For the Washington Redskins, all thoughts are turning toward the offseason and the futures of key players and coaches. That is certainly understandable given the team's 3-9 record, but there is still the small matter of four more regular-season games.
The first of those exercises in "playing for pride" is a home game against the suddenly slumping Kansas City Chiefs. Their visit will see the return of old NFC East foe Andy Reid.
The ex-Philadelphia Eagles boss has done an exceptional job rebuilding a roster that produced a 2-14 finish in 2012. Much of that success had been built on a stingy defense, but that opportunistic unit has been exposed in recent weeks.
For the Redskins to do the same, they will need to adapt to a potentially lengthy list of injuries, including two key playmakers on offense.
The Washington offense certainly missed tight end Jordan Reed and fullback Darrel Young in Week 13. Reed is a big part of the passing game, posing a legitimate big-play threat at every level of a defense.
Veterans Logan Paulsen and Fred Davis failed to match his impact against the New York Giants.
The normally prolific ground game suffered without Young and his expertise as a lead-blocker and short-yardage ball-carrier. Running backs Alfred Morris and Roy Helu Jr. combined for just 32 yards in his absence.
Unfortunately, both Young and Reed remain doubtful for Week 14. ESPN's John Keim states Reed will undergo concussion protocol again before Sunday, while Young is being monitored as he recovers from a hamstring injury.
The 24-17 loss to the Giants also saw three defensive starters suffer injury. Keim notes that inside linebacker London Fletcher, cornerback DeAngelo Hall and safety Reed Doughty are all doubtful at this point.
Fletcher is suffering from a sprained ankle, and Hall has a sore hip, while Doughty succumbed to his second concussion this season. All three would be major losses for an already struggling unit.
Many may contend Fletcher is something of a spent force, but he remains the leader of this defense. Hall is the only thing close to a credible cover man in an abysmal secondary.
While Doughty has his problems, his veteran experience is the best the Redskins can hope for from their safety position.
There are a pair of equally significant injury concerns for the Chiefs ahead of Week 14. The first involves left tackle Branden Albert.
He would be a major loss considering the current form of Redskins rush linebacker Brian Orakpo. He has 5.5 sacks in his last four games and dominated the left side of the Giants' O-line last week.
Covitz also offers an intriguing update on the status of Kansas City pass-rusher Justin Houston. The star outside linebacker is aiming to play Sunday, according to Reid, but that appears optimistic at the moment.
Houston missed the game against the Broncos with an elbow injury. He is a key part of the Chiefs' ability to create pressure, having registered 11 sacks this season.
But even without the 24-year-old, the Kansas City defense has the pass-rushers to give a suspect Washington offensive line fits.
What Must Improve
If head coach Mike Shanahan hopes to see improvement from quarterback Robert Griffin III, he must solidify the pass protection. The Washington O-line has exposed Griffin to a heavy beating in the last four weeks, as CSN Washington's Rich Tandler has highlighted:
They have allowed a whopping 19 sacks, at least four in each game.
If the issues could be narrowed down to one area they might be relatively simple to solve. But the sacks have been coming from all over the opposing defenses’ fronts.
Among the players getting multiple sacks in the last four games are Vikings defensive tackle Kevin Williams (2.5 sacks) and Justin Smith of the 49ers (2). That is an indication of problems in protection in the middle of the line.
But plenty of sacks have come from the outside, too. From the right side Robert Griffin III has been nailed by Eagles’ linebacker Trent Cole (2) and linebacker Aldon Smith of the 49ers (2). And last night Justin Tuck (4) came from his left defensive end spot six days after Ahmad Brooks, San Francisco’s left outside linebacker, got two sacks.
That the sacks are coming from everywhere is especially worrying ahead of facing the Chiefs. They boast dangerous pass-rushers both along the interior and on the edge.
On the inside, hulking nose tackle Dontari Poe has the frame to dominate a feeble interior trio. Guards Chris Chester and Kory Lichtensteiger were toyed with by the Giants, and center Will Montgomery has struggled since opening day.
But as dangerous as Poe is, outside linebacker Tamba Hali may pose the greatest threat. He has nine sacks and four forced fumbles this season and could dominate left tackle Trent Williams.
Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton is also not afraid to move Hali around and rush him from different angles. In fact, Sutton has crafted several devilish blitz designs that could cause Washington problems.
The Redskins will have to be wary of the moving pieces in Sutton's schemes, particularly extra blitzers like safety Eric Berry and inside linebacker Derrick Johnson.
If they can handle some of the blitzes, the offense can improve a third-down conversion rate that was woeful in Week 13. Washington went just 5-of-16 on third down against the Giants for a measly 31 percent success rate.
That has to change this week if Griffin and company are going to sustain drives against the swarming Kansas City defense.
Another key area for improvement has to be team discipline. The Redskins incurred eight penalties against the Giants, and many of them could only be described as idiotic.
Shanahan has moved to defend some of the worst offenders, according to The Washington Post's Mark Maske:
Wide receiver Santana Moss and cornerback DeAngelo Hall received unsportsmanlike conduct penalties during the game. Wide receiver Pierre Garcon was given a delay of game penalty for kicking the football as it sat on the turf after an incompletion.
Shanahan had said Sunday night that players cannot lose their poise during games. He reiterated that Monday and said the issues would be addressed with the team. But Shanahan also praised the three players’ competitiveness at length.
While is it understandable Shanahan might avoid publicly chiding his players, a stricter approach would be better with veteran players who needlessly cost the team crucial yards.
The kinds of boneheaded violations committed in Week 13 have been an issue all season. Shanahan ought to adopt a tougher line to let his players know further infractions are not acceptable.
Such a collective lack of discipline is one of the reasons many are doubting the future of the coach and his regime.
Shanahan and His Coaches Are Under Scrutiny in Final For Games
The final four games of this season will be an inquest into whether Shanahan and his coaches should be back in 2014. That is the inevitable reality following three losing years out of four.
Although the Washington Redskins are no longer in contention to qualify for their second consecutive playoff appearance, coach Mike Shanahan said Monday that the team would not finish out the season by evaluating players.
If you want to see a team turn on you, just go start playing younger players and start playing for the future.
That is a nice about turn from a coach who promised to do exactly that when his team was mired in failure last season. Of course, Shanahan will know that any win he can get at this point could help save his job.
He might also know that he can't afford throwing someone to the baying crowds come the end of the season. That someone could be hapless defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, according to Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio in an interview with CSN Washington.
A change on defense would certainly be welcome. But making Haslett a scapegoat would merely be a short-term fix.
Then again, if Shanahan somehow manages to explain his way out of another season of failure, it would be a Houdini act worthy of another year in charge.
What is clear is that if the team falls to double-digit losses after Week 14, the calls for sweeping changes will only grow louder.
All statistics via NFL.com.