Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Hail to the Redskins

In back to back weeks, the Redskins have gone on the road against NFC East rivals, as underdogs, and won in convincing fashion. I got to see most of the Dallas game (power outtage notwithstanding) and all of the Philly game and more than anything, one thing stands out: this team fights hard to win.

After the opening day debacle (thanks schedulers for giving us the Giants, in NY, with a rookie head coach, on the day that the Giants celebrate their Super Bowl victory - really helped us out there), I confess to being fairly pessimistic. But Coach Zorn has turned this around and we have won 4 in a row. We should stretch that winning streak to 7 in a row since our next 3 opponents have a combined record of 1-10 (and the one win coming when the then winless Cleveland defeated the still winless Bengals). Going 7-1 to start the season would essentially guarantee us a playoff spot and would put us in the conversation for home field advantage throughout the playoffs.

That being said, I have several lingering concerns:

1. We seem to start slow. After 1 quarter of play in Philly, we were down 14-0. Never mind that the refs gifted Philly 7 points on a punt return that should have been called back. Those things happen in the NFL and we should never have given up that return in the first place. Teams that are serious about winning a championship don't go down 14-0 under any circumstance. And it looks like to me that we are a slow starting team (albeit that I didn't see the Saints or Zona games).

2. Our defensive philosophy has changed and I'm not yet sold on it. We used to blitz and awful lot. Those blitzes resulted in sacks and pressure on the QB. This year, we're playing more of a "prevent the big play" type of defense. That means less blitzing, more coverage, and more containment. It's worked fairly well. The only big plays that we've really given up in the last 4 games have been as a result of mistakes (with rookie safety Horton responsible for 2 of the most visible errors). And we have more or less shut down the run. But in the process, we are giving opposing QBs too much time. Now this should change a bit once Jason Taylor returns from injury, but I worry that our inability to get pressure is going to bite us down the line.

3. Special teams. We've given up 2 punt returns for TDs. We've got a rookie punter who has, so far, been more erratic than Eli Manning. We've gotta get that fixed and now because as we saw last night with Reggie Bush's 2 punt return TDs, teams that have weaknesses on special teams pay a heavy price.

Like I said above, I love the character of this team. They fight to win and it's working. Prior to last week, the Eagles were the top ranked team against the rush, giving up an average of 53 yards a game. We went for 200 (with Portis racking up 145 by himself). They were also the top sack team. Jason Campbell was only sacked once. And, aside from that first drive, we shut down the Eagles attack (one Field Goal the rest of the way by the offense). These things all speak to the character and resilience of this team. And I think these things are going to take us far. But I still worry, more than anything, about our ability to get to the QB.

Looking ahead, I'm not particularly worried about Dallas and Philly at home. I mean, sure, we could lose those games, but I already know that we can beat those teams on the road and being at home should give us some advantages (you just never know in the NFC East). I'm also not worried about St. Louis, Cleveland, Detroit, Seattle, Cincy, or San Fran. Really, we should beat all 6 of those teams since they're a combined "Not very good" and we're one of the best teams in the league right now.

I'm also not particularly concerned about our matchup against Baltimore. Yeah, they got a great defense, and yeah, we could lose, but it's not a team I really fear since they've got a rookie QB and suspect players at the skill positions (quick, name their top WR). And as Washington Defensive Coordinator Greg Blache said, falling in love with a rookie is like falling in love with a stripper - eventually, you'll get your heart broken. I'm pretty confident that if we scheme appropriately against that offense, we'll come out ahead in the end (like Tennessee).

No, I'm mostly worried about Pittsburgh and NY. Both teams are extremely physical. Both teams get after the quarterback. Both teams have great skill players. And both teams have shown a particular resilience that makes them tough to beat. Both games are in Washington, so that should help, but I don't know how much. That being said, here's a quickie breakdown:

Pittsburgh - Their defense is great. No question about that. But this team goes where the QB leads it and he's been incredibly good this year, even with injuries. Right now, I think Pittsburgh is probably the third best team in the league behind the Giants and Titans (although the Titans QB situation will eventually hurt them). To beat Pittsburgh, even at home, it's going to take a total effort with minimal mistakes. We can get it done, but I'm very concerned about this game.

NY - The Giants, to some surprise, are without a doubt the best team in the league right now. More than anything it's the combination of their bruising running game, their incredibly effective defensive line, and their cupcake schedule. It also looks like Eli Manning signed the same deal with the devil that his brother did because not only did he win a Super Bowl in a somewhat miracle fashion, but inexplicably, defenses are dropping his erratic passes that in previous years would have been intercepted. And, on top of that, they're deep at both WR and RB and are just pounding on teams. We'll learn a lot more about this team when they start their run against Pitt, Dallas, Philly, and Baltimore, but for right now, this is the team I see as most likely to stop the Skins from getting home field advantage in the playoffs (not that I'm getting ahead of myself or anything).

Home field advantage is huge this year because whatever team gets it is going to get an extra week off and then face the weakest remaining team at home. And all things being even, I'd rather face the Bears than the Panthers. (I'm predicting the playoff teams from the NFC will be: NY, Washington, Dallas, Chicago, Carolina, and Arizona.)

So, while we don't want to get ahead of ourselves (we gotta get out there and win), I think that as of right now, Washington has shown itself to be one of the elite teams. That means that we need to get locked in, beat the crap out of the bad teams (would give us a minimum of 10 wins), and be in position to win the division. If we do that, I'm going to consider this a successful season.



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