Washington Sports Solid Balance

Washington's troubles of the preseason don't match its balanced lineup across the offense and defense. The Redskins have a few superstars, but they also don't have many obvious weaknesses. Get the unit-by-unit breakdown and the matchup to watch as the Vikings look to open the regular season on a winning note against a solid Redskins roster.

The last time the Vikings played the Washington Redskins, their playoff lives were on the line in the final week of the 2004 season. The Vikings lost that game, which is probably best remembered for the dust-up that followed when Randy Moss left the field before the clock struck :00, but with a little help from their newfound friends, still managed to make the playoffs that year.

A lot has changed since then. Moss and Daunte Culpepper are gone (along with more than 25 of their teammates at the time) and the Vikings have a much different look coming into this game. But while the stakes are considerably different being the season opener, the questions abound – primarily the status of a pair of star players for the Redskins.

At the center of the questioning is running back Clinton Portis. Clearly the focus of the Washington offense, Portis separated a shoulder making a tackle in the first preseason game and has been shut down ever since. The rumor mill picked up steam that Portis' injury could be more severe than initially let on when the Redskins were part of a three-team trade that sent them Atlanta running back T.J. Duckett. Heading into the game, Portis has been listed as questionable on the injury report, but that doesn't mean that the Vikings are completely out of the woods. When they met in 2004, Portis missed that game with an injury and Ladell Betts took his place and ran 26 times for 118 yards and a touchdown. While the Vikings would prefer not to see Portis, the Redskins won't be a lame duck if he isn't in the lineup.

If the Vikings can limit the running game, they will throw the onus of the offense onto quarterback Mark Brunell, a veteran who, like Brad Johnson, manages a game well and keeps his defense off the field by sustaining drives with short, precision passes. Unlike Johnson, Brunell has looked nothing short of awful in the preseason – as has the entire offense – but he is a veteran who has seen everything the Vikings will throw at him and, until 2005 first-rounder Jason Campbell is ready to go, he's the man in charge of the offense.

In his first successful tenure as Redskins head coach, Joe Gibbs had two components of his offense that remained constant – small, quick Smurf-like receivers and a big offensive front line than can muscle the opposition. He has both this time around, which have been built in different forms. The offensive line is anchored by three former Washington draft picks – left tackle Chris Samuels, left guard Derrick Dockery and right tackle Jon Jansen. All three were Day One draft selections and have been augmented by free agent signees Randy Thomas at guard and center Casey Rabach. The line is very good at run blocking, but the weakest link of the group is Rabach. If the Vikings are to succeed in shutting down the run and pressuring Brunell, it will likely have to come up the middle with Pat Williams and Kevin Williams taking care of Rabach to break down runs and collapse the pocket on passing downs.

While the line is pretty much home grown, the receiver corps is almost all bought and being paid for. The primary receiver in the offense is Santana Moss, who was acquired in a trade with the Jets in 2005 and had a monster season in the new offense. He's joined by Brandon Lloyd, acquired in a trade with the 49ers, and free agent signees Antwaan Randle El and David Patten. All four are dangerous in the open field and harken back to the Fun Bunch of the Redskins glory days. Randle El could be especially dangerous, since he also contributes in the return game and his history as a passer makes him a constant threat to throw the gadget pass. Also in the mix is Chris Cooley, who scored the game-winning touchdown in the 2004 meeting. Cooley is a tight end in name only. He serves more as an H-back and, while he doesn't have the raw numbers of the game's top tight ends like Antonio Gates, Jeremy Shockey or Tony Gonzalez, his touchdown numbers can't be denied. He's a dangerous red zone threat, especially inside the 5-yard line on dumpoff screens, and will have to be accounted for by the Vikings linebackers or he will make a big play or two during the game.

If the Redskins are to return to the playoffs, it won't be because of a steady, grind-it-out offense. Washington made the playoffs on the strength of a top-notch defense that is as strong up front as just about any team in the NFC. Owner Daniel Snyder has shelled out millions in the free agent market to buy one of the best defensive fronts in the league and it may finally pay off this season. In 2004, he bought right tackle Joe Salave'a and Phillip Daniels. He trumped himself this year by adding Cornelius Griffin at the left tackle spot and Andre Carter to play left defensive end. Griffin is one of the better pocket-busters in the league and Carter gives Washington the best pure pass-rush DE that the team has had in years. So deep are the Redskins that former starter Renaldo Wynn is relegated to spot duty. This group will make the improved Vikings offensive line get its first true test and this battle will go a long way to determining who wins the game.

The weakness of the defense is at linebacker, but this isn't a group that gets pushed around. The player to watch in this group is Marcus Washington. While not a household name to casual fans, Washington is to this defense what Ray Lewis is to the Ravens defense. He is relentless on every play and dominates from the strongside linebacker position. In the middle, Lemar Marshall is undersized for the prototype of the position, but he makes up for it with his skill to sift his way through blockers and get to the player with the ball. He can be pushed around in traffic, but he rarely blows an assignment or misses tackles. The biggest question is at weakside linebacker. Warrick Holdman and Rocky McIntosh have split time at the position and, while Holdman has the much better resume at the position, knee injuries have slowed him down considerably and he isn't the destructive force he was with the Bears. With Jeff Posey and Khary Campbell, the team has solid depth, but the Vikings will likely spend much of the night spotting where Washington is and doing their best to avoid him.

The secondary is very solid, but could be missing one of its premier 1-2 punch. Shawn Springs is listed as doubtful with an abdominal strain and could miss the game, which would be huge for the Vikings. He and free safety Sean Taylor are two of the more dominant secondary players in the league and having one of them out will be a big advantage for the Vikings. Second-year corner Carlos Rogers was a part-time starter last year, but is deemed ready to be a full-timer this year. The fortunate thing for the Redskins if Springs can't go, they have Kenny Wright waiting in the wings. Wright, who started every game for the Jaguars last year, became expendable in the free agent market when the Jags signed former Viking Brian Williams to a huge contract. So, even if Springs is shelved, the ‘Skins are still sitting in good shape. The weak link of the secondary is strong safety Adam Archuleta. While capable of the occasional big hit, he was burned so often in St. Louis, the Rams made little attempt to keep him when free agency began and signed Corey Chavous. Look for the Vikings to go into Archuleta's zone often Monday.

Every team was looking to get off on the right foot to start the regular season Sunday and, considering the Vikings' brutal early schedule, this game takes on added importance. Look for the Vikings and Redskins to play a tight-to-the-vest game that, for the most part will be dictated by the defenses, but likely decided by one or two big plays on offense and special teams.

Fred Smoot vs. Santana Moss – There's an old saying that says you can't go home again, but, in the NFL, not only can you go home again, you can haunt your old teammates. Such is the case for Fred Smoot, who returns to Washington where he earned enough of a reputation that the Vikings paid him a big free agent deal to come to Minnesota. But his homecoming may not be a welcome return.

Washington has been rumored to have a plan of attack for the Vikings defense and it includes Smoot at its core. Last season, when the Vikings played Carolina, the Panthers waited to break huddle until the Vikings were set and they locked Steve Smith on Smoot. While the Vikings intended to play Smoot on Smith most of the game, early on the Panthers saw a matchup they could exploit and turned the tables on the Vikings – moving their receivers so Smith would line up with Smoot.

The result was nothing short of brutal. Smith had one of the biggest receiving days in NFL history – catching 11 passes for 201 yards and a touchdown – and beat Smoot so badly that, when he left the game with an injury, some pundits claimed he faked the injury to prevent further embarrassment. While he was legitimately injured, the injury to his psyche was perhaps worse than the physical ailments.

In Santana Moss, the Redskins have a wide receiver with a similar skill set to Smith. While undersized, he's difficult to jam and has the blazing speed that can turn a momentary mistake on a playfake into an 80-yard touchdown catch. Moss was clearly Brunell's favorite big-play target last year and, while he has a much-improved supporting cast this year, he is still the straw that stirs the drink in the pass offense. While Smoot's assignments in the Cover-2 defense will provide more over-the-top help than he had vs. Smith last year, look for the Redskins to come after their former teammate early and often, especially if he's hampered with the bruised ribs that sidelined him last week – making this the Matchup to Watch on Monday night.

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