Dan Daly: All of a sudden, offense goes missing in action

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There are things a football team can get away with against the Detroit Lions - or the Cleveland Browns - that it can’t get away with against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Things like not capitalizing on field position and settling for field goals time and again. Things like getting a punt blocked and dropping an interception, one that almost certainly would have gone for a touchdown.

The Redskins were guilty of all those sins and more in their 23-6 loss Monday night at FedEx Field, which is why they’ll take a 6-3 record into bye week instead of the 7-2 mark they had been hoping for. They can definitely use the vacation. Let’s face it, they haven’t played a complete game - haven’t been that impressive, really - since their back-to-back wins at Dallas and Philadelphia in Weeks 4 and 5. That seems like another season ago.

“This bye is coming at a great time,” Jim Zorn said. “We’re just going to take some time off and relax, get away from it. … We’re beat.”

While they’re healing and recharging, the Snydermen can also try to figure out where they misplaced their offense. Until facing Pittsburgh’s latest Steel Curtain, Jason Campbell and Co. had at least been moving the ball, even if they hadn’t been putting up many points. But Monday night they couldn’t get much of anything going, even when three of their first four possessions started at the Pittsburgh 37 (unsuccessful onside kick), 30 (Cornelius Griffin interception) and 47 (poor punt).

After those series produced only two field goals, well, you had a feeling the Redskins were tempting the fates once too often. This feeling became even stronger when Pittsburgh’s Andre Frazier broke through to smother a Ryan Plackemeier punt late in the first half to set up a TD that put the Steelers ahead 10-6.

It only got worse after that — not just because Pittsburgh drove for another touchdown at the outset of the second half but because the Steelers’ pass rush continued to subject Campbell to a thorough beating. Even when James Harrison and his friends didn’t sack the Redskins quarterback — a feat they accomplished seven times — they got hits on him and made him flee the pocket.

That’s always the surest sign an offense is breaking down - or wearing down: It can’t protect the QB. Campbell hadn’t absorbed a lot of abuse this season before Monday night; he can only hope it was an aberration and not the beginning of a long-term problem. Let’s not forget, his is one of the oldest offensive lines in the league - all five starters are over 30 - and there have always been questions about whether the group could hold up for 16 games. It didn’t hold up in Game 9, that’s for sure.

Something that’s already a long-term problem is the offense’s difficulty in putting the ball in the end zone in the first half. Jim Zorn has to come up with an answer for that - and fast. We’re talking, basically, about a five-game stretch now in which the “O” hasn’t had a touchdown drive in the first 30 minutes (except for a 3-yard “march” after a fumble recovery against the Rams).

It’s the first crisis of Zorn’s head-coaching career: His transplanted West Coast offense appears to be regressing. Campbell, meanwhile, hasn’t helped matters by getting off to slow starts in some games. Against the Steelers, for instance, he missed Antwaan Randle El badly on his first third-down throw, had his second one batted at the line and couldn’t connect with Santana Moss on his third (on third-and-3). There went the Redskins’ chance of getting out to a quick 10-0 or even 17-0 lead.

Of course, the Steelers can make any offense look bad. They’ve held all nine opponents this season to 282 yards or fewer. When you play Pittsburgh, you have to play pretty close to mistake-free, and that’s hard to do in the face of so much defensive pressure. You’re going to have some turnovers (Campbell’s first two interceptions of ‘08) some sacks and some holding penalties. In the Redskins’ case, it was too many - too many to win the 15-6 or 21-14 type of game the Eagles and Giants were able to win against the Steelers.

“They play whatever they want [defensively] and just throw it in your face — here, deal with this!” said Zorn. “They’re pretty awesome in their front seven. I don’t think anybody’s going to block that group on every single play.”

Still, the Redskins are in better shape than they were in 2005 and ‘07, the last two times they made the playoffs. They shouldn’t need a mad dash in the last month to sneak into the postseason; they just have to finish what they’ve started. And with the Cowboys, Giants and Eagles all coming to Washington in November and December, they have a great opportunity to do that.

But only if Zorn can get the offense back in sync. He’s not going to win the games he needs to win down the stretch scoring 17, 14 and six points. His defense is good, but it ain’t the ‘85 Bears.

About the Author
Dan Daly

Dan Daly

Dan Daly has been writing about sports for the Washington Times since 1982. He has won numerous national and local awards, appears regularly in NFL Films’ historical features and is the co-author of “The Pro Football Chronicle,” a decade-by-decade history of the game. Follow Dan on Twitter at @dandalyonsports –- or e-mail him at ddaly@washingtontimes.com.

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