Heading into a game against the NFL's best offense this weekend, the Washington Redskins suddenly find themselves woefully thin at safety.
That scenario is far from ideal with Peyton Manning and the pass-happy Denver Broncos on tap. But the Redskins will have to deal with it after the NFL on Monday handed free safety Brandon Meriweather a two-game suspension for repeated violations of the league's ban on hits to the head of defenseless players.
Meriweather can appeal the suspension this week. If that is not successful then he would miss Sunday's game against the Broncos and the following week's contest at home against the San Diego Chargers. He can't practice with the team and, if the suspension stands, would not be reinstated until Nov. 4. He would also lose $141,176 in salary.
Meriweather's absence hurts even more given the health of veteran safety Reed Doughty, who sustained a concussion this past weekend against the Chicago Bears. His status for the Denver game is unknown, according to coach Mike Shanahan. Washington, according to a league source, can sign an additional player to take Meriweather's place on the roster.
During the Redskins' 45-41 victory over the Bears, Meriweather was penalized for illegal hits on wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. Those penalties go along with the two Meriweather took during a Sept. 15 game in Green Bay.
The NFL fined Meriweather $42,000 for one of those. That helmet-to-helmet collision with Eddie Lacy gave the Packers running back a concussion and knocked him from the game. Meriweather has a long history of fines for similar plays. He accrued $95,000 worth in 2010 and 2011 alone, according to Sports Illustrated.
Meriweather was not available to comment. Earlier Monday afternoon, Shanahan said he had spoken with league officials and was confident a suspension wasn't forthcoming. But that proved more of a hopeful statement than a factual one.
"My opinion really doesn't matter here," Shanahan admitted. "It's what the league thinks and so we're going to wait until the due process and see what they say and we'll go from there."
The first personal foul on Meriweather in Sunday's game came with 1:54 left in the third quarter for a late hit on Jeffery. That came on a second-and-5 play with the Redskins ahead 31-24. Jeffrey was credited with a 28-yard catch into Washington territory and the ball was moved forward to the 28. Chicago scored four plays later on a Matt Forte touchdown run.
The next penalty was for hitting a defenseless receiver. Meriweather came in late on Marshall to break up a pass in the end zone. It was a first-and-goal play at the 14 thanks to a previous Bears penalty. With a new set of downs and the ball at the 7 thanks to the flag on Meriweather, Chicago scored on a throw to tight end Martellus Bennett to take a 41-38 lead.
"I understand. I get it. I was one of those guys. I played defense growing up," Marshall told reporters after the game. "On the offensive side I even play that way. But with the rules in place, you have to respect it. Guys like [Meriweather] just don't understand. Those are the guys that are in trouble."
Washington's coaching staff has worked with Meriweather over the last few weeks to curb his penchant for these types of penalties. For three weeks he was fine. But on Sunday, he relapsed.
"I think [Meriweather] knows exactly what he has to do," Shanahan said. "Sometimes there's no intent there. Sometimes you hit a guy a little bit higher than anticipated. Even on the last one, he comes to the sideline and says 'One [official] told me it was a good hit and the other official told me that he saw it differently.' So there's a lot of different interpretations of it and at the end of the day we'll find out."
What they learned was Meriweather will miss a game on the road against Manning and what is the league's best offense (469.3 yards per game) by a wide margin.
Take away Meriweather, and the remaining safeties are Doughty, Jose Gumbs, rookie Bacarri Rambo and second-year pro Trenton Robinson, who was signed as a free agent last week after being cut by the Philadelphia Eagles. Robinson was active on Sunday and played special teams. Reserve cornerback E.J. Biggers has experience playing safety, too.
Doughty's concussion came during a fourth-quarter onside kick by the Bears, but he is not necessarily out against Denver. Rookie corner David Amerson suffered a concussion on Oct. 13 against Dallas, passed several neuropsychological tests during the week and eventually was cleared to play against Chicago.
"[Doughty] will get tested [on Tuesday] and then he'll go through the same protocol we did last week with all of our players," Shanahan said. "He'll be tested every day and hopefully he'll be fine and ready to go."
Meriweather's teammates tried to stick up for him on Sunday. Defensive lineman Barry Cofield and cornerback DeAngelo Hall both thought the first hit on Jeffery was clean. But Hall conceded that even defensive backs coach Raheem Morris thought the following hit on Marshall would spell trouble for Meriweather. He was right.
"I don't know if [Meriweather] is being targeted. That's kind of the rules we have in this day and age of football," Hall said. "They said something about him [tackling] a little lower, and then a guy hits him low, and then you're saying, 'Well, that's his ankle, that's his knee.' I don't know what more you want defenders to do."
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