The euphoria of claiming just their second win of the season is likely to have been short-lived for the Washington Redskins. After all, Week 8 marks the date they make the trip to take on the Denver Broncos.
Most of the focus will be on how the Redskins can possibly stop the prolific Peyton Manning-led offense. That is a problem not helped by serious issues at safety.
Of course, regardless of the quality of the opposition, the Redskins are quickly running out of room for error in the NFC East. They currently trail the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles, although they have played a game less.
|NFC East Standings after Seven Weeks|
|New York Giants||1-6|
Things could look even more congested in the East after Week 8. If Washington can pull off a miracle in Denver, it might be able to move into second place.
It could even capitalize on similarly tough road duty for the division-leading Cowboys.
|NFC East Fixtures For Week 8|
|Dallas Cowboys||at Detroit Lions|
|New York Giants||at Philadelphia Eagles|
Games between the Giants and Eagles are always tough to call, no matter what their respective records are. Big Blue will be buoyed by securing their first win of the campaign in Week 7.
They will also be keen to gain revenge, having already lost to their fiercest rivals in Week 5.
But even if results go their way, the Redskins can only take advantage if they pull off the daunting feat of winning in Denver.
An early look at the injury news shows that both defensive backfields are likely to continue struggling.
If there is one cause for optimism for the Redskins, it might be the state of Denver's 32nd-ranked pass defense. The Broncos secondary would have been hoping the return of ex-Redskins star Champ Bailey would make a difference.
But ESPN's Jeff Legwold reports that Bailey is expected to be out for another week. That is a major boost for Washington, provided at least one wide receiver can step up and find some consistency.
Of course, head coach Mike Shanahan is likely to be more concerned by the state of his own team's secondary. As expected, reckless safety Brandon Meriweather has been suspended by the NFL, following his two helmet-first hits against the Chicago Bears.
The Washington Times' Brian McNally reported the news and also notes how Meriweather has hurt his team at the worst time:
Meriweather’s absence hurts even more given the health of veteran safety Reed Doughty, who sustained a concussion this past weekend against the Chicago Bears. His status for the Denver game is unknown, according to coach Mike Shanahan. Washington, according to a league source, can sign an additional player to take Meriweather’s place on the roster.
Doughty's injury will prove particularly costly. He may not wow anyone athletically, but Doughty is smart and steady, two valuable qualities in any secondary facing Manning.
Safety has been the weakest position on a suspect defense so far this season. Sixth-round pick Bacarri Rambo was benched early on, so the Redskins may have to move slot corner Josh Wilson to safety to compensate.
There is yet more bad news for the defense, as The Washington Post's Mike Jones reports that defensive end Stephen Bowen tore the PCL in his knee against the Bears.
Bowen is a decent pass-rusher, although that has not shown up so far this season. However, his ability to create pressure as a tackle alongside Barry Cofield in nickel packages could have been vital against Manning.
If Bowen is unavailable, Washington will likely turn to Chris Baker to take his place.
Things look a lot more settled at this point on offense. That is good news considering the unit's 45-point performance against Chicago.
The noteworthy development on this side of the ball concerns the team's decision to try to trade tight end Fred Davis. Pro Football Talk broke the story that the Redskins will try to get some value for Davis, following the breakout performance of rookie Jordan Reed:
But NFL.com's Chris Wesseling does not believe Shanahan and general manager Bruce Allen should expect much for Davis:
In a contract season for the third consecutive year, Davis is unlikely to fetch more than a sixth-round draft pick as trade compensation. He's one year removed from Achilles tendon surgery and two years removed from a four-game suspension that put an abrupt end to the best season of his career.
The Redskins would be wise to explore a trade that brings a safety to Washington in exchange.
It should also be noted, though, that despite how far he has fallen down the pecking order, trading Davis is something of a risk.
He is the only tight end on the roster other than Reed who possesses hybrid skills and big-play potential. Reed had his share of injuries at the collegiate level. If nothing else, Davis would be ideal cover.
But keeping an already deep position strong won't be at the top of Shanahan's list of priorities this week.
Before he faces the Broncos, the team he coached to two Super Bowls, for the first time since taking over in Washington, Shanahan will want to fix long-standing issues on special teams and defense.
What Must Improve
What should really scare Redskins fans about seeing their 30th-ranked scoring defense against the league's best offense is how little pressure there was on Bears backup quarterback Josh McCown in Week 7.
Putting Manning under consistent duress is essential to a win for Washington. That is how the Indianapolis Colts managed to stymie the prolific passer at crucial times in their Week 7 upset over the Broncos.
Greg A. Bedard of MMQB.SI.com highlighted one particular example of pressure on Manning as the key to that game. Bedard was referring to the safety forced by Manning's ex-teammate Robert Mathis during the second quarter.
It was created by a bone-jarring hit that clearly left Manning shaken. It was an example of how consistent harassment and punishment in the pocket can negatively affect any quarterback.
Because of the presence of players like Mathis, the NFL's leader in sacks, the Colts were able to rush just four and drop seven into coverage.
That is often a wise strategy against Manning. The Redskins boast the players along their front seven to do the same.
Outside linebackers Brian Orakpo, Ryan Kerrigan and Darryl Tapp can all collapse the edges, while Cofield crushes the pocket from the inside.
That is the theory at least, but it didn't work in practice for most of the game against the Bears. Washington's defense was in fact most effective whenever coordinator Jim Haslett unleashed the blitz.
Haslett used a lot of moving parts before the snap to confuse protections and create overloads. It was only when the Redskins went away from this approach with McCown in the game that the defense began to regress.
But will Haslett really be daring enough to risk similar pressure schemes against Manning? It is a difficult conundrum. If a standard rush doesn't get through, Manning will destroy the feeble secondary.
Yet he is also one of the best in the league at deciphering pressure fronts and identifying where his best matchups will be.
How Haslett decides to bring pressure will be perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this Sunday's game.
With Manning and his host of weapons to contend with, Washington must break its streak of surrendering points on special teams. The Redskins have allowed three straight returns for touchdowns.
The task for the special teams unit will not be easy given the skills of Broncos return sensation Trindon Holliday. The fourth-year pro already has two scoring returns to his credit this season.
He is a major threat on both kickoffs and punts. Special teams coordinator Keith Burns, a former Broncos player under Shanahan, is already under immense pressure thanks to consistently woeful performances from his unit.
But according to ESPN's John Keim, Burns was still encouraged by the showing against the Bears, presumably in spite of Devin Hester's 81-yard punt return for a touchdown:
"[Sunday] was a step in the right direction," Burns said. "Did we play a perfect game? No. But we’re still in search for just that."
And one thing Burns won’t do: alter his approach.
"I came in with my plan and I’m still sticking to my plan," he said. "We’ll see where it goes from there."
Given how things have gone for Burns so far, a "more of the same" endorsement does not provide much encouragement.
However, his group did do a decent job on kickoffs against Chicago. It varied the kicks to force Hester to make a different decision each time. Burns will need a similar plan for Holliday.
There is no doubt that the Redskins will have to be near perfect on both defense and special teams to thwart the Broncos.
As long as these units don't give the game away, a revitalized offense can expose the fragile Denver defense.
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Team rankings via NFL.com.