Braves on the Warpath,
I will be honest - it has been very hard for me to enjoy the playoff birth as much this week as I did the pending playoff birth last week. If you would have told me a month ago that the Skins would make the post-season, I know I would have been satisfied. But not now - not with this team. The Skins didn't just make the playoffs, they rolled into the playoffs. This team didn't back in or get some lucky calls or breaks, they earned this the real way - obliterating every team in their path. The Skins, who for four years couldn't earn a decisive victory, gave us 3 1/2 games of polished football, leaving no doubt about the outcomes late in each game. Heck, this team hasn't played from behind in over a month! So when I should be soaking up this moment, enjoying every second of playoff bliss, the Skins leave me no option other than to believe they can do more.
But before we get to how this improbable run can continue - let us first say thanks. If it all goes down in flames on Saturday, than thank you, Redskins. After the hardest month in the history of the franchise, the Skins have given me the happiest, most memorable month I have ever experienced as a sports fanatic. They have overcome all odds, and in the face of the harshest adversity, played their best football in 16 years. Todd, CP, Tana, that defense and the coaches deserve all the credit - they actually delivered for us in four huge games in a row.
So now what? How do the Skins muster the energy and emotion to travel across the country on 5 days rest and defeat a football team that poses the hardest matchup problems the Skins have faced since Foxboro, and do it in the harshest of all NFL environments? This is not going to be easy. In fact, based on all I've read, no outcome would surprise me. The Skins could very well ride this wave and trounce the Hawks at their place. Or, on the other hand, the Skins could fall victim to a prolific aerial attack that will over match a depleted secondary. And of course, as has been the case for most of this year, this could come down to the very end - with no team budging until the final gun. If that's the case, than this one is anyone's game also.
The Redskins have overcome everything this year, so my hope is that they do it one more time. The schedule makers, the environment, the tough matchups all could lead to our demise. They could also be three more hurdles the Skins easily transcend on their next leg of this magical run.
One game at a time,
First: Dallas Gameballs
1) The Coaching Staff - The Skins could have easily wilted last Sunday. They were coming off the high of the Minnesota game and were facing a team that wasn't willing to play their starters the whole game. Natural instinct would have had the Skins overlooking the 'Boys and more focused onto their first round playoff game. But instead they stayed true to their first task: getting there. The Skins came out with a passion and hunger that easily over matched the Cowboys energy levels, and dominated the game from the beginning. The coaches had these guys ready to roll in what amounted to the ultimate trap game.
2) CP - I could have listed Collins first, but CP's my boy. Dolla set the tone early with that 23 yard scamper to the hizzie. That run exemplified everything the Skins have done in their four game run: overpowering teams at the line of scrimmage, alluding defenders and breaking tackles in route to big time scores. When CP got in, you pretty much knew this one was going to be a party. Bro Sweets didn't stop there though, as he continued fighting for tough yards and earning big gains through the air. The Skins need CP big time this Saturday - he's going to have to carry them to the divisional round.
3) Collins - Collins could have folded after a couple of early fumbles and a near INT, instead the vet regained his composure and moved this team with clutch completions. His timing and accuracy seem to getting better with every game, and he has an amazing connection with his three primary targets. That is pretty impressive for a guy who's only played for a month. Collins is going to have to be unflappable again at Qwest on Saturday as the crowd noise and a fierce pass rush will make things even testier for no. 15.
4) The Front Four - Giving up one total rushing yard for a game is as impressive as any stat I have ever come across. Montgomery and Griffin are pushing linemen backwards and Daniels and Carter are not letting backs run to the edge. The Skins are going to ask these guys to stop the run out of four men fronts against Seattle and with a weak Seattle o-line, they'll be up for the task.
5) Springs - Springs pick late in the first half against Chicago ignited this run and the veteran corner hasn't slowed down since. Springs is playing the best ball of his career and can shut down any receiver in man-to-man coverage. He is breaking to the ball quickly, covering ground deep and wrapping up when needed. Springs will be a huge factor this week in shadowing Deion Branch and/or Bobby Engram.
Why the Seahawks give me butterflies
1) Hasslebeck - Lets face it, the Skins haven't faced a pro-bowl caliber QB since Sean Taylor's death. The last legit QB the Skins secondary has had to match up against was Tony Romo in Dallas in late October (and we know how that went). Since Taylor's passing, the Skins have faced names like Edwards, Gradkowski and Jackson - nobody that's going to instill fear in a back 7. Hasslebeck comes in off a pro bowl campaign in which he's passed for nearly 4,000 yards, threw for 28 touchdowns and had a QB rating over 90. To make matters worse, Hasslebeck's been lights out in the rainy gloom of Seattle - completing over 64% of his passes and connecting on 18 of his 28 TDs. Hasslebeck has a gluttony of weapons to look for, and if given time, is smart enough to pick apart the best of secondaries in this league.
2) Outside Weapons - To make matters worse for the Redskins, the Seahawks might have the deepest wide receiving corps in the NFL, and they spread around the ball to those WRs out of four and five receiver sets. The Hawks combat aggressive teams by getting the ball to their playmakers quickly on three and four step drops and letting the receivers go to work after the catch (similar to Green Bay).
The Skins will have a tough time matching up with Seattle's WRs man for man, as the Hawks will line up Deion Branch, Nate Burelson, Bobby Engram and DJ Hackett and force the Skins to play nickel and dime packages that will put our weaker corners and safeties on their top-tier receivers. The Skins will probably avoid these matchups by playing zone, but that still means that players like Leigh Torrence and David Macklin might be lined up against anyone of Seattle's big four. The Skins will also have to have their LBs matchup against Marcus Pollard - a very solid receiving Tight End.
3) Pass Rush - Don't know if you noticed, but last week against Dallas, Collins was a split second away from getting crushed on numerous occasions. The Skins did a great job against DeMarcus Ware and Spears, but the margin for error is so slim in those passing situations. This week the matchups don't get any easier. The Skins will go up against one of the best pass rushes in the league, spearheaded by DE Patrick Kerney ( 14.5 sacks), DE Darryl Tapp (7 Sacks), and OLB Julian Peterson (9.5 sacks).
Kerney, who led the NFC in sacks, will pose the Skins biggest matchup problem as he'll go head to head with rookie Stephon Heyer. Heyer has been fantastic of recent but look out, he slightly strained his knee last week and may be more vulnerable than at any other point this season. Peterson will attack Collins from any direction and Clinton Portis is going to have to do a great job of blocking him in passing situations. Tapp should be marginalized by Chris Samuels, but could also cause problems especially if Samuels has trouble hearing the snap count in the loud stadium.
To give you an understanding of just how hard it is for opposing O-lineman at Qwest, Kerney has registered 10.5 of his sacks at home. The heavy pass rush has led the Hawks to give up the 6th least points in the league (18.2 ppg), and has led to 20 INTs (4th best in the league).
4) Trufant - Marcus Trufant has become one of the best shutdown corners in the league and will shadow Santana Moss all day. If Trufant, who has 7 picks on the year, can stop Moss in man-to-man coverage, it will enable the Seattle safeties to come up and play the run. Trufant will do his best to disrupt the timing routes Collins and Moss have been so successful with of recent. If he succeeds, the Skins will be forced look away from Moss and pass more to Cooley and Randle El.
5) Lofa Tatupu - Tatupu is one of the best MLB's in the game and one of the best run stoppers. He will be shadowing CP all day (as he did when Seattle held Portis to under 60 yards in 2005). The Skins will run at the edges - forcing the smaller, less-equipped Seattle ends to make plays against the run. But if the Redskins can't block Tatupu on those stretch plays, than the strategy will backfire. I'm sure the Skins can win the battle in the trenches this week, but if they can't block Lofa on the second level, CP will be held in check. Marginalizing this guy might be the most important thing the Skins do all day.
Why the Skins can Win
1) Portis - After having success against some great rush defenses of recent (Giants, Vikings, Cowboys), I think CP will have more room to work than in any of those other games. As I mentioned above, as long as the Skins can keep an eye on Tatupu (presumably with Sellers lead blocking), than Dolla Bill can run wild in this game. The Seahawks tend to take away the big passing play (they've only given up three passing TDs of over 30 yards) by dropping back their safeties, which means Portis probably won't see many 8 man fronts.
The Skins will also be able to get to the edges in their zone blocking schemes. Kerney and Tapp come in at a slight 270 pounds each and should be easy to run at. Also look for the Skins to bring back the delayed draws they employed against the Giants. The Seahawks front four will get aggressive around the corners and the Skins might find holes right up the middle. If Portis can find some open room on the edges or up the gut, the Hawks will be forced to bring more men into the box which would set up the play action and make life much easier on Collins.
2) Cooley - Captain Chaos might be the X factor on offense on Saturday. I believe much of the Seahawks defensive focus will be on stopping the run and limiting the big strikes, which will leave the middle of the field wide open for Cooley. The Seahawks LBs will have to decide whether to watch Cooley or stuff Portis - I believe they'll opt for the latter and leave Cooley free to roam. Cooley can get open on any one of the Hawks linebackers, who are much better at the line of scrimmage than they are in coverage.
3) Making the Hawks 1-D - I don't care how good the Seahawks passing game is, if the Skins can make them one-dimensional early on, they'll be alright. I assume Grilliams will try to take Alexander and Morris out of the game early by bringing up the LBs to stop the run. Once that happens, Williams and Mike Holmgren will jump into a passing chess match. Williams should have the advantage simply because he knows that once Holmgren abandons the run, he won't go back to it. The Skins will have some big decisions to make on how to combat the pass (but we'll get to that later). As long as Alexander is held in check early than Skins will have a major advantage later in the game.
4) Other targets - The biggest difference from this game to the 2005 loss might be the Skins depth at WR. As opposed to 2005 when Taylor Jacobs and Antonio Brown were complimenting Moss, this week the Skins will be able to utilize Randle El, Reche Caldwell and maybe even Keenan McCardell. After Trufant, the Hawks don't have great depth at CB with the young Kelly Jennings (0 Ints) on the other side and Jordan Babineaux (a safety) as a nickel corner. It's possible the Skins will give a Hawks a taste of their own medicine by combating the blitz with quick hits to their WRs out of spread formations. The Hawks, who rank 19th against the pass just don't have the secondary depth to hold up - especially if the Skins can set up the play action.
5) The Trenches - Football is won and lost in the trenches, right? If this is the case, you also have to give the edge to the Skins. The Hawks have a very fragile offensive line that will have trouble holding up against Griffin and Montgomery's push up the middle. On the outsides, the Hawks have a slight edge with Walter Jones, but Philip Daniels and/or Andre Carter will have an advantage on the other side against Sean Locklear. On the offensive side, the Skins should hold their own against interior tackles Brandon Membane (rookie) and an aging Rocky Bernard. As I have noted, the Skins might have issues with Kerney on the outside - but if they run at him early, he will shy away from a strong pass rush.
The Seahawks as an Overrated Team
There are some interesting numbers out there in regards to the Seahawks benefiting from an easy schedule and easy division opponents. I think there might be some truth there, so I will indulge the idea for a moment. Before I begin, let me just say that the Hawks home field negates the over-rated factor, so we have to take them very seriously regardless.
Here's what I've found:
1) The Basics - The Hawks field a very mediocre 15th best defense in the league. Apparently, despite their pressuring ability, this defense is very vulnerable and in the playoffs, the better defense usually gets it done.
2) The Whopper - The Seahawks had the easiest strength of schedule in all of football. Amazingly, they ended up beating only one team with a winning record (and it was a mediocre Tampa team in Seattle's home opener).
3) Even Better - So I've made a big fuss about the Hawks eighth ranked passing offense, right? They put up about 250 yards a game through the air! Here's where it gets interesting - the Seahawks three division opponents finished ranked 21, 22 and 28th against the pass. The Seahawks also faced teams ranked 26th, 27th, 28th and 30th against the pass. In case you're scoring at home, half the Hawks games were against opponents in the bottom eight in the league in pass defense (the most games of this kind for any team in the league).
4) The Best - The Seahawks only played four games against top-10 defenses and averaged 18.75 points in those games (the Skins currently rank 8th overall and 16th against the pass). That's a full touchdown less than their normal 24.6 ppg.
Why This Might Be Different from 2005
1) Health - If you recall, the Skins came into the divisional game in 2005 with a myriad of injuries. Portis got very banged up in the Tampa game the week before (I think it was a busted hand). Springs had an abdomen strain in that game (which, I believe, was the start of his sports hernia issues), and was abused by Daryl Jackson that day. Brunell wasn't near 100% as he played with a bad knee throughout the playoff run. The Skins also were playing without Randy Thomas and his replacement, Ray Brown, also went down in that game. I believe the Skins had to bring in Cory Raymer in that game to replace Brown - which killed the running game and led to a bunch of line penalties. This year the Skins come in with no major injury concerns and have much better cohesiveness on the o-line than they did after the 05 Thomas injury.
2) Momentum/The Offense - In 2005, the Skins had exhausted all their energy in that 6 game run and came into Seattle on an empty tank. This year the Skins come in fresh and their offense has legs. As opposed to 2005, when the Skins won in Tampa with the lowest playoff offensive output for a victor ever, this year they come in with an offense that has been top ten in the league over the last month.
3) The Spirit of 21 - The Redskins players really believe the spirit of Sean Taylor is carrying them right now. They feel they're playing for a larger purpose than just football and believe they are a team of destiny. I'll believe them until they lose.
Amazingly, Todd Collins hasn't thrown a pick since he replaced Campbell on 12/6. The Skins are plus four on turnovers in their four game winning streak, and they cannot afford to lose the turnover battle on the road. The Skins need to protect the football and keep the early lead trend going. The Hawks thrive on getting takeaways, especially from the pressure they apply to the QB. If the Skins give up the ball - especially Collins - and shorten the field for the Seahawks, it could be trouble.
After the Half
After going 12 games in which the Skins were awful after halftime, they've now scored on the opening possession of the second half in four straight games. I know Coach Joe will fight his tendency to protect and run on a lead if the Skins go up on Saturday, but ole' Joe needs to stay true to recent history and keep aggressive in the second half.
My Biggest Question - What Does Greg Williams Do???
Besides all the matchups I have already mentioned, it's possible this game will come down to one thing: how Greg Williams stops the pass. Williams has two options and he'll probably mix in a bit of both.
The first option is to stay aggressive at the line of scrimmage (as he's done over the past month). This means stuffing the run and bringing up the safeties and LBs to pressure Hasslebeck, trying to force him to make mistakes. If Williams opts for the aggressive scheme he'll leave the corners in man coverage and have Laron Landry sweep up behind. If and when the Seahawks come out in 4WR sets, this strategy might be tough to execute if Hasslebeck gets rid of the ball quickly. Unless the Skins gamble and get at Hasslebeck fast, they'll probably need to matchup with those WRs by having more men in coverage than they've had in recent weeks.
Grilliams second option is to do what he did against GB, Detroit and Arizona, which is to drop back into heavy zone coverage and hope to get pressure on the QB from the front four. This strategy worked in those games, but again, the Skins had the benefit of having Sean Taylor and Carlos Rogers. As opposed to having Landry, Springs, Rogers, Smoot and Taylor in nickel, the Skins will now have Landry, Smoot, Torrence, Springs and Doughty. Personnel wise, the Skins will be at much more of disadvantage. If Williams goes to these zone schemes (which I think he will), the game might come down to how Torrence and Doughty hold up underneath and how well Landry can cover the deep ball (as Taylor did in those early games).
Either scheme has the potential for greatness and has the potential for disaster.
45 degrees with a 90% chance of rain. You have to believe the rainier it is, the better it is for the Skins. If it's very wet the Hawks will be forced to keep the ball on the ground.
Coach Joe said Heyer is ready to go (cross your fingers). James Thrash is the only other significant injury - if he can't go, McCardell will go in his place.
By the Numbers
Joe Gibbs in the Playoffs: 17-6
Joe Gibbs in the Wild Card Round: 5-0
After the Redskins could only muster 10 points at Seattle two years ago, Coach Joe hopped on a plane and recruited Al Saunders to take over the floundering offense. After two years of offensive struggles and suspected division amongst the coaching staff over offensive philosophies, the Skins now come back to Seattle as the hottest offense in the NFC. Additionally, the Skins are now led by Todd Collins, the QB Saunders hand-picked to come with him to DC and who many believe, Saunders had been vouching to start throughout his two years with the Skins. So now, two years later, the Skins come into a eerily similar situation - a road playoff game at Seattle. This time, its Saunders and Collins who can push the Skins over the hump. If there was ever a time for vindication over the Saunders signing, it'd be now.
Prediction - I just don't know. It's the playoffs and crazy things happen. There are so many determining factors in this game, it's hard to gauge what will really transpire. The one thing you can be certain is that Coach Joe will have the Redskins ready to play - he always does this time of year.