NASHVILLE, Tenn. - The most telling image from the Washington Redskins' first-half offensive performance last night against the Tennessee Titans wasn't the inefficient running game, the zero points or the constant third-and-long situations. Photo Gallery
It was tight end Chris Cooley lining up next to rookie left tackle Stephon Heyer ... and staying there.
When Cooley is blocking, he can't be one of quarterback Jason Campbell's favorite targets.
When Cooley is helping protect Campbell's blind-side, he's not roaming the middle of the field against overmatched linebackers.
And when Cooley is aiding a struggling left tackle, he's not complementing Santana Moss and the Redskins' chances for consistent execution are limited.
But such was the case during the first half in which nearly the entire first-team offense played all 31 snaps.
Heyer played like an undrafted rookie, forcing play-caller Al Saunders to alter his protection schemes and keep Cooley as a blocker. During the first half of last season, Saunders had to make the same move and Cooley's numbers suffered — three catches in the first two games, only 24 in the first eight games.
If Cooley isn't a big part of the passing game, the Redskins' offense will be consistently inconsistent.
In the Redskins' 14-6 win over Tennessee, Campbell attempted 14 first-half passes, none of which were intended for Cooley.
The first quarter showed just how much the Redskins miss Chris Samuels, out for at least another two weeks with a sprained MCL.
Heyer was given the first chance to fill in for Samuels. He quickly found out that game-speed is different than practice speed.
Although the running game was impotent, pass protection should be the main topic of conversation when the coaches convene today at Redskin Park.
Campbell was sacked twice (and fumbled both times). Even though he's strong enough to take big hits — see last year when both Carolina's Julius Peppers and the Giants' Antonio Pierce turned out his lights with big hits — all it takes is one hit to derail this season.
On the first sack, Titans safety Vincent Fuller blitzed from the left side. Heyer, with no help to his outside, had to make a quick decision — block defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch and hope a back picked up Fuller or take on Fuller and hope left guard Todd Wade accounts for Vanden Bosch.
Heyer tried to block Vanden Bosch and nobody picked up Fuller, who planted Campbell into the turf. The Titans recovered the fumble.
On the second sack, Titans defensive end Tony Brown split between Cooley and Heyer to sack Campbell. There might have been a communication gaffe with Cooley and Heyer thinking the other was going to block Brown.
Two sacks in Campbell's first seven drop-backs. This from an offense that allowed only 19 sacks in nearly 500 drop-backs last year.
The rushing game (2.3-yard average on 15 first-half attempts) didn't help matters. This from an offense that finished fourth in the NFL last year in rushing.
The result was five third-and-long situations, allowing the Titans to focus on Campbell and force Saunders to add blockers.
Following the Redskins' practice last Wednesday night, Saunders said he wanted to call plays this preseason that put Campbell in a variety of situations.
"With the quarterback, the most difficult part of the game is putting it all together," Saunders said. "How much Jason can throw and how much we're able to do is dependent on his ability to deal with all the different protections.
"If we have only two receivers running down the field and have eight blocking, there aren't a lot of decisions to be made but you won't get many guys open. If you send out three and keep seven, the numbers still favor the defense."
Ideally, Saunders would like to send out Moss, Cooley, Antwaan Randle-El and perhaps a running back (as the safety outlet). If the pass protection issues continue this month, Saunders may have to use Todd Yoder as the blocking tight end and move Cooley into the slot or split out wide. That would mean Cooley is going against players with better cover skills.
Ideally, of course, Samuels will return in top form. But he has a history of knee problems so he may need help early on. Cooley is too valuable in the passing offense to be blocking.