The Washington Redskins' offense was sputtering as usual last Sunday when an unlikely source finally provided a spark.
After five empty possessions — one fumble and four punts — Washington faced third-and-7 from the Dallas Cowboys' 29-yard line. Receiver David Anderson, who was out of football just 12 days earlier, lined up in the left slot. He beat his defender with a wheel route, first running up the field, then bending to the sideline and then turning back upfield.
Rex Grossman lofted a pass out in front of Anderson, a relatively low-percentage throw, but Anderson made a diving backhanded catch for a 22 yards. Three plays later, the Redskins scored a touchdown. Soon after that, they scored again to take their first lead since Week 4.
"Anytime you have something positive happen," Grossman said, "usually it builds momentum."
Although the Redskins lost, there was unmistakable progress on offense. What else would you call 24 points in one game after totaling 20 in the previous three?
Players and coaches this week were cautiously optimistic that it would carry over to the final six games of the season, beginning with Sunday's road game against the Seattle Seahawks. Whether they will end their six-game losing streak depends on it.
"Until we prove otherwise, it was just one game," Grossman said. "I've got a lot of confidence [and] I feel like something clicked. It's just a gut feeling. Our offense has maybe finally turned the corner, but you can't say that until you go out and prove it week-in and week-out."
The blueprint, at least, was re-established against Dallas. The Redskins took a first-half lead and kept the game close. That allowed them to continue running the ball throughout, despite averaging an unproductive 2.8 yards per carry.
Their 24 rushes were the most in any game during their six-game skid and only the second time in that span they ran the ball more than 16 times. By contrast, Dallas' 32 rushes were the fewest by an opponent during the streak.
"We haven't gotten the big runs that we need to open up the run game," offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said. "What was good was being in the game and having the score close. We were able to get a lot more carries than we've had the last month, which always helps that pass rush. [We're] just hoping to get one to break sooner or later."
Simply running the ball wasn't enough, though. The Redskins must run it more effectively. That figures to be a struggle against a Seattle defense that ranks third in the NFL in yards allowed per carry.
The Redskins' ineptitude results from two clear deficiencies. Offensive linemen are not consistently executing their blocks, and running backs are not maximizing cutback lanes.
For example, take Ryan Torain's 2-yard gain on a first down in the first quarter last week. Right tackle Jammal Brown did not get to Cowboys inside linebacker Sean Lee in time to block him. With Brown trailing Lee's outside shoulder, Lee slid inside, filled the hole and made the stop.
"We haven't done a great job making a big play and making a guy miss," Shanahan said. "Until we do, [Jammal] does have to get there. He's got to get there every time, and we've got to get [defenders] all down to get a big play.
"But they aren't going to always get there. Lee is faster than a lot of guys we have on our team, let alone our offensive linemen, so we can't always count on that. We've just got to get him to overrun the hole and the back has got to cut it back."
Grossman, at least, has rejuvenated the passing game. He moved the offense against Miami after being reinstated as the starter, but several breakdowns kept the Redskins out of the end zone.
They broke through against Dallas, though, with three touchdowns. Nine Redskins caught passes, the most in one game this season.
"We're getting back to the formula that we showed earlier in the season where we were able to spread the ball out and take chances downfield and make the defense play honest versus us instead of trying to take away just one part of our game," receiver Anthony Armstrong said.
Receiver Santana Moss' expected return from a four-game absence should help, too. His fractured left hand healed enough for him to practice this week.
"It was on and poppin'," Moss said.
The Redskins hope they can say the same for their entire offense Sunday night. After progressing in consecutive games, they sense another step forward — one that results in victory.
"It gave guys some confidence knowing that they can do this," Shanahan said. "We are capable. We've just got to play our best."
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