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Tuesday Take: NFC East all shook up

Oct 14, 2008, 10:45 AM EDT

Just when the “experts” think they know everything, it turns out that they didn’t know nearly as much as they thought they did.

–Redskins on a roll and the winless Rams have no chance? The turnover bug bites Washington and St. Louis steals a 19-17 win.

–The Cowboys are a lock for the Super Bowl? Dallas loses two out of three and they have an injury list that’s filled with Pro Bowlers and future Pro Bowlers (of course, since in the eyes of the experts, every Cowboy is one or the other that’s not as dramatic as it sounds). Terrell Owens isn’t injured but his ego may be about to suffer a series of severe bruises as the weak-armed Brad Johnson takes over for the injured Tony Romo at quarterback. Neither of Owens’ strengths, the deep out and the long bomb, are throws that Johnson can execute well.

–The Giants are the best in the business? Coming to a conclusion like that based largely on their performance in their last three games against opponents that are a combined 2-14 is dangerous. All it took was Eli Manning deciding that it was a good idea to throw off of his back foot a few times and New York gets spanked in Cleveland.

–Philly is out of it after two division losses? All it takes is the Niners and J. T. O’Sullivan to blow a fourth-quarter lead (go figure) and the Eagles are back in the thick of it.

Back to the main topic of discussion here, the Redskins, I wasn’t buying the talk of 7-1 being a lock. Certainly, I didn’t think that they would stumble against the Rams but I figured that there would be a loss, a tough win, and an easy win during that three-game “automatic win” stretch.

It remains to be seen if the Rams game becomes one that alters that line of thinking, or, for that matter, alters the season.

I don’t believe that it will. As one commenter here said, the Redskins will lose every game during which an offensive lineman catches a first-down pass in the Red Zone, starts to run with it, fumbles, and sees the miscue returned for a touchdown. The loss wasn’t a complete fluke and the Skins didn’t play particularly well but if that one play you’ve never seen before and probably never will see again doesn’t happen the Redskins probably win.

The most encouraging aspect of the game was that Jim Zorn did not abandon the run despite the fact that the Skins did not take a second-half snap with the lead. At halftime, they had 17 rushing attempts. Two of them were Jason
Campbell scrambles, so 15 running plays were called. In the second half, Zorn called 14 runs. After the Rams booted a field goal to go up by nine late in the third quarter, five out of the next six plays were runs. Six of their nine plays in the drive that put them into the lead were running plays.

That’s establishing an identity and sticking with the game plan. An offensive line that opens holes despite the fact that it doesn’t often blow the other team back and an MVP candidate in Clinton Portis at running back makes it relatively easy to do that. Still, Redskins coaches past and many other play callers around the league would have been pitchin’ ‘n’ catchin’ virtually the whole second half.

And Zorn and the Redskins might send out a signal today that they intend to keep intact this team’s identity as a running team that can burn you through the air when necessary. With Ladell Betts out for at least one game, maybe more, Washington is bringing Shaun Alexander in for a look. Actually, it’s probably more than a look as all indications are that Alexander will sign if he passes a physical. Since he passed an exit physical right before Seattle released him in April, there’s no reason to believe that he won’t come on board.

Zorn views the six or seven carries a game that Betts has been getting as critical. They want to keep Portis in the mid-twenties in terms of carries so if they want to rush the ball 35 times a game someone has to be productive in those other carries. It doesn’t look like Zorn wants Rock Cartwright to handle those carries so he’s bringing in someone with whom he is well familiar from Seattle.

The most likely candidate to get his walking papers should Alexander get added to the roster is Justin Hamilton, a reserve safety who has been inactive the last three games or ever since Kareem Moore has been healthy. Rookie defensive end Rob Jackson also could get cut and demoted to the practice squad given that he’s one of 10 defensive linemen on the 53-man roster.

It’s times like this when Jim Zorn’s “stay medium” philosophy pays off. Things are topsy-turvy all around the NFC East. If the Redskins can stay calm in the midst of all of this, they have a good shot at coming out on top in the end.

  1. Boss Hog - Oct 14, 2008 at 6:22 PM

    Good points. Here are two other issues on a busy day: 1) the punting situation. It would be hard to overstate how bad Durant Brooks has been. According to the stat-heads at Football Outsiders, we’ve had the 29th best special teams in the league up to this point… Given Rock’s solidity on kickoffs and Suisham’s improvement on FGs, I wonder how much of that is down to Brooks’s abysmal boots (and our difficulty covering those boots). If Plackemeier, the new guy, can even be a league average punter, he will make our team significantly better overnight.

    2) I’ve got a question for you, Rich: I take your point about the team’s “identity” as a rushing offense — especially in the last three games — but I wonder how much of that has to do with Jansen being in the game instead of Heyer. I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but it seems to me that we’ve been much more committed to the run (and much more effective doing it) with Jansen, and the same with the pass with Heyer (JC’s 300+ game vs. NO, etc). If Heyer comes back and starts at some point, and I believe he will, I wonder if we’ll start seeing slightly fewer runs and a few more downfield passes (after that strip-sack yesterday Zorn may be nervous letting JC sit in the pocket waiting for a guy to break free deep)… Could we put one guy in for runs and the other in for passes? Heyer in on 3rd and long at least? I dunno.

  2. Rich Tandler - Oct 15, 2008 at 6:29 AM

    It could be, Boss. Heyer was in for the Giants game, one in which the team had no identity. They passed 36 times against the Saints. He was in and out vs. Arizona and there were 31 passes. Then 31, 30, and 26 since he’s been out.

    The situational substitution would be interesting. They do it at virtually every other position, why not OL? Archives

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