I wondered all week how to distill this game down to a single manageable piece. There are so many angles and layers, so many keys and so much intrigue, I could have easily written a trilogy.
As much time as one spends trying to predict, anticipate and best guess, however, it is often an offhand comment by a player that resonates most and points the way.
Redskins cornerback Carlos Rogers doesn't strike me as the head-game, counter-intelligence type (no disrespect intended), and I am quite comfortable thinking what he said yesterday is worth noting. As it happens, it was also a perfect jumping off point for a discussion about what the Redskins need to bring to the table against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday night.
Talking about the injury-plagued Dallas offensive line, and how it could affect the Redskins' defensive approach, this is what Rogers had to say:
"Their back-ups pretty good; they all right. Like Coach said, they plan to us we got to play our defense, what we do. Whoever is in there, we still gonna run our blitz [and] make their line move. They got a lot of big guys so we do a lot of stunting, a lot of different things on the line where they have to move their feet. We think that's an advantage to us no matter who is in there."
Based on what we have heard all offseason, we had reason to expect defensive coordinator Jim Haslett to be aggressive right out of the box. But there was also reason to think he might try to protect his still raw unit and maybe cross up Dallas up by not brining the heat, instead sitting back and making Dallas try to sustain long, multi-play drives.
Well, it doesn't sound like that's going to happen. Look for the Redskins to make good on all the tough talk out of Ashburn since January about attacking the football and looking to create turnovers.
The good news there, of course, is that the Redskins are going to lay some hits on Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo and wreak some havoc. The bad news is that by going full blast after Romo and forcing him to scramble, they are going to force him to do the one thing he does best...slide in the pocket, roll out, buy time for his receivers to break off routes and find open spaces.
The Redskins haven't been an attacking, aggressive defense for a long time, and it is definitely a breath of fresh air to think of them turning up the heat and getting after people. Richie Petitbon seems like a very long time ago. The flip side of that, of course, is the high risk that accompanies high reward ventures.
We know nothing about Haslett's defense at this point. We don't know if they can contain the run, consistently pressure the passer, if Haslett can call a good game and make in-game adjustments...nothing. And it will take far more than just one first game to see how those things will evolve or devolve over time.
One thing seems certain, though. If they go down, they're going down swinging.
"Regardless of whether they were starting the whole five or not I think the most important thing is this is the season opener, we have to set the tempo for the defense and just set the tempo in general just as an organization," linebacker Andre Carter said. "Regardless of who is playing it's just important we go out there and play four quarters of our game."
Thinking about the defense got me going on what else the Redskins will need to do to come away with a win Sunday. It's not an exclusive list, of course, but if the Redskins can check more of these boxes than not it would be a hell of a start...
Offensively and defensively, the Redskins have been reactionary for too long. On offense they have been unable to set the pace, sequence plays effectively, set plays up for later in games and get into the kind of rhythm that forces defenses to back off of the line of scrimmage. Be it poor scheming, playcalling, quarterbacking, line play, adjustments...something has always seemed to have them reacting to pressure brought by defenses rather than dictating to them.
On defense, the Redskins have been unable to spring free blitzers to disrupt opposing quarterbacks and force the action. They have guessed wrong and/or been late on sellout blitzes, leaving gaping holes. They have been unable to get off the field on third downs. Why? Because the other team always seemed to be one step ahead. The Redskins dial up an all-out blitz, the opposing offense throws a simple screen and is off to the races.
Haslett and company need to out plan and out guess the Cowboys more often than not, forcing them to account for and react to what the Redskins are doing for a change. Sounds simple enough in theory. In practice, it has proven terminally elusive.
You can't quantify what "dictating" the game looks like. But you'll know it if and when you see it.
Sunday night is unlikely to bring a repeat of the Redskins' surprising coming-out party blowout win over the Buffalo Bills in the preseason opener. The Cowboys Super Bowl qualifications may be largely a media creation, but Dallas is pretty good. While it's possible the Redskins could come up with an unexpected romp, it's also entirely possible they could be on the wrong end of one.
The more likely scenario is a typical NFC East slugfest, a street fight between storied rivals that comes down to the final possession. At some point during the evening, the Redskins are going to find themselves challenged by a series of bad plays, bad calls, or plain bad luck. They need to not let it take them out of their game. No unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, no cheap late hits, no mouthing off, no histrionics. Be professionals when being professional is called for the most.
Whether or not they can do that will be an early indicator of how deeply the Shanahan organizational philosophies have had a chance to take root in just one offseason.
Dallas has been faster than the Redskins for a long time. Coming into this one they still "feel" like they are.
Running back Felix Jones out of the backfield scares me. Outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware off the edge scares me.
For the Redskins, free safety Reed Doughty, starting ahead of injured Kareem Moore, scares me. Not because he will be caught out of position—Doughty is cerebral and dedicated and knows his job. He's just a half-step slow and has only average ball skills. He'll get there, but a split second late and without the wallop that can separate a Miles Austin from a ball on the deep sideline on third and long. That split second can be the difference between a punt and a drive for the deciding score.
The hope here is that guys like punt returner Brandon Banks (don't be surprised to see the Redskins sneak him into a couple of offensive packages and try to get him the ball in space as well), linebacker Chris Wilson, even old man wide receivers Santana Moss and Joey Galloway perhaps, can begin to even out the playing field in the speed department.
The Redskins have not been a fast team in as long as I can remember. They still may not be. But there were flashes in preseason (I would have loved to see linebacker Robert Henson active for Dallas) that are encouraging.
Speed kills. God knows it's killed the Redskins often enough. It's time to turn that around.
HIT THE LONG BALL
The Redskins threw deep often in preseason. Says here that wasn't by accident, or even necessarily about getting their passing game untracked, although certainly that was part of if. No, I think the coaching staff was sending a message. A message to their own offense, a message to the fans, and a message to the NFL: stack the line against us if you want, but know this—we're going deep.
Redskins receivers have been going deep and getting open all preseason. McNabb and the other Redskins quarterbacks just haven't quite timed them up and hit them with consistency. That has to change.
There will be opportunities Sunday night; a handful of plays where the line gives McNabb time, a receiver gets a little air behind the defense, and the ball gets airborne. To beat the Cowboys and begin to establish the Redskins offense for 2010, that ball simply has to end up in a Redskins receiver's hands. Particularly early in the game.
If you see Moss or Galloway or Anthony Armstrong deep with two steps on a defender, but the ball landing a yard too far in front, sailing out of bounds or slipping through their fingers, count on the Cowboys being encouraged to pin their ears back, damn the torpedoes, and come hard after McNabb.
The Redskins have to not just throw the deep ball but complete it. If they do, it will force the Cowboys to play them honest and the entire Redskins' playbook opens up. If they do not, however, and those deep balls fall harmlessly to the ground...the field compresses and it's a dog fight all night long.
The Buffalo game was a sweet opening act for the Redskins' offense. The starters scored 21 first half points and the team essentially scored at will all night to the tune of 42 total points. The three subsequent games, however, were a different matter.
The Redskins scored just three, 16, and 10 points. Averaging 9.3 points isn't going to win a lot of games. The starters, in the first halves of those final three games, scored just three against Baltimore, six against the Jets (sans McNabb) and three against Arizona (sans anybody). The last touchdown scored by the Redskins "starting" offense came with eight minutes left in the first half of the opener against Buffalo.
There are a million possible not-to-worry explanations for the drop-off—lack of scheming, working on "packages" instead of attacking weaknesses, etc.—but the fact remains that the Redskins danced in the end zone only twice in the final three games. Both of those came in the late moments of the games with backups to backups playing backups to the backups.
Cause for worry? No—it's still just preseason.
Something to be wary and watchful of Sunday night the first couple of times the Redskins find themselves in scoring position? Absolutely.
So are the 2010 Redskins the crisp, efficient, inspired team that laid waste to Buffalo 42-17 in the preseason opener, or the sloppy, ineffective, listless team that laid a 23-3 egg against Baltimore the following week?
Probably neither. The Redskins we will see Sunday night against the Dallas Cowboys will almost certainly be somewhere in between.
I expect to see fire and signs of professionalism from the booth to the sidelines to the field. I expect to see a few brilliant moments that portend well for the future.
But I also expect to see the effects of the organizational sea change the team is undergoing, manifested in missed assignments, mistakes and simple lack of familiarity, both with the new systems and player interaction.
And I expect to see the best Dallas has to offer—they have pride and motivation too, and unlike Washington, also have Super Bowl expectations that have been heaped upon them by a rabid fan base and fawning media.
I hate making predictions—too many variables exist in a sport where the difference between winning and losing is often as simple as what direction a pointed ball decides to bounces at a crucial time in a game. But we've come this far so I won't sandbag you now.
The Redskins will trail by four to six points midway or later into the third quarter, but get a play from a defense that will have looked dominant at certain times, shaky at others. A key turnover will lead to a short field for the offense and a momentum-swinging touchdown that claims the lead.
Dallas will not go down easy, though, and the game will come down to the last two possessions. In the end, the Redskins will ride the emotion of the crowd, the veteran leadership of their new quarterback and the electricity surrounding the debut of the Shanahan/McNabb Era and find a way to raise their helmets in victory.
Washington 23, Dallas 20