- The Washington Times - Monday, October 23, 2000

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. For 30 minutes, at least, the Redskins played a real football game yesterday. By "real football game," I mean a game in which there is some give and take, some ebb and flow, some back and forth. The Redskins haven't had much of that this season largely because they've played a succession of toothless offenses almost totally lacking in comeback ability. Whenever Washington has gotten ahead, it has tended to stay ahead.

But the Jacksonville Jaguars aren't like the others. Their offense can put up points even when it's missing a Pro Bowl right tackle (Leon Searcy) and Pro Bowl receiver (Jimmy Smith). Mark Brunell is a capable quarterback who's difficult to sack, and Fred Taylor and Keenan McCardell are weapons any defense has to respect. The Jaguars may be struggling this year, but they can still move the football as they showed by gaining 257 yards in the first half against the Redskins. That's as many as the Washington defense usually allows in a game.

And so it was 7-0, Redskins, and then 10-7, Jaguars, and then 21-10, Redskins, and then 21-16, Redskins. And it would have been even closer at halftime if Jacksonville's butter-fingered R. Jay Soward hadn't dropped a touchdown pass. For the first time all season, Ray Rhodes' defense was challenged, seriously challenged. Taylor rushed for nearly 100 yards in the first half alone, and tight end Kyle Brady, running amok in the middle, caught four passes for 74 yards.

The Redskins wound up winning big, 35-16. But the first half reminded us that Dan Snyder's gold-plated defense isn't necessarily All-Conquering. A balanced offense run by a savvy quarterback can give the Redskins fits. (Good thing only a few teams have a balanced offense run by a savvy quarterback.)

"Jacksonville did as good a job as anyone on offense against us," Norv Turner said. "They kept us off balance and did a good job on third-down conversions, which kept our offense off the field. We had only 23 [actually, 22] plays in the first half. But we kept them out of the end zone. We held them to field goals. That was critical."

Norv shouldn't be so congratulatory. After it all, it was Soward who sabotaged the Jaguars on a couple of occasions. Besides the aforementioned dropped TD pass, he also let a throw from Brunell go through his hands and into the arms of Deion Sanders. Had he made the catch, the Jags would have had a first down around the Washington 40. Instead, the Redskins were off and driving to their first touchdown.

(Soward also aided and abetted the Redskins by dropping a punt at the Jacksonville 13, a blunder that led to the score that put Washington in front for good. No, it was not a good day for Mr. Soward.)

Dana Stubblefield had a more realistic appraisal of how the Redskins defense fared. "We can't let a running back go over 100 yards and expect to win," he said. "We can't get ourselves in the situation we were in today. If we come out sluggish again, we're in trouble. It wasn't like they were doing anything we hadn't seen. It was just a case of Taylor making those cuts and us being out of position."

It was more than that, though. It was also the Jacksonville offensive line having a pretty fair first half against the Redskins' defensive front. Not only did it open holes for Taylor, it gave Brunell time to find an open receiver a lot more time than other QBs have had this season. The result? Back-to-back drives of 86 and 80 yards and completions of 33, 30 and 23.

The 33-yarder for a touchdown to Soward (who didn't do everything wrong) came at the expense of Sanders. Deion was badly beaten on a post pattern, though Turner tried to cover for him by saying, "I think he was expecting some help [from the free safety]. But because we were trying to tighten down on Brady, [Soward] was open."

What Norv didn't say was this: The key to the Redskins defense isn't Sanders, despite all the hoopla that accompanied his arrival. The key to the Redskins defense is the front seven, particularly its ability to pressure the passer. Marco Coleman and Co. have been so successful getting to the quarterback that it has been hard to assess just how good the Washington secondary is.

Yesterday we got a better idea. When the Jaguars' pass protection held up, they were able to exploit Sam Shade's coverage limitations and even, to an extent, Deion's. (Trust me, he's not the cornerback he used to be. He's still better than most, but he's not going to shut down half the field for you, the way he did in his prime. Champ Bailey is the best corner on this team, which is why Deion is being thrown at even more than he normally would.)

The Redskins defense tightened up some in the second half, but Albert Connell's touchdown early in the third quarter had something to do with that. It increased the Washington lead to 28-16 and forced the Jaguars to play catch-up, which meant turning away from the running game and Taylor. As Bruce Smith put it, "They couldn't use their balance [after that]… . We put them in a one-dimensional type of offense throwing the football."

So it was a sobering afternoon, in some respects, for the Redskins defense. What would the Jaguars have done to them if Jimmy Smith had been totally healthy? (He played only a handful of snaps because of a bad knee.) More to the point, how will the defense do against the Rams' juggernaut or, in the playoffs, against the Vikings' multi-faceted attack? We'll have the answers soon enough.

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