Keys to the game: Offense facing tough test

The records may not indicate it, but Sunday's Packers game at Washington features a clash of two of the best teams in the NFL. Green Bay's offensive team against Washington's defensive team.

Washington's defense ranks first in the NFL with 234.2 yards allowed per game. Beyond that, Washington is first against the run (86.7 per game), first in yards allowed per rush (3.1), first in rushing touchdowns allowed (two), first in yards allowed per play (4.1), first in third-down defense (23.5 percent) and first in fourth-down defense (0-for-4).

Washington falls off in the other categories. Barely. Washington stands third against the pass (147.5 per game), second in touchdown passes allowed (four) and seventh in sacks (16).

"This is going to be like a heavyweight championship fight," Redskins defensive coordinator Greg Blache, a former Packers assistant, said. "There's going to be two big contenders going after each other. Who's the last man standing?"

Clearly, Green Bay's piping-hot offense, ranked second in the NFL behind only Minnesota's juggernaut, faces a stern challenge. There are some reasons for hope, though.

First, the Redskins will be without game-changing linebacker LaVar Arrington. Rookie first-round pick Sean Taylor will be on the inactive list after a drunken-driving arrest. Two other starters, defensive end Phillip Daniels and linebacker Michael Barrow, are doubtful.

Second, Washington hasn't exactly played Indianapolis Colts-caliber offenses. In order of the schedule, Washington allowed 16 points in beating Tampa Bay, 20 points in losing to the Giants, 21 points in losing to Dallas, 17 points in losing to Cleveland, 17 points in losing to Baltimore and 10 points in beating Chicago.

The common theme is none of those six teams is exactly an offensive powerhouse. The Giants are a more-than-respectable ninth in total offense. The Cowboys, who showed nothing last week in getting pummeled at Lambeau Field, somehow rank 10th. After that? Washington ranks 27th. Tampa Bay stands 24th. Cleveland checks in at 21st. Baltimore is a next-to-last 31st. Chicago, finally, ranks 29th and played its backup quarterback.

Here are the rest of this week's five keys to victory.

2. BATTLING BRUNELL

As good as Washington's defense has played is as bad as the offense has been. The chief problem has been quarterback Mark Brunell, who is dead last in the NFL in completion percentage at 51.2. In a league in which 60 percent is the desire number, Washington's offense will not improve without Brunell getting on the same page with his wide receivers.

He could get the chance against Green Bay's injury-riddled, 19th-ranked pass defense. Rookie first-round pick Ahmad Carroll already is starting. Third-round pick Joey Thomas may wind up playing for ailing starter Al Harris, though Harris likely will get the start. Backup safety Bhawoh Jue seems set to start for safety Darren Sharper.

3. IMPEACH CLINTON

The man who stirs Washington's offensive drink is running back Clinton Portis. With the passing game's struggles, defenses have stacked the line of scrimmage to keep Portis under wraps.

The strategy has been a success. Portis ranks eighth in the NFL in rushing with 593 yards despite leading this league with 153 rushes. That figure comes despite playing six games while about half of the league has played seven. His 3.9 yards per rush is the worst of the league's top 20 runners.

Until the last two weeks, Green Bay's run defense was downright horrible. Against Detroit and Dallas, however, the Packers have allowed a total of 99 rushing yards. Then again, neither the Lions nor the Cowboys had a runner of Portis' caliber.

4. THIRD DOWNS

Green Bay has been unconscious on third down this season. They lead the NFL with a 51.6 conversion rate, but an out-of-this world 63 percent in the last two games.

"It's one of those things where guys are stepping up and making plays," said left guard Mike Wahle. "We've always been pretty good the last couple years on third down. We're always confident that we can make something happen."

Washington's third-down defense has been equally impressive, allowing just 19 first downs on 81 third-down snaps.

"I'm really proud of our defense," Redskins coach Joe Gibbs said. "They're going to need to play well Sunday because, as I've told our defense, (the Packers offense) is the most physical and one of the best offenses I've seen. They probably do the best job of rushing the football of anyone, and they're very explosive, too. It's going to be a huge challenge."

The team that controls third down will be the team that controls the direction of the game.

5. PACKERS CORNERS VS. REDSKINS DBS

One reason why Washington's pass defense has been so superb is because of the cornerbacks, Fred Smoot and Shawn Springs. Smoot, a first-round pick in 2001, and Springs, a first-round pick in 1997 and free-agent signing from Seattle, have more than made up for the loss of Champ Bailey, who was sent to Denver in the Portis trade.

Smoot and Springs will have their hands full against Green Bay's Javon Walker and Donald Driver. Walker is fourth in the NFC with 41 receptions and the NFL leader with 726 receiving yards. Driver has bounced back from a subpar 2003 campaign with 40 catches, good for fifth in the conference. He had just 52 catches all of last season.

"They've got great cornerbacks, but we've got great receivers," Driver said. "It's going to be a battle out there. We've faced some great corners all year and have stepped up to the challenge. I think we'll step up as well Sunday."


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