Week 12 brings us what could be a crossroads of sorts. The Washington Redskins travel coast to coast to pay a visit to the struggling Seattle Seahawks. Since the last time these two teams met (wild-card round of last year's playoffs), the Seahawks have had some serious issues, much of which is attributable to injuries, but also an apparent lack of leadership.
With the announcement from Head Coach Mike Holmgren that he is retiring following this season, he may have created an air under which the team couldn't succeed. Former Atlanta Falcons head coach Jim Mora Jr. was named "head coach to be," and the team hasn't been the same since.
But the Redskins were not to be outdone. Local football legend Joe Gibbs announced his own retirement, a shock to the franchise and to the fans of the Burgundy and Gold. Gibbs' retirement (his second from the Redskins) set in motion a chain of events that ended with the hiring of Jim Zorn as the new Redskins head coach.
Zorn had been the Seahawks quarterbacks coach, helping quarterback Matt Hasselbeck become a Pro-Bowler. Hasselbeck also led the Seahawks to the Super Bowl, losing to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Zorn brought his quirky style and oddball quarterback drills, and along with him, an energy that the Redskins haven't seen in years. That energy paid serious dividends early, jumping out to 4-1 record, winning games in the early part of their schedule that nobody thought they could.
But the Redskins have now slipped to 6-4, losing two in a row and three of their last five games. This slide began with a disappointing loss to the then winless St. Louis Rams, and continued with ugly wins over the Cleveland Browns, and Detroit Lions.
And then the embarrassment at home, on Monday night, against the Pittsburgh Steelers. But the bye week came following that game, and along with it some hope that the team just needed some rest, some time to get healthy, rejuvenate.
And that's when the Dallas Cowboys came to town, and showed us that maybe that's not what the problem was.
There is more to it than just a tired team, with the Hall of Fame Game to start the preseason, and the earliest start to training camp than any other team in the league, the Redskins were certainly due for a break.
But it didn't fix anything. In fact, it may have ultimately served to highlight the team's weaknesses.
So what are those weaknesses? There are many, just like any other team in the NFL, the Redskins have issues on both sides of the ball and on special teams. Nothing special there. What is noteworthy however, is how the Redskins had been able to minimize those weaknesses perhaps better than any other team in the NFL over those first five weeks of football.
The Redskins defense is predicated on stopping the run, and covering wide receivers well enough, long enough, to force opposing quarterbacks into mistakes, poor passes and poor decisions. And NEVER, EVER, give up the big play. The one glaring weakness is one that has existed for many years. No pass rush.
That weakness had been minimized early by a mistake free, ball-control offense. Redskins' quarterback Jason Campbell hadn't thrown an interception (or lost a fumble) through EIGHT weeks of football. An astounding accomplishment. One that set a franchise record and contributed to an NFL record.
But the Pittsburgh Steelers changed that. Throwing his first two interceptions against the Steelers, Campbell had not been able to "find a rhythm" within Zorn's offense in the loss. And then again in another loss to the Cowboys following the bye week. Not surprisingly, Campbell has been sacked 10 times in the last two games as well.
Which brings us to the main offensive weakness. The passing game. The number of sacks, 26, bad enough for 26th in the NFL, would indicate poor performances from the offensive line. But there is much more to being sacked than the offensive line getting beaten.
Campbell needs to make quicker reads, throw the ball away a bit sooner when a play breaks down, and perhaps, take a few more chances.
The Redskins' offense has dropped to 13th in the NFL in total yards, only 20th in passing yards, fifth in rushing. But the most glaring stat is scoring, where the Redskins rank 27th in the NFL. The combined record of the FIVE teams that have scored fewer points than the Redskins is 6-44-1. Not good company.
Which brings me to what needs to change. Zorn has coached Campbell to "protect the ball" above all else. And Campbell has listened and learned. While this has meant fewer turnovers, it has also meant fewer big plays. The Redskins have only 23 passing plays of over 20 yards, and only three over 40. Defenses have nothing to be afraid of.
Does Campbell not trust his receivers? Does he not trust himself to make the throw that gives a receiver the chance to make a big play? Does he not see the plays that are available to be made?
The likely answer is: a little of all of the above.
Campbell is still learning the offense, his SEVENTH NEW OFFENSE IN THE PAST EIGHT YEARS. A difficult task to be sure. It is reasonable to assume that Zorn and his coaching staff have game planned to minimize offensive mistakes and let their FOURTH RANKED defense keep games close enough to win in the end. A gameplan that would be expected with a new offense and an established, quality defense.
But as the season moves past it's midway point, and the push for the playoffs begins, opponent's defenses have begun to pressure the line of scrimmage more effectively, slowing down the league's second leading rusher, Clinton Portis, while challenging Campbell to win with the passing game. And Campbell has not show to be up to the task as of yet.
So, opportunity comes this week as Campbell faces the league's 31st ranked pass defense. While the Seahawks do rush the passer fairly well, tied for ninth in the NFL with 24 sacks on the season, they do not cover well.
Marcus Trufant, a Pro-Bowl corner only last year, has not lived up to the $50 million deal he signed this past offseason. And he hasn't had much help from his friends.
My hopes are that Zorn pushes Campbell to recognize better the opportunities to take chances, trust in his receivers to make a play on the ball, even when they're covered well. In order to get back to the ball control, mistake free football the played early, Campbell will need to make opposing defenses pay for focusing on Portis. Pay with points.
There's no better time like the present, every journey begins with the first step, and this week would be a good time to take that step.
The Seahawks are trying to salvage some dignity, the Redskins are trying to keep their season alive. A dangerous combination.
With Matt Hasselbeck returning from a back injury last week, and getting back big play receiver Deion Branch, the Seahawks pose a serious threat to the Redskins' ability to overcome their shortcomings. But the Seahawks' defense just might offer the opportunity for an offensive explosion of sorts.
The push for the playoffs begins in the Great Northwest, and it's up to Zorn and Campbell to make sure it can continue next week.
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