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Backups need to stem tide as starters mend
PITTSBURGH — Robert Griffin III stood in the pocket in the rain and scrambled on the wet grass at Heinz Field looking for targets. Fred Davis, his most popular one this season, wasn't there.
London Fletcher kept his consecutive-games-played streak alive, and Ryan Kerrigan tried to get to Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. There was no help coming from pass-rush specialist Brian Orakpo.
The reason for the Washington Redskins' struggles in their loss to the Steelers and throughout this year isn't as simple being banged up on both sides of the ball. But it's obvious that injuries to difference-makers are taking their toll.
The Redskins are without Orakpo, Davis and defensive end Adam Carriker for the season, and they might not have wide receiver Pierre Garcon or safety Brandon Meriweather anytime soon.
"Rak's not coming back this year, Adam's not coming back this year," Fletcher said. "But at the end of the day, [in] this NFL, injuries happen. You're one play away in this league sometimes. The guys who are in those positions playing, they have to play and we expect them to play well. We're not going to make excuses about who's not here."
That's a veteran leader espousing accountability in a locker room full of guys willing to step up in place of those injured playmakers. But it's hard to argue that those key injuries don't make a major difference between the Redskins being good and mediocre or worse.
Sunday's loss was a clear example. As would-be receivers dropped nine passes, the absence of Davis (team-best 24 catches for 325 yards) was obvious.
"Of course you miss Fred," coach Mike Shanahan said. "If somebody told you that you don't miss a Pro Bowl [caliber] player, they'd be lying to you."
Tight end Chris Cooley was the no-brainer replacement signing when Davis ruptured his left Achilles tendon against the New York Giants, but he was targeted only once and generally was a nonfactor in the 27-12 loss to the Steelers. Logan Paulsen had a 31-yard catch, but other than that had three catches for 12 yards.
"You've got to step up," fullback Darrel Young said. "We lost Fred the last four games of last season. And we didn't have Cooley until now, and we won games. It's not about one individual."
But each individual injury adds up. With Garcon likely out through the bye week (Nov. 11) and possibly beyond, Joshua Morgan was the leading wide receiver against the Steelers, and he had just five catches for 46 yards.
Without players who can stretch the field and keep defenders busy such as Garcon and Davis, the Redskins cannot afford to give yards and points away with drops.
"We just put the ball on the ground," receiver Leonard Hankerson said. "No excuses at all. We've just got to make those plays."
Plays have to be made on defense, too. Linebacker Rob Jackson, who replaced Orakpo in the starting lineup, has been a pleasant surprise. But it's hard to expect defensive end Jarvis Jenkins to do everything Carriker did and even more difficult to expect the safety trio of Reed Doughty, DeJon Gomes and Jordan Pugh to compensate for Meriweather's absence.
"The next guy has to step up and make plays. I don't think guys feel extra pressure to try to fill their void," linebacker Lorenzo Alexander said. "You go out there and try to do your job and make plays as best as possible. We still got guys that can make plays on this team and step up."
That's the theme, as players echo Shanahan's football mantra of "next man up." It's natural that a drop-off will happen from first-stringers starting to backups filling in, and the domino effect down the roster can't be ignored.
But that's the difference in the Redskins being a middling team or one that can contend.
"You build a team with depth," Alexander said. "That's why we have 53 men on the roster. There's not always going to be a big drop-off if you lose a guy. You'd rather have certain people there, but the next guy's got to step up because a lot of guys get hurt.
"You've seen it in the past with different teams; they get hurt and they still end up making the playoffs because they play with depth."
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