There are times when NFL teams ride the roller coaster of success and failure to the limit. The same team can look like a world-beater one week and like an ill-prepared college team the next. Few teams in 2011 have embodied that Jeckyl-Hyde mentality more than the Washington Redskins.
The Redskins came out of the gate like gangbusters, winning three of their first four games, including a decisive win against the Giants and the only loss coming late in an 18-16 defeat to Dallas. Despite not having a slew of big-name star players, the Redskins were 3-1 and becoming the topic of discussion among the early surprise teams in the league – along with teams like Detroit, San Francisco and Cincinnati that all came out of the gate strong.
Unlike those other teams, reality caught up with Washington, which lost six straight games to fall to 3-7 and took themselves out of contention. However, the Redskins haven't given up. They've won two of their last four games, going on the road to defeat the Seahawks and the Giants and narrowly losing to the Patriots in a 34-27 shootout. They may be heading to a 10- or 11-loss season, but this is a Redskins team that isn't simply playing out the string.
One of the biggest problems with the Redskins this season hasn't been drawing up X's and O's, it's been keeping players healthy. All season long, the Redskins have been losing key players. Perhaps their best player – safety LaRon Landry – went down early and the list would just continue to grow as the season went on. Landry would be joined by tight end Chris Cooley, running back Tim Hightower, cornerback Phillip Buchanon, defensive lineman Kedric Golston, guard Kory Lichtensteiger and wide receiver Leonard Hankerson. At the time of their injuries, all seven of them were starters. If those key injuries weren't bad enough, the team also lost leading receiver Fred Davis and offensive tackle Trent Williams – both of whom were placed on the reserve/suspended list, bouncing that total to nine.
What remains is a shell of the team that head coach Mike Shanahan anticipated he would have, starting at quarterback. A year ago, Shanahan benched Donovan McNabb, who had just signed a long-term contract extension, in favor of Rex Grossman. While Grossman didn't set the league on fire, he was enough of an improvement that he entered training camp as the frontrunner to start at QB and won the job over youngster John Beck. However, when he had a four-interception game against the Eagles, he was lifted from the starting lineup. But when Beck got sacked 16 times in three games, Grossman was put back in the lineup more for Beck's protection than for Grossman earning his job back. Vikings fans are no strangers to Grossman, who has struggled badly at times. For the season, he has five more interceptions (18) than touchdowns (13) and will throw poor passes if he is pressured. With Jared Allen trying to chase down the league record for sacks, expect the Vikings to be bringing the heat and force "Bad Rex" into the type of play that earned him that nickname.
The running game in any Shanahan offense is known for giving the job to one player and sticking with him until he either gets hurt or plays poorly. Once that running back falls from favor, he isn't heard from again. Hightower started the season on fire, but was knocked out for the season early and was briefly replaced by Ryan Torain. But, as is Shanahan's wont to do, he switched to rookie Roy Helu and he has become the best running threat Shanahan has had since coming to Washington. Despite starting just half of the Redskins games, he leads the team with 635 rushing yards and his 4.3 yards per carry is by far the best among the featured backs this season. Expect to see the Redskins try to pound Helu at the Vikings early, late and in between.
One of the biggest offensive issues the Redskins have is in the receiver corps. A total of 19 different players have caught passes, but only four of them have more than 16 catches. The Redskins are led by veteran Santana Moss, but he is a far cry from the Moss that dominated in previous years. With Fred Davis suspended, the receiver corps is headed up by league retreads Jabar Gaffney and Donte Stallworth. Gaffney is going to end up the team's leading receiver and Stallworth is likely to lead the team in average yards per reception. They have patched together an offense and it has taken a toll as the season has worn on.
Despite losing its emotional leader in Landry, the Redskins have not only maintained their defensive presence, they have improved it as the season has gone along. Washington has the 12th-ranked defense and has an aggressive 3-4 defense led by pass rushers Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan – both have seven or more sacks. In 14 games, they have allowed 21 points or less nine times. The result is that, even when the offense has struggled, the defense has been able to keep the Redskins in games.
Washington has struggled at times against top-end running backs, which could be good news for Adrian Peterson, but it has been able to keep opponents to as many field goals (30) as touchdowns. The defense has proved resilient, but, like the Vikings, has come out on the losing end of close games far too often.
As the Vikings try to end their brutal 2011 season on a positive note, the Redskins look like a team that it beatable. They're not a team that wows you with individual talent, but they're far from being a pushover – just ask the Giants, whom the Redskins swept this year. Because of Washington, New York is now a long shot to make the playoffs.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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