years with the Redskins.

Killings and Boschetti's value to the Redskins only increased when starting defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin sprained his right knee in the first quarter of the Aug. 19 preseason home opener against the New York Jets. Griffin has yet to return to contact drills.

In any event, it was a bit of a surprise when the Redskins used two of their first four picks in April's draft on defensive tackles. Not that either Killings, 28, or Boschetti, 23, were flustered.

"It's a part of the business," Killings said. "Teams are always bringing in players. You can never feel secure. The minute you do that, that's when you stop working hard trying to get better. I don't worry about what I can't control. I can only control the way I play."

Assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams liked the way the 6-foot-2, 290-pound Killings played "very stout at the point of attack" in the preseason opener at Cincinnati.

"Cedric has very active hands and Ryan has a motor that doesn't stop," starting tackle Joe Salave'a said. "Those are things that are hard to coach. They may not be the prettiest guys out there, but they get the job done."

Boschetti has welcomed fifth-rounder Anthony Montgomery — who made his preseason debut after sitting out last week with an ailing hamstring — and sixth-rounder Kedric Golston to the unit.

"Our line is a cohesive unit," said the 6-4, 295-pound Boschetti. "The more guys they bring in the better because the bigger our family is. We play hard. We practice hard. We help each other every day and we let it fall where it may. I hope all of us get to stay here. I'm glad I don't have to make the decision who won't."

Griffin, Salave'a and veteran ends Andre Carter, Phillip Daniels and Renaldo Wynn are locks. Swingman Demetric Evans, who started 10 games the past two years, should also make it. That leaves Killings and Boschetti battling Montgomery, Golston, little-used end Nic Clemons and undrafted rookies Joe Sykes and Vaka Manupana for two or three spots.

"Everyone understands that this is a 'what have you done for me lately?' kind of business," said Salave'a, who was out of the NFL in 2002 after playing four seasons for Tennessee. "There are no hard feelings. We just have to get the best possible players out there."

— The Redskins might be one major injury away from disaster on the offensive line. The second unit of tackles Tyson Walter and Jon Alston, guards Ike Ndukwe and Jasper Harvey and center Mike Pucillo bombed against the Bengals before playing better against the Jets with Spencer Folau replacing Alston. Pucillo was the only one to play an NFL snap in 2005. Walter has started just once since 2002. Folau was out of the league, Ndukwe was on Washington's practice squad and Harvey is a rookie free agent.

"I almost turned my back on them and threw up," Bugel said of the Cincinnati outing that came 13 days before the backups allowed four sacks in 21 drop backs at New England. "Tyson, Mike and Ike did a nice job, but our young guys didn't realize the speed of the game. (The Bengals) had their regulars in there, they were all lathered up and it was here they come, 'Boom. Boom. Boom.' There were some jailbreaks there."

The Redskins suffered through a similar situation last year with 43-year-old Ray Brown, who retired after the season, as their only reliable reserve at guard and tackle. Backup center Cory Raymer, who was lamentably pressed into service at right guard in the season-ending playoff loss at Seattle following injuries to starter Randy Thomas and Brown, was cut in February.

The signings of Walter and Pucillo on Mar. 24, the maturation of 2004 draft choice Jim Molinaro and the selection of guard Kili Lefotu in the seventh round this April were supposed to have fixed the problems. However, Walter struggled at right guard in the Aug. 5 scrimmage against Baltimore and Molinaro had a knee scoped on Aug. 7, two days before Lefotu was hospitalized after losing consciousness. Molinaro returned on Aug. 28.

But if veteran tackle Folau, signed on Aug. 14 after being out of the NFL last year, can still play, the Redskins might survive. Folau, 33, has started at every position except center during eight seasons with Baltimore, Miami and New Orleans. He sat out last year after being cut by the Saints while recovering from surgery on his right shoulder. He had a second operation in October.

BY THE NUMBERS: 6 — The Redskins can take heart from history. Gibbs' teams are usually better off not winning in August. The Redskins followed all six of Gibbs' previous .500 or worse preseasons with a postseason appearance, including Super Bowl titles in 1982, 1987 and 1991. Washington made the playoffs just three times following Gibbs' eight winning preseasons. So if history holds, the team that looks so shaky in August will be playing in January.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "This is a reality check. We've got to get it fixed quick. It'll be an uphill battle. We had a good, tough week of practice. I thought we were ready to play. It's kind of shocking. Even if we are vanilla ... when we run the ball inside, we should be able to get four yards. We need to stop believing what we read in the newspapers and just play ball." — Center Casey Rabach after the Redskins were crushed 41-0 by the Patriots on Aug. 26.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

In the wake of an 0-3 start punctuated by a 41-0 loss at New England on Aug. 26, the Washington Redskins didn't bother waiting until the Aug. 29 deadline to cut 12 players and get to the NFL maximum roster size. The Redskins did the deed a day early.

Tight end Robert Johnson, who got into one game last year, was the only one of the 12 who had played for Washington. The Redskins followed Johnson's three previous employers in deciding that injuries trumped the potential of his 6-foot-6, 278-pound body. Johnson missed the preseason opener at Cincinnati after spraining an ankle in the Aug. 5 scrimmage with Baltimore and missed the Patriots game after re-injuring the ankle against the New York Jets on Aug. 19.

Safety Antuan Edwards, who had played on four teams during the previous seven seasons before signing with Washington on Aug. 16, was also cut, as was former Chicago and Atlanta defensive end Karon Riley.

Seventh-round draft choice Kevin Simon, a linebacker from Tennessee who never returned after injuring a hamstring against the Ravens, headed the list of nine players without regular season experience who were released. Also waived were former practice squad linemen Jon Alston and Jim Jones, quarterback Casey Bramlet, kicker Tyler Jones, punter David Lonie, defensive tackle Chris Mineo, tight end Calen Powell and cornerback Aric Williams.

The moves left the Redskins with 76 players (French linebacker Phillip Gardent is exempt as he's guaranteed a practice squad spot). Washington needs to reach the regular season limit of 53 on Saturday. Eight young players can then join Gardent on the practice squad.

The release of Riley was somewhat surprising considering he had two sacks against the Bengals and because fellow ends Phillip Daniels, Renaldo Wynn and Demetric Evans were all absent. However, at 256 pounds, Riley couldn't hold up against 300-plus pound blockers.

With young punter Derrick Frost struggling, the Redskins signed former Minnesota punter Eddie Johnson on Aug. 29, only to cut him the same day. Not that Frost's job is safe yet.

"The ball's in my court," said Frost, still plagued by the inconsistency that troubled him last year. "I just need to play well. If I do, I'll be here. If I don't, I probably won't."

The Redskins also signed veteran safety Vernon Fox on Aug. 29, cutting former CFL running back Jesse Lumsden and cornerback Dimitri Patterson to make room for the ex-Lion and Eddie Johnson.

Fox, Detroit's special teams captain last year, was cut on Aug. 26 by new coach Rod Marinelli. The four-year veteran will compete with Curry Burns and rookie Reed Doughty for a job or two behind Adam Archuleta, Sean Taylor and Pierson Prioleau.

PLAYER TO WATCH: Undrafted rookie Buck Ortega came to camp best known for being a high school and college (Miami) teammate of star safety Sean Taylor.

However, after making a team-best 44-yard catch at Cincinnati and adding a 30-yard touchdown on a pass from Todd Collins against the Jets, Ortega seemingly at least played himself onto the practice squad. All told, Ortega had five catches for 85 yards in the first three preseason games.

What's holding Ortega back is his lack of weight. He's generously listed as carrying 227 pounds on his 6-4 frame.

"I'm eating everything I see, everything and anything," Ortega said.

"Buck is a feisty little guy who just keeps fighting," Rennie Simmons said. "He's got all the instincts and he'll give you great effort. He just needs to be more physical. He has trouble putting weight on and he's losing a lot of weight every day in practice."

Unlike Hurricanes predecessors Jeremy Shockey and Kellen Winslow, Jr. who were all-Americans and first-round draft choices, Ortega didn't lose many defenders at Miami, catching just 14 passes.

But his hands and speed are obviously good enough. If he could only get bigger and stronger.


DRAFT PICKS TO STICK:

Rd. 2/35, LB Rocky McIntosh, Miami — Washington's only first-day selection hasn't disappointed. McIntosh is a solid tackler. He'll push veteran Warrick Holdman for playing time on the weak side.

Rd. 5/153, DT Anthony Montgomery, Minnesota — Big man (6-5, 305) missed the preseason opener with a tender hamstring but had four tackles and a pass defensed the next game. He's got a chance to stick.

Rd. 6/173, S Reed Doughty, Northern Colorado — The coaches love his attitude and smarts, but the Division I-AA is still raw in coverage. If Doughty makes the roster, it will be on special teams.

Rd. 6/196, DT Kedric Golston, Georgia — The Redskins have a fondness for defensive linemen from Georgia (Daniels, Evans, Clemons), but Golston and Montgomery won't both be on the active roster.


UNIT-BY-UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACK: Starter - Mark Brunell. Backups - Jason Campbell, Todd Collins.

Brunell, so dreadful in 2004 that he forced coach Joe Gibbs to bench him in Week 9, was equally as terrific in the first half of 2005. Brunell's two late touchdown bombs to receiver Santana Moss in Week 2 ended Washington's drought in Dallas, Gibbs' jinx against Bill Parcells and jump-started the Redskins' season. However, Brunell endured a rocky second half and seven awful quarters in the playoffs. When his legs aren't right, neither is his arm. Can he have a strong full season at 36? (He missed two August practices with minor pulls and didn't play well in preseason). Collins, who knows Saunders' system cold from five years with the Chiefs, is insurance in case 2005 first-rounder Campbell shows that he isn't quite ready to be the heir apparent. Both Collins and Campbell struggled more often than not in preseason.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters - Clinton Portis, Mike Sellers (FB). Backups - T. Duckett, Ladell Betts, Rock Cartwright and possibly Nehemiah Broughton (FB) or Manuel White (FB).

After a disappointing Washington debut in 2004, Portis kept the media guessing each Thursday as to who he would dress up pretending to be. Then on game days, Portis kept defenses guessing whether he would attack them inside or outside en route to a Redskins-record 1,516 rushing yards. Portis partially dislocated his left shoulder making a tackle in the Aug. 13 preseason opener at Cincinnati and might not be ready for the Sept. 11 opener with Minnesota. Portis' injury prompted the Aug. 23 acquisition of Duckett from the Falcons. Duckett figures to usurp Betts as the prime backup and the 278-pound Sellers as the short-yardage and goal-line specialist. Sellers had a magical year at tight end, scoring eight touchdowns on just 13 touches. Cartwright surprised the Rams for 118 yards last December and is a special teams leader. The equally undersized Broughton had virtually no impact as a rookie. White, a fourth-rounder, looked like a bust before breaking his leg last August. Both are in serious danger of getting cut.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter - Chris Cooley. Backups - Christian Fauria and possibly Buck Ortega.

Playing the H-back in Gibbs's scheme in 2005, Cooley set a Redskins tight end record with 71 catches in just his second season and added seven touchdowns. He could do even better in Saunders' system (see Gonzalez, Tony). Veteran Fauria, late of New England, is the new blocking tight end, replacing the departed Robert Royal. If the Redskins keep a third tight end, it will be undrafted and undersized rookie Ortega, who had a 44-yarder and a 30-yard TD among his five preseason catches.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Santana Moss, Brandon Lloyd. Backups - Antwaan Randle El, David Patten, James Thrash.

Moss, who wound up in Washington only because Laveranues Coles Coles demanded a trade to the New York Jets in March 2005, was a revelation with a Redskins-record 1,483 yards on 84 catches (nine touchdowns). Moss was even more impressive considering the lack of production from Patten and the rest of the wideouts, something that the shifty Randle El, a free agent from Pittsburgh, and the acrobatic Lloyd, acquired from San Francisco, should fix. Lloyd figures to start opposite Moss with Randle El playing regularly as a jack of all trades. Thrash should make the team because he plays well on teams and is a Gibbs guy. The Redskins aren't inclined to give up yet on 2005 free agent signee Patten, 32, even though he's now the fourth or fifth receiver and doesn't play special teams.

OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters — LT Chris Samuels, LG Derrick Dockery, C Casey Rabach, RG Randy Thomas, RT Jon Jansen. Backups - Mike Pucillo (C), Tyson Walter (T-G), Jim Molinaro (T), Spencer Folau (T), Ike Ndukwe (G).

The athletic Samuels made his third Pro Bowl despite spraining a knee at midseason and worked with a nutritionist this offseason to get quicker. The ferocious Jansen returned from missing all of 2004 with a torn Achilles' tendon and played most of the season with at least one broken thumb that required another surgery after the playoffs. Thomas was having a career year before breaking a leg in December. Dockery, a third-rounder in 2003, and Rabach, signed from Baltimore in March 2005, are not up to the rest of the line's standards. Former Bill and Brown filled in for Rabach (leg gash) in minicamp in lieu of released veteran Cory Raymer. Ex-Bill and Brown Pucillo replaces Raymer. Ex-Cowboy Walter became the top backup tackle when Molinaro (who has since returned) had knee surgery on Aug. 9. Molinaro's absence also prompted the signing of journeyman Folau, who was out of the NFL last year. Practice squad holdover Ndukwe could win a job.

DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters — LE Phillip Daniels, DT Cornelius Griffin, NT Joe Salave'a, RE Andre Carter. Backups - DE Renaldo Wynn, DE-DT Demetric Evans, NT Cedric Killings, DE-DT Ryan Boschetti and possibly DT Anthony Montgomery or NT Kedric Golston.

Griffin's second Redskins season wasn't as terrific as his first, but he remains a force inside against the run and the pass. He's a master at tackles behind the line. He sprained a knee on Aug. 19 against the New York Jets and missed the final two preseason games. Salave'a is a space-eater. Daniels, who's moving from right end to the left side, bounced back from an injury-plagued 2004 to lead the team with eight sacks at 32 but missed the final three preseason games with a sprained back. Newcomer Carter had 12-1/2 sacks in 2002 for the 49ers but hasn't produced more than six in a season since. The Redskins expect him to have a big impact on their pass rush in his desire to live up to his big contract. Former starting left end Wynn (who missed the preseason finale with a sprained ankle) is an unsung versatile player, as is Evans. in position coach Greg Blache's rotation. Killings backs up Salave'a. Overachiever Boschetti is trying to fend off inconsistent draft choices Montgomery and Golston.

LINEBACKERS: Starters - WLB Warrick Holdman, MLB Lemar Marshall, SLB Marcus Washington. Backups - WLB Rocky McIntosh, MLB Khary Campbell, SLB Jeff Posey or MLB Robert McCune.

Washington is a high-energy, do-it-all team leader on the strong side who should have made a second straight Pro Bowl in 2005. Marshall filled in nicely for the injured LaVar Arrington in 2004 and shifted seamlessly into the middle in place of the departed Antonio Pierce in 2005, leading the team in tackles. Holdman, a disappointment while starting the first seven games, will start ahead of second-rounder McIntosh to fill the void left by Arrington's release. Campbell is the most experienced backup and he is mostly a special-teamer, having not started since 2002 when he was with the Jets. Posey, signed on Aug. 14, started in 2003 for assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams in Buffalo and the past two years for cornerbacks coach Jerry Gray, then the Bills' defensive coordinator. Posey's two penalties at New England on Aug. 26 didn't enhance his chances but McCune's odds were even worse after he missed the last two games. The Army vet hasn't put his great physique to good use in Washington.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - LCB Carlos Rogers, RCB Shawn Springs, SS Adam Archuleta, FS Sean Taylor. Backups - CB Kenny Wright, S Pierson Prioleau, CB Ade Jimoh, S Vernon Fox or S Reed Doughty or S Curry Burns, CB Mike Rumph or CB Julian Battle or CB Christian Morton.

Springs remains a respected No. 1 corner at 31 but could miss the start of the season following abdominal surgery on Aug. 15. Rogers, Washington's first choice in the 2005 draft, showed flashes of brilliance as a rookie. Wright, a starter for Jacksonville in 2005, should replace the released Walt Harris as the No. 3 corner. Taylor is the Redskins' best athlete and a feared hitter who can't seem to stay out of trouble on and off the field. Archuleta is a fanatical worker who's more athletic and a harder hitter than predecessor Ryan Clark. The heady Prioleau plays in dime packages. Jimoh, who made the team in 2003 and 2004 because of his special teams prowess, played well on defense in 2005. The loss of Springs and Jimoh's absence for a week with an injured sternum prompted the acquisition of oft-injured former first-rounder Rumph from the 49ers for bust receiver Taylor Jacobs and the signing of Battle off waivers from the Chiefs. Sixth-rounder Doughty, an overachiever who needs to work on his coverage skills, could steal a roster spot although the Aug. 29 signing of former Lions special teams ace Fox made that less likely. Burns (zero career games) and Morton (seven) are long shots.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Starters: K John Hall, P Derrick Frost, LS Ethan Albright, PR Randle El, KR Betts, KR Thrash.

Randle El, who averaged 9.5 yards and scored four times on punt returns in Pittsburgh, should help raise the return units to the stellar level of the coverage teams. Betts took a kickoff to the house last year. Thrash no longer has the speed to be a big weapon on returns. Hall missed 13 of the past 27 games with muscle pulls which he believes offseason surgery finally cured. He had a bad scrimmage on Aug. 5 against Baltimore (1-for-3) and is just 1-of-2 (the miss was blocked) in preseason. Frost was helped by many fortunate bounces in his Washington debut. He beat out his competition in camp, but the Redskins are still actively looking to replace him after a rocky preseason. Albright is a sterling snapper.



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