Sure, quarterback Mark Brunell is playing surprisingly well. Sure, adding a healthy Jon Jansen (except for his thumbs) and Casey Rabach up front helps. Sure, playing in Joe Gibbs' scheme for a second year has raised all the returnees' comfort level.
But the biggest reason why Washington's offense is so much better this
season than last heading into Sunday's game at Denver is the smallest piece:
wide receiver Santana Moss, who's listed at 5-foot-10 and 190 pounds.
A year after their passing offense had all the punch of Nationals banjo-hitting shortstop Cristian Guzman, the 3-0 Redskins are giddy about their new toy.
"Playmakers are the guys that find a way to get open and make that great
catch," Brunell said. "They get the ball in their hands and do something with it. We're fortunate to have one. Everyone in the NFL is talented, but there are guys who go above and beyond."
Here's how Moss, acquired from the New York Jets in March for Laveranues Coles - whose chronically ailing toe had turned him into a possession receiver - has gone above and beyond for the Redskins.
Chicago, Sept. 11: Four catches, 87 yards, four first downs, three on third downs, including a 52-yarder, longer than any Washington pass play in 2004. Redskins win 9-7.
Dallas, Sept. 19: Five catches, career-high 159 yards, four first downs, two on third downs, one on fourth down, including a 41-yarder and touchdowns of 39 and 70 yards just 71 seconds apart in the final 3:46 to stun the Cowboys 14-13.
Seattle, Oct. 2: Six catches, 96 yards, six first downs, five on third down, including a 30-yarder that helped set up the field goal that beat the Seahawks 20-17 in overtime.
All told, that's 15 catches, 342 yards, 14 first downs, 11 on third or fourth down, two touchdowns and five of at least 30 yards (the Redskins had nine such completions all last season). So Moss is on pace for 80 catches (a Washington wideout has reached that figure just six times), a team-record 1,824 yards and 11 touchdowns (one shy of the mark).
"You win by making those plays in critical situations," Moss said. "Especially during overtime, I said to myself, 'It's third down.' I knew we needed a big play."
From a little man.
Tied 5-5 including Redskins' 42-10 victory in Super Bowl XXII. Home team lost last meetings in 2001 and 1998 with Denver edging Washington 38-31 in 1995 with WR Rod Smith outleaping Darrell Green for his first career TD catch on a Hail Mary from John Elway.
Biggest game was the Super Bowl in which Redskins recovered from 10-0 deficit to score 35 points in the second quarter behind MVP Doug Williams' 4 TDs and record-setting performances from RB Timmy Smith and WR Ricky Sanders.
--The Redskins committed 17 penalties in their first two games, but after their bye week, they were flagged just twice against Seattle, both times for delay of game (once on offense and once on special teams, making Nick Novak re-kick the winning field goal.
"Last year we had five penalties before (the bye) and 10 penalties after," coach Joe Gibbs recalled. "There's a normal tendency to be sloppy after having a week off, but we put an emphasis on it (last week).
--The Redskins are 0-3 in the turnover battle, but 3-0 in the win-loss column, a fact which Brunell doesn't believe can last. Washington's minus-4 turnover ratio in three games (minus 1.3 per-game) is better only than those of Baltimore, Green Bay, Houston and Minnesota, who are a combined 2-12.
"We've been fortunate in that we've turned the ball over, yet we're finding ways to win," said Brunell, whose off-target pass for running back Clinton Portis last Sunday was picked off by Kelly Herndon in the last minutes of regulation setting up Josh Brown's potential game-winning field goal. "(Denver's defense) is one of the best defenses we'll face this year, if not the best. If we turn the ball over against these guys, we'll lose the game."
--After allowing just five touchdown drives of 80 or more yards in 2004, the Redskins allowed touchdown marches 85 and 91 yards in the last quarter and a half of regulation against Seattle.
"You definitely have to take your hat off to Seattle, but we made some big mistakes as well," defensive end Renaldo Wynn said. "This is the type of offense that if you make a mistake, they're going to take advantage of it. It was all us. But we got out of there with the victory and we have the opportunity to fix those mistakes and make sure they don't happen again."
--The Redskins were an unreal 13-of-18 on third down against the Seahawks, but Brunell -- 11-for-14 for 138 yards in those situations -- isn't counting on a repeat.
"We've talked a lot about the third-and-long situations that we've been able to overcome," Brunell said. "The idea now is not get into those situations (because) the chances are that you're going to convert those. We have to be more productive on first and second downs."
BY THE NUMBERS:
3-0 vs. 3-1. Washington at Denver is the only game this weekend featuring two winning teams.
QUOTE TO NOTE:
"It's his first home. Clinton definitely has a bunch of friends (on the Broncos, to whom) he wants to say, 'We're better than you guys. You definitely let a really good running back get out of here."
- Redskins LB Marcus Washington on RB Clinton Portis' return to Denver.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--K John Hall pulled a quadriceps on a kickoff in the third quarter of
the Sept. 11 opener against Chicago. Hall has kicked some field goals the
last two weeks but has yet to attempt a kickoff. With rookie Nick Novak
filling in nicely, there's no move to rush Hall -- hurt five times the past
two seasons - onto the field before he's fully healed even if it means
carrying two kickers.
--CB Walt Harris, who strained his left calf in practice on Sept. 22,
remained out on Wednesday. Rookie Carlos Rogers started in Harris' place
against Seattle and will continue to do until the veteran returns.
--SS Pierson Prioleau practiced on Wednesday for the first time since
straining a hamstring on the opening drive in Dallas on Sept. 19.
Considering that the defense allowed those two long scoring drives without
him, Prioleau could move right back into the lineup ahead of replacement
Ryan Clark and former starter Matt Bowen.
--FS Sean Taylor missed the fourth quarter against Seattle with a sore
shoulder, but he took some practice on Wednesday and should be ready for
Denver. If he's not, Ryan Clark or Matt Bowen could get the nod, although
veteran S Omar Stoutmire could also be a factor.
--RT Jon Jansen continues to wear casts on his broken thumbs. The left
thumb, broken in practice on Sept. 5, is healing well enough that Jansen
might have it less protected against the Broncos than the right one which he
broke in the Sept. 11 season opener against Chicago.
After giving up those two long drives to the Seahawks, the Redskins are
focused on not allowing the Broncos to give a repeat performance with their
efficient ground game and QB Jake Plummer's adeptness on bootlegs.
Offensively, Washington knows that Denver will be ready for former
Broncos RB Clinton Portis so look for coach Joe Gibbs to try to exploit that
by trying to give Mark Brunell time to find WR Santana Moss deep or H-back
Chris Cooley underneath against an ailing Denver secondary.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
Redskins RB Clinton Portis vs. Broncos MLB Al Wilson -
Portis gained more than 1,500 yards in each of his two seasons because of
his superior cutback ability running behind the quick offensive line. Former
teammate Wilson, who's quicker than most middle backers, was the focal point
of a run defense that held Jacksonville to a franchise-low 12 rushing yards
Redskins WR Santana Moss vs. Broncos CB Champ Bailey -
Moss followed his NFC Offensive Player of the Week honors for his two
late TD catches in Dallas by catching six passes (all of first downs) for 87
yards against Seattle. Moss' big-play ability is a good match for the
athleticism and ball savvy of former Redskin Bailey, who should return from
an ailing hamstring that forced him to the sideline last week for the first
time in his seven-year career.
Redskins CB Shawn Springs vs. Broncos WR Rod Smith -
The renewal of an old AFC West rivalry from Springs' Seattle days. The
heady Smith racked up three straight huge games against the Seahawks in 1997
and 1998 before the matchup turned and the talented Springs took command
through their last meeting in 2002. At 35, Smith is no longer a deep threat,
but he has 26 catches and remains the Broncos' go-to receiver. At 30,
Springs is still on top of his game.
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