- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 21, 2009

Consider the cracks in the Washington Redskins’ defense fully exposed - just as that unit prepares to face its toughest test so far this season.

The Redskins on Sunday meet a Dallas Cowboys team loaded with playmakers - bad news for a Washington defense that effectively prevented long gains earlier this season but has given them up with alarming regularity lately.

First, it was wideout DeSean Jackson of the Philadelphia Eagles burning the Redskins for long touchdowns through the air and on the ground.

Then came running back Michael Turner ripping off a long touchdown run to ice a victory for the Atlanta Falcons.

Finally, it was Brandon Marshall’s turn last week. The receiver scored on two long receptions on which he was embarrassingly wide open, staking the Denver Broncos to a first-quarter lead.

The meltdowns represent a major shift: The defense allowed only one gain of 35 yards or more in the first six games of the season. In the past three games, however, the unit surrendered seven such plays - including five for touchdowns.

The Redskins blame themselves more than they credit their opponents for those game-changing moments.

“The big plays are on us,” rookie linebacker Brian Orakpo said. “We gotta not have busted coverages and not miss tackles. We get those two things down, we’ll be fine [where] the big plays are concerned.”

Those big plays have been coming fast in the past three games, two of them losses.

Jackson scored on a 67-yard end around and later used a double move to get free for a 57-yard touchdown catch in an Eagles victory Oct. 26.

Turner dodged blown tackles and rumbled 58 yards for a victory-clinching touchdown for the Falcons on Nov. 8. He also scored on a 30-yard run in the second quarter.

Marshall twice beat defenders on double moves to score on receptions of 40 and 75 yards in the first quarter of the Redskins’ victory over the Broncos on Sunday. Cornerback Carlos Rogers was benched after getting burned on the fourth play of the game.

“The first thing you’ve got to do is play the design of the defense,” secondary coach Jerry Gray said. “That will take away that 75-yarder. Then get your eyes on the receiver, and that’ll take away the second one. … What happened in Atlanta, you’ve got to [tackle with] your arms and you’ve got to be in the right gap. When you do that, you take away a lot of stuff.

“We did it the first five or six weeks of the season, and we can do it again right now.”

Perhaps, but it’s no coincidence that the cracks in the Redskins’ fifth-ranked defense were exposed as the caliber of the competition improved.

Of the Redskins’ first six opponents, only the New York Giants currently hold a winning record and have an offense ranked among the top 20 in the league. The Redskins’ three most recent foes all have winning records, and the offenses of the Eagles and Falcons rank among the top 15.

Sunday’s opponent raises the level of competition still higher: The Cowboys have a 6-3 record, and their offense ranks fourth in the league and averages 6.3 yards a play - more than all other teams except the unbeaten New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts.

The Cowboys also have a roster stuffed with players who have made gains of 35 yards or more this season: running backs Marion Barber, Felix Jones and Tashard Choice, and receivers Miles Austin, Patrick Crayton, Roy Williams and Sam Hurd.

That list doesn’t even include perennial Pro Bowl tight end Jason Witten, whose longest catch this year went for 22 yards.

“They’re real physical when you’ve got [Barber] in the game,” Gray said. “They can run outside when you bring [Jones] in the game. They can hit you in so many different ways that you’ve got to make sure that you’re solid all the way across the board.”

Said linebacker London Fletcher: “Because they have so many weapons… at any point in time, the guy you’re covering could be the guy that they’ll try to get the ball to for a big-play opportunity. Because we have given up some big plays, teams are going to attack us… until you show the ability to stop it and stop it more than once.”

Gray said that while Barber, Austin and Co. are dangerous, the Cowboys’ quarterback remains the key.

“The big plays come from Tony Romo,” Gray said. “He scrambles a lot, does a lot of things to get guys open, and receivers are always working down the field. You see Miles Austin, all of the sudden he comes up with a 200-yard game because he works after the catch. It’s not just, ‘I’m going to beat you.’ ”

Coach Jim Zorn, who made his name as a scrambling quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks, knows that Romo’s legs are as crucial as his arm. The Redskins have sacked Romo only four times in his five previous starts against them.

“We’ve got to try to get to him,” Zorn said. “When he moves around… it causes the secondary, the linebackers to hesitate. … Then, if he can pull it down and have time to hit somebody else, it’s very hard.

“You got the coverage and if [they] throw on rhythm you think you can handle it. When that rhythm’s broken… it’s the most difficult thing in football. It’s what makes those quarterbacks very difficult to defend, and he’s been good at it for a few years.”

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