By Mark F. Gray
If there was any reason for the Washington Redskins to be overconfident heading into their matchup with the St. Louis Rams they need only talk with defensive coordinator Jim Haslett. As the interim head coach of the winless Rams in 2008 he led them into FedEx Field and beat them 19-17 after they had won four straight in a game that ultimately cost the Redskins a playoff berth.
With the lingering aftertaste of the horrific fourth quarter collapse still fresh on their palate, the Redskins know better than to take anything for granted this week. However, just because the focus and resolve of the team is not in question under the dictatorial watch of Mike Shanahan doesn’t guarantee anything against the Rams. Even with his commanding presence on the sidelines, Shanahan has to find answers for their glaring weaknesses that were exposed last week.
The Redskins head into St. Louis desperately seeking balance on offense. While Donovan McNabb put up player of the week statistics in the passing game their rush attack remains anemic. Washington ranks last in the NFL in rushing averaging a paltry 53.5 yards per game and only 2.7 yards per carry. The main reason they couldn’t hold their 27-10 second half lead at home against the Texans was because they couldn’t run the football especially in the fourth quarter.
That dilemma has already prompted changes in personnel. Larry Johnson was cut Tuesday giving new meaning to the term off day. The Redskins then summarily promoted rookie Keiland Williams to second team on the depth chart and signed former Indianapolis Colts and Buffalo Bills running back Chad Simpson who gives them flexibility. Simpson, who played college football at nearby Morgan State, was the Colts primary return specialist last year in Super Bowl XLVI.
However, he told the team’s website that he hopes to become one of the unheralded backs who have flourished in Shanahan’s zone blocking scheme which includes the likes of Terrell Davis, Olandis Gary, Mike Bell, and current teammate Clinton Portis. The team claims they might to bring Johnson back next week although Simpson’s return skills mean they could make a deal for another receiver before the trade deadline.
No matter who lines up in the backfield Washington still has to improve their woeful third down conversion percentage. The Redskins are three for 22 on third down through two the first two weeks. That figures to be a challenge to improve against Rams coach Steve Spagnulo who routinely stifled their offense while defensive coordinator with the New York Giants.
Haslett has to find a way to improve a pass defense that ranks 31st in the league giving up over 372.5 yards per game. While the front seven has been key to the NFL’s eighth best rush defense yielding just 80.5 yards per game, their inability to generate a pass rush in the new 3-4 scheme has put the pressure on the secondary that has not been up to the challenge.
With a murderous stretch coming up Sunday’s game at St. Louis is key to trying gain momentum. October’s schedule is frightening as Halloween with the Redskins facing Eagles, Packers, Colts, and Bears in successive weeks. Washington is no stranger to playing down to its competition as they did last year in Detroit. A slip up this week could the beginning of a deep hole them may not be able to get out of this season.
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