Redskins offense has plenty to prove
After watching a lot of film on both the Vikings and Redskins, Gary Horton picks out some key points to watch in Monday night's game.
After watching a lot of film on both the Vikings and Redskins, talking to coaches and scouts and following preseason practices, here are some key things to watch in their game on Monday (ESPN 7 p.m. ET).
• The Vikings' offensive line has a chance to be one of the best in the NFL, especially on the left side. LOT Bryant McKinnie, LOG Steve Hutchinson and OC Matt Birk are Pro Bowl-caliber players and should be rock-solid. There are some concerns about the right side, as ROT Marcus Johnson is talented but only in his second season and ROG Artis Hicks is moving from the left side to the right side. Look for the Minnesota run game to favor the left side, at least early in the season.
• With first-round draft pick WOLB Chad Greenway lost for the season with a knee injury, the coaches have been forced to juggle their linebacking corps. E.J. Henderson (a MLB by trade) will play WOLB and hopefully play the role in this defense that Derrick Brooks does in Tampa. The bigger concern is at MLB. Napoleon Harris has struggled since he came to Minnesota and his preseason has been uneven. This is a good defense upfront and in the secondary, but this LB unit could be an Achilles' heel.
• There is some concern in the Vikings' organization about the durability of Chester Taylor and the run game in general. Taylor was never a full-time starter in Baltimore and didn't carry the ball much playing behind Jamal Lewis. Can he be the featured back in Minnesota and give the Vikings 20-plus carries a game for a full season? He does fit well in the West Coast offense because he can find creases and run lanes, and he is also a competent receiver out of the backfield. If Taylor runs well early against the Redskins, it will bring their safeties up and give Brad Johnson good play-action opportunities. There is not a lot of depth in this unit and Taylor has had a less than spectacular preseason, so a lot of eyes are on him.
• Look for Minnesota to play a lot of its basic Cover 2 defense against the Redskins. Defensive tackles Pat Williams and Kevin Williams can collapse the pocket inside and make it tough for QB Mark Brunell to step up. Also, defensive ends Erasmus James and Kenechi Udeze should have success off the edge pressuring Brunell. The ability to rush only four and drop seven into coverage will force Brunell to make a lot of tight throws into small zones, and that plays right into the Vikings' strength. We will not see a lot of blitzes in this game by Minnesota.
• WR Troy Williamson is under a lot of pressure in this game. With the loss of the WR Koren Robinson, he is now the go-to receiver in this offense. Williamson has great deep speed and is a terrific vertical threat, especially off play-action, but he is also inconsistent and will drop too many balls. He will be covered one-on-one by Shawn Springs (if he recovers from a preseason abdominal injury). He must get a clean release and avoid being jammed by Springs, who is a good press corner. This individual matchup could lead to a couple game-changing plays by either team and, even if Springs doesn't play, Williamson will still get tight man-to-man coverage.
• Everybody talks about Minnesota's big offensive line and its potential to open holes in the run game, but the key to its success may be the lead blocking of free- agent acquisition FB Tony Richardson. He may be the best isolation blocker in the game (ask Priest Holmes and Larry Johnson) and does a great job of finding LBs on the second level. He is especially effective in the red zone. Taylor would be well advised to follow Richardson through the hole and make his cuts off the isolation blocks in front of him. The Vikings are also very pleased with Richardson's leadership and work ethic.
• Minnesota expects a lot of exotic blitzes and attack schemes by the aggressive Washington defense and may counter with a lot of two-TE sets and max protection schemes, disguised to give the immobile Johnson time to throw. Its passing game will consist of a lot of three- and five-step drops and quick-hitting safe passes. Any deep throws may come off play action.
• This is a big stage for two Minnesota coordinators -- Darrell Bevell (offense) and Mike Tomlin (defense) -- who have never run the show or called a play on any level. Brad Childress will probably help Bevell by calling offensive plays, but the ability of these two young coaches to handle the pressure against Joe Gibbs and the most experienced coaching staff in the NFL will be something to watch.
• Childress has had a tough time with the Koren Robinson debacle. When he took the Minnesota job last winter, he thought long and hard about cleaning up this roster and getting rid of some players, including Robinson, to establish better discipline. The biggest fear Childress had was that Robinson would be his No. 1 receiver and an integral part of his offense while also being only one mistake away from being suspended for a year. Despite all of Robinson's good intentions, he let Childress down and the Vikings will scramble to replace him.
• Washington feels like it can cover the Minnesota WRs with single man-to-man coverage and some aggressive press schemes. Because of that philosophy, look for a considerable amount of blitzes and pressure. The Redskins could bring their OLBs (Marcus Washington and Warrick Holdman) or safeties (Sean Taylor and Adam Archuleta). Both Taylor and Archuleta love to attack, but that leaves them vulnerable to vertical passing plays off play action, especially by Minnesota WR Troy Williamson.
• Look for Taylor to play some center field-type schemes in a Cover 1 look, with Archuleta playing up in the box, almost like a linebacker (which he does best) -- Taylor has great range, and Archuleta is an excellent run-stuffer and blitzer. The Redskins will stack the line vs. Chester Taylor and the Vikings' run game. They will play man to man on the corners and Sean Taylor will be in position to help one of his corners over the top. Taylor must play a smart game and not gamble against Minnesota's play action.
• Something is wrong with the Redskins' offense and it's tough to pinpoint. Their first-team offense did not score one TD in the preseason or even get into the red zone. Pass protection has been shaky. Brunell looks old and weak-armed, and without Clinton Portis there has been virtually no run game. This offense should be explosive, but the timing and the creativity under offensive guru Al Saunders has been non-existent. Are the Redskins playing it close to the vest or are they an overrated team? We will know Monday. Right now you would have to consider them as the biggest disappointment of the preseason.
• Look for Brunell to attack the deep middle of the field against Minnesota's Cover 2 defense. Vikings MLB Napoleon Harris struggles in coverage, and the weakness of this defense is over the middle and between the safeties. If Brunell is sharp and accurate and if Harris struggles with his depth, there will be plays to be made.
• You had the feeling in training camp that this coaching staff really likes its depth at RB -- but everything seems different now. Ladell Betts is an excellent kickoff returner and a decent backup back, but he has been slowed in the preseason by a hamstring injury. Rock Cartwright is excellent on special teams and has looked good in limited spots in the preseason. Portis may be bothered all season by his shoulder injury, making this position dicey. That is why the Redskins traded for Atlanta RB T.J. Duckett and paid a fairly steep price. Duckett will take the pressure off Portis in short-yardage and goal-line situations. What looked like a strong position in July doesn't look that way in September.
• The Redskins need some quick-strike plays to jump start their lethargic offense and that could lead to some gadget plays involving WR Antwaan Randle El. Look for Randle El to line up at QB a couple times and maybe throw a pass. Also, look for some quick bubble-type screens to get the ball on the perimeter. This team needs to score early and not allow Minnesota to adjust and get comfortable on defense.
• If Portis isn't ready and Duckett has to carry the run load for the Redskins, look for more between-the-tackles power runs. If successful, it could force the Vikings to load up in the box to stop the run, leading to some open spots over the middle for Brunell in the passing game.
• This is an offense that is expected to be very sophisticated under Saunders, but it might not be as complex as it looks. This is a passing game that is very precise and requires tight throws into tight spots. The receivers are not asked to make a lot of sight adjustments and change their routes. They also will not have an expansive audible system, as the emphasis will be on execution and discipline. With the Vikings playing a Cover 2 defense, Brunell will have spots to throw to, but the window won't be big. His receivers will have to find the open spots and trust that the ball will be there. This is not an easy defense for the Redskins to open against.
• This game may be won or lost in the trenches and these are great matchups. The Minnesota offensive line is big and physical, but Washington can attack with exotic blitzes and has intelligent defensive players capable of adjusting to changing schemes. Washington needs a big game from RDE Andre Carter, who will be matched up vs. McKinnie. Washington's offensive line has not had a great preseason, especially in pass protection, and the unit will have its hands full with a talented Minnesota front seven. The team that controls the line of scrimmage will likely win this game.
• Although we have talked a lot in the preseason about the Redskins' new three-WR offensive scheme (which hasn't produced many big plays yet), the guy to watch in this game may be TE Chris Cooley, who was basically an H-back in 2005 when he had 71 catches and seven TDs. With three WRs, Saunders will move Cooley around and always get single coverage, usually by a LB or safety. Against this Minnesota Cover 2, look for Cooley to exploit the deep middle of the field over MLB Harris and between the safeties, who are playing the deep half of the field. It requires a tight throw with good touch by Brunell, but the openings will be there.
• If Springs misses more time than we think with his abdominal injury, it could really hinder the Redskins' defense. Springs has the versatility to play man-to-man or zone. He can blitz and make quick adjustments. His skills buy his front four time and lead to some coverage sacks. The Redskins do not have a great replacement for Springs, although veterans Kenny Wright and Mike Rumph will try to hold down the fort.
Gary Horton, a pro scout for Scouts Inc., has been a football talent evaluator for more than 30 years. He spent 10 years in the NFL and 10 years at the college level before launching a private scouting firm called "The War Room."