Braves on the Warpath,
First let me say that I was even nervous writing this Skins Serv. Do you know what its like writing a Skins Serv with so much on the line? Coming up with a title that captures the spirit of a late December playoff run? Not so easy. I hope I didn't fail you, the reader (hineni aneni).
Again, like last week, I think its only fair that we first show some appreciation to the burgundy and gold. What a group of guys on this squad. For all the issues that you may have had this year with the coaches, players and those in the front office, you must put those things aside now and just admire how hard this team has fought, how much resilience they have shown and how much they have raised their games with their back against the wall (more cliches welcome). Most teams would have curled up and crawled home after what the Skins have been through, but not this team. If there was ever a football team you could really love, it is this 2007 edition of Washington's Warriors. No NFL team has as much heart as these guys have.
This team came out on Sunday night in a hostile environment, in a place they never win, in terrible conditions, and put together their best overall effort of the season. The simply wanted it more than the Giants and it showed on both sides of the ball. The Skins were the hungrier team - fighting for that extra yard and stopping the Giants on many crucial 3rd and 4th and one situations.
I don't know if the Skins can keep up their energy levels and come out with the same ferocity as they did Sunday night, but if they do, than many NFC teams will have a hard time stopping them - not just the Vikings.
So what now? Well for starters, the Skins play in their biggest game since January 2005. It is the biggest game on the NFL docket this week, and again, it is in front of a national TV audience. The playoffs are on the line and the season's on the line. It will either be the heartbreaking ending to a tragic season or step three of this most magical, most improbable playoff run.
And what stands in the way? The Skins must go on the road again, must go into a very loud and hostile dome and must stop the hottest team in football. Who, by the way, have the most prolific running attack in the league and are the best at stopping the run. And the Skins ask their 36 year old, 2nd string quarterback to lead them again. They are going to need a little more than karma to win this week.
But let me also say that this isn't an impossible task. This isn't Foxboro in October. The Skins can win this game. Only 3 more days until we find out if they will.
One game at a time,
Skins Serv ran some serious numbers this week. Tracked many patterns and tendencies. Even did an algorithm or two. And guess what? I came up with the same thing everyone else has. But I'll break it down for you anyway. Before I do, I need to make light of a couple of things from this past Sunday.
1) Gameball to Silver Spring Skins - Great showing Sunday night by Skins Servers on the road. It is the first time I can remember that Skins fans and the Skins players brought it equally for a game. Kudos all around.
2) Ladies and Gentlemen: Mr. Lorenzo Alexander - If there is one person you can thank for the Skins turnaround, it is number 79. Who? The second year man out of California - who wasn't on the active roster last year and wasn't supposed to be this year either - is having an impact on three sides of the ball. Alexander is a special teams whiz, can also be found stuffing the run as a D-Tackle, but most importantly, is now the front man on many of Dolla Bill's scampers. Lets go to the video tape...Alexander is skyrocketing up the Skins depth chart. Going from defense to back up offensive line to extra tight end in jumbo sets to now his latest role, starting right guard! Yes, the coaches have plugged the more athletic, more mobile Alexander into right guard in many of the Skins running packages because of his ability to pull block and get out in front of running plays. The Skins are still lining up Fabini on the majority of downs, but if you go back and look at CP's biggest runs Sunday night, he was following Alexander's lead. This is a major turn of events in the Skins offense and running game, which has been suffering since losing Randy Thomas (one of the best pull blockers in the game).
3) A Healthy Tana Goes a Long Way - You just can't overstate how important Santana is to this offense. His big play ability forces corners and safeties to drop back, which either leaves openings in the running game or leaves the middle of the field wide open for guys like Cooley. The Vikings run defense is great because their corners pinch up on the edges and stop the outside runs. If Santana can have some early success down field, this will force the Minnesota corners to play further back and out of the running game. Santana should also get props for two spectacular sideline catches on Sunday night - both of which lead to scores.
4) CP!!!! - You know I have to give a shout out to CP for his performance last week. I am sick of people saying the guy is washed up. He was shot out of a cannon on most runs Sunday night. Give this guy some space and some creases and he'll get you lots of yards (the turf helps too).
5) Smoooooot - 2-7 might be playing the best football of his career over the past three games. I was seriously down on Smootsie at the beginning of the season. He was giving too much cushion, was getting beat under and over, and couldn't stay out on the field for an entire four quarters. It's a different Smoot now. He's playing much more physically, staying with receivers at all depths of the field and breaking up plays or wrapping up his man immediately after the catch. Smoot shut down Plaxico Sunday night, as Greg Williams kept Smoot on Burress man-to-man for the entire game (usually the Skins corners play a specific side of the field). One play in particular jumps out - in the middle of the fourth quarter with the Giants threatening to cut it to five, Manning sent Plax deep into the corner on a fade. Smoot stuck with Burress and timed his jump perfectly, knocking the ball out of bounds. If Smoot can be trusted to man up this week, it will go a long way in letting everyone else on the defense focus on stopping the run.
HOW THEY WIN THIS GAME
1A) Stopping Peterson - In the Vikings 8 victories they have gained an average of 190 yards on the ground. Their smallest total in victory was 125 yards on the ground. In the Vikings six losses their running yards per game was a mere 121 yards per game. Quite simply, this team wins on the ground. If the Skins can contain the run and force the Vikings to convert first downs through the air, the Skins have a great shot. I will put the magic number at 120 rushing yards. If the Skins can hold the Vikes rushing attack to 120 yards on the ground, they win.
It's a lot easier said than done. The Vikings running offense, which is best in the NFL, is lead up front by pro bowl center Matt Birk and left guard Steve Hutchinson. These two guys are the best in the game in their positions. The Vikings also have veteran lead blocker Tony Richardson (also a pro bowler) and left tackle Bryant McKinnie, who is also as good as anyone in the league.
What this means is that the Skins defensive right side, Andre Carter, Anthony Montgomery and linebacker HB Blades, are going to have to put in their best efforts of the season. Randall Godfrey, who is better suited to stop the run, might spell Blades in that role. The Skins might also be concerned about Carter, who isn't as effective against the run - look for Peterson to run right at 99. It is possible the Skins might go to some five man fronts, bringing in Kedric Golston to help support Carter and Montgomery on the right side. No matter which personnel make up the formations, the Skins must keep the line of scrimmage packed with defenders: they must get Reed Doughty playing at the line and must get their corners pinching the edges. This will take a great effort from all 11 men on defense - but at least the Skins don't have to worry about being burned on the pass, because Jackson just won't be able to do it.
The Vikings have the 30th best passing offense in the league -which is even more pathetic than the number indicates considering how much the play action should help them. Despite the great ground attack, they're still inept in the air. Stop the run - win the game.
1B) ToddBall - Just like the Vikes are the best at running the ball, they are also the best at stopping the run. The number one run defense is led by pro bowl nose tackle Pat Williams (317 pounds) and pro bowl tackle Kevin Williams (311 pounds). The Vikings are also anchored up the middle by LB EJ Henderson who comes in with 105 tackles on the year. The Vikings run defens is also supported by LB Chad Greenway (88 tackles) and by great run stopping from their top cornerback Antoine Winfield (67 tackles).
Amazingly though, the Vikings compliment their run defense with the worst pass defense in the league. If you consider that teams look at many pass-only downs against the Vikings because of how successful their run stopping is, to be dead last in pass defense is truly horrendous. The Vikes know the pass is coming and they can't stop it anyway. In the Vikings six losses, opponents have averaged 307 yards through the air while only mustering 77 yards on the ground.
The Skins are going to have to air the ball out. There is no other way to do it. The Vikes haven't given up more than 130 yards on the ground and we shouldn't expect anything different this week. The Vikings will likely be without their best corner Winfield (who has a pecs strain), so their corners and safeties will be vulnerable. Santana and Randle El are playing at full speed so they will be able to spread out the field and open space up for Cooley - who you can expect to have a huge game this week. The Vikings have run-stopping LBs, who will be more focused on staying in the box than pass coverage.
I can't stress how important Collins will be in this game. His timing, his accuracy, his ability to control the offense in a loud environment will all be huge. He's going to have to make lots of plays and pass for TDs.
If the passing game is successful early, Portis might have some room to work with. Especially if he can run effectively to the right side behind Alexander. Running left at Greenway, Henderson and those tackles will be tough, but if CP can get to the outside on the right, and force Winfield's rookie replacement to make plays, he might have some success. But only if the pass sets it up first.
2) No Turnovers - In the Vikings five game winning streak, they are plus 8 turnovers, but more importantly have scored 4 touchdowns off of turnovers. The Skins cannot afford to let the Vikings play on short fields and even more so, cannot let them score defensive points. If the Vikings are able to get a single defensive score, this thing will be over. Collins must make great decisions and guys like Portis and Moss cannot afford mental lapses that have hurt this team throughout this campaign.
3) Scoring First - I know the Skins have been very susceptible to blowing leads this year, but in this case, they have to take that risk. The Skins need to score first to win this game. Yes, I'm convinced the biggest play of the game might be the opening coin toss. I am usually pretty adamant about the Skins receiving in the second half, but I will make an exception this time. The Skins have to get the ball and have to score. Because the Vikings are such a running powerhouse, they are not as comfortable playing from behind. They have scored first in 6 of their eight wins, and in four of the five games in this winning streak. In the Vikings six losses, they only held the opening lead twice. If the Skins can somehow get early points (which they usually do), it will be much tougher for Jackson to orchestrate a comeback by handing the ball off.
1) Winfield - If Winfield doesn't play, this could be a huge plus for the Skins. Winfield gives them shutdown capability on the outside and is tremendous at run stopping. If Winfield doesn't play than Rookie Marcus McCaulley would fill in. With second year man Cedric Griffin (0 Ints) lining up on the other side, the Skins will have to take advantage of these matchups.
2) Sydney Rice - The Vikings will definitely be without their number two receiver Sydney Rice. The loss of Rice, who is Minnesota's biggest down field threat, will help the Skins secondary focus even more on run stopping. The Vikes will likely line up with Bobby Wade and Troy Williamson (who didn't see a snap last week).
3) Rocky - I don't think the Skins will feel the loss of Rocky this week as much as they will throughout next year. It is unclear how much time Rocky will miss, but by most indications, this ACL/MCL tear will keep him off the field for a while. Because the Vikings don't have great pass-catching TE's, HB Blades and Godfrey will be able to focus on run stopping - hopefully the rook and the savvy vet will be able to make some plays.
4) Griff - Griffin hurt his hand Sunday night and was benched in the second half. Griffin will start this Sunday, however, JLC seemed to indicate that Griffin's benching might have signaled a changing of the guard on the Skins D line. I would expect the Skins front four next year to be Montgomery, Golston, Carter and a new end to replace Daniels.
By The Numbers (meant to get you jacked up)
28-42: The Combine Record of the Vikings opponents in their five game winning streak. If you take out the Giants victory (which Eli handed to them on a platter) than that record goes to 19-37. In their run, the Vikes barely edged out the Raiders at home and had the benefit of a INT TD in the first place from scrimmage against the 49ers. The Skins will pose as their toughest test in the last 6 weeks.
60-23: Joe Gibbs career record in December.
5-0: Joe Gibbs career record at the Metrodome (including Super Bowl 26). The last time Gibbs coached at the Metrodome was a 10-7 wild card playoff win in 1992.
As usual this game comes down to the wire. The Skins break a tie game half way through the fourth quarter and then the defense makes a huge stand. Finally, the offense slams the door on the game after converting two first downs through the air.
Redskins 23 Vikings 20
I don't think Skins Serv has done a good enough job expressing the excitement and appreciation I have over the Redskins current situation. For this team to be playing meaningful games with playoff-like atmospheres this late in the season is something Redskins fans aren't usually privy to. 1999 and 2005 were it for this generation. Somehow this year we get to be part of something special again - at least for one more week. Soak it all up.
PS - for those who need some Skins vids to get the blood flowing before 8:15 Sunday, try this: http://redskins.torresa.com/videos/thefix.html