Heading into this season, Washington was the talk of the NFC. With coach Joe Gibbs promising to restore the glory of the old Redskins and the acquisition of running back Clinton Portis, the Redskins were hoping to make a run for the NFC title. Instead, Gibbs and his new team have found it difficult to get all the working parts to mesh together and the team has struggled mightily all season, currently facing a 5-10 record. But, with nothing to lose, expect Washington to look to start 2005 out right with its 2004 season finale against the Vikings.
The first mistake the Redskins made this year was pinning their hopes on QB Mark Brunell. While he was a solid quarterback for many years with Jacksonville, the Redskins never scored more than 17 points while he was starting in Washington — digging a hole too deep to get out of. After the season was already lost, former starter Patrick Ramsey got the call to duty and has responded — solidifying his place as the team's starter. But, like Brunell, if pressured up the middle Ramsey will force the issue and will commit turnovers. Expect the Vikings to blitz often to disrupt his timing.
The centerpiece of the offense Clinton Portis, who, like many key defensive players, won't be active for this game. He was frustrating for defenses with the different running schemes the Redskins employ. He led the league in rushing attempts but hasn't been the home-run hitter he was in Denver, although he had opportunity to surpass 1,500 yards for the third straight season before going on injured reserve last week. Without him, backup Ladell Betts would still run it 30 times.
While the Redskins have one of the worst passing totals in the league, they do have the talent. They boast wide receivers Laveranues Coles and Rod Gardner as starters, and veteran James Thrash and youngster Taylor Jacobs as third and fourth receivers. All four have the speed to get deep and will attack the Vikings' vulnerable secondary. A player who has stood out in recent weeks is tight end/H-back Chris Cooley, who has become Ramsey's target of choice in the red zone. If the Vikings can bottle up Betts, it will be up to these guys to make the big plays.
Up front, Gibbs has his new version of the Hogs that he expects to remind NFL observers of his old Super Bowl teams. With veterans Chris Samuels and Ray Brown at tackles, 10-year vet Cory Raymer at center, free-agent signee Randy Thomas at one guard and second-year pro Derrick Dockery at the other guard, the Redskins have a massive front wall that was the hallmark of the Hogs of yesteryear. If given the chance, they can maul an opponent and open up holes for the running game, wearing down a defense as the game goes on.
While the offense for the Redskins has struggled consistently, their defense has been at or near the top of the rankings most of the season. This time, however, they will be without a key linebacker and some talented defensive backs.
The line Redskins fans envisioned before training camp has been greatly altered, with only defensive end Renaldo Wynn playing the entire season as a starter. But, like most good defenses, there is quality depth that has allowed the team to not miss a beat. At tackle, Cornelius Griffin and Joe Salave'a hold down the starting spots, with Jermaine Haley and Brandon Noble working into the line rotation. At end, Demetric Evans has stepped in for injured Phillip Daniels and, while a step down, has filled in admirably.
Injuries have taken a toll at linebacker, nearly erasing the entire 2004 season for LaVar Arrington — one of the best big-play linebackers in the league the previous three seasons. He won't be active for the Vikings game, either, joining other playmakers on the inactive list for the season finale. However, fellow starters Marcus Washington and Antonio Pierce show some promise and are active pursuers who are sure tacklers. They will look to eliminate the intermediate passing zone and will force the Vikings to take chances with the secondary.
The secondary had been a strength, despite the loss of Champ Bailey in the Portis trade. Fred Smoot stepped up in his fourth season after a couple of up-and-down years and has played extremely well in man coverage against a team's top receiver. Like Arrington in the linebacker corps, Smoots is the best defensive back in Washington and, like Arrington, he will also be inactive for the season finale. So will backup Ade Jimoh, leaving the secondary extremely thin. On the other side, nine-year veteran Walt Harris has slowed but still has the prerequisite skills to start for a lot of teams. The Skins play a lot of man defense, but rookie safety Sean Taylor is like a big-hitting cornerback at free safety and strong safety Ryan Clark has produced a steady season. Depth is razor thin, but this front line has carried the Redskins all season.
This will be a matchup of strength vs. strength, but the injury losses the Redskins have sustained will put more pressure on the coaching staff to make do with lesser talent. With the Vikings needing a win to build momentum into the playoffs, they can't afford to take Washington lightly.
E.J. HENDERSON vs. LADELL BETTS — If anything this season, the Joe Gibbs-led Redskins have been predictable. When they made the blockbuster trade to get Clinton Portis in exchange for Champ Bailey and a premium draft pick, Gibbs made it clear that he wanted a game-changing running back. While getting mixed reviews this year, Portis was the main man in this offense. Without him, the Redskins will still likely stick with their run-first, run-often philosophy with Ladell Betts, and containing him will be the job of E.J. Henderson.
The Redskins don't have an offensive line that draws comparisons to the Hogs of Gibbs' vintage collection, but they are a strong unit that maintains the same essential blocking schemes. The goal is not trickery or misdirection, it's putting a man on a man and opening holes for Portis to run through. Because of the lack of a consistent passing game, the Redskins have been struggling to break big plays — teams can stack eight in the box when they don't respect the quarterback. Yet, Portis was a workhorse all season. Betts will likely carry that torch in Week 17.
The duty of stopping Betts from carrying 30 times for 150 yards will fall on Henderson. While the Redskins occasionally will call a "student body sweep," more times than not they run between the tackles. It will be Henderson's responsibility to make the immediate reads, shoot the gaps in the blocking and stuff Betts at the line of scrimmage — setting up second-and-long and third-and-long situations.
The extent to which the Vikings can force Washington into unmanageable third-and-long situations will be the telling statistic of the game. Teams that have done that successfully have beaten the Redskins. The only certainty coming into the game is that the Redskins may need to keep their thin defense off the field. The job of the Vikings will be to make them rethink that position after the first 10 Betts runs — ideally for about 20 yards.
Redskins Personnel Thinned By Injury
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