The question of the week at Redskin Park is whether Skip Hicks can carry the load in Saturday’s NFC semifinal game at Tampa Bay if Stephen Davis can’t go.
Trainer Bubba Tyer is more concerned about Davis’ “real sore” left ankle than the mildly sprained right knee he suffered in last Saturday’s playoff-opening victory over Detroit. Davis was better yesterday but remains doubtful for the Buccaneers.
“I’m preparing as if I’m going to be the starter,” Hicks said. “If Stephen’s ready, he’ll be in there. If not, I’ll be ready. I won’t be nervous. It’s not like I haven’t started before.”
But Mark Fischer, who would play if center Cory Raymer doesn’t recover from a strained rib muscle he suffered against the Lions, has never started. Tyer said Raymer was a little better yesterday but remains doubtful. And with left tackle Andy Heck out after tearing his left hamstring against Detroit, Kipp Vickers will make his first start as a Redskin and his first in the NFL since November 1996.
“If Cory can walk into the building for treatment, he’ll play,” offensive line coach Russ Grimm predicted.
No matter who’s blocking, the speedy Hicks simply isn’t the same runner as NFC rushing champion Davis. Take Saturday’s playoff-opening victory over Detroit. Davis, who had missed the previous 2 and 1/2 games with the sprained ankle, ran 15 times for 119 yards and two touchdowns before spraining the knee in the second quarter. Hicks took over and produced just 46 yards on 23 carries.
“We like to run between the tackles, so I’ve been working on that,” said Hicks, whose inclination is to bounce everything outside. “Sometimes I have a problem with hitting the hole too fast, not waiting for my blocks or taking too long and missing the hole.”
Admittedly, Davis generated 90 of his yards on two runs. That leaves him with just 29 on his other 13 carries for an ugly 2.2-yard average. But that was still higher than Hicks’ 2.0.
“Skip has a different style than Stephen, but we’ve played pretty well with Skip in there,” Redskins coach Norv Turner said. “Skip would have been better [if Heck hadn’t been hurt and left guard Tre Johnson hadn’t been ejected in the third quarter].”
The previous game in which both halfbacks played was Dec. 19 at Indianapolis. Davis carried 14 times for 70 yards before injuring his ankle. Hicks came in and carried 11 times for just 39 yards.
And during the two games Davis sat out at the end of the season against San Francisco and Miami, Hicks rushed for 101 yards on 35 carries. That’s not even three yards a carry.
Hicks has played well in his two career games against the Bucs, but neither had the pressure he will face Saturday. Washington hasn’t gone farther than this since its 1991 Super Bowl season, and Tampa Bay hasn’t advanced beyond this round since its loss in the 1979 NFC Championship game.
With Terry Allen out with a sprained ankle, Hicks started last Dec. 19 against Tampa Bay. In a game the Bucs had to win to keep their playoff hopes alive, Hicks gained 59 yards on 11 carries. That’s a fine 5.4-yard average, but take away a 28-yard run and Hicks rushed for just 31 yards on 10 carries, a pedestrian 3.1-yard average.
Hicks was more consistent in the preseason finale against the Bucs on Sept. 3. He carried 12 times for 61 yards (with a long run of just 13 yards) and scored a touchdown. However, all of that work was accomplished against Tampa Bay’s second-string defense (albeit with Washington’s second-string offensive line blocking for him).
The Bucs allowed the NFC’s fewest points and yards and second-fewest rushing yards this season. Other than the inexplicable 45-0 loss at Oakland four weeks ago, the Bucs didn’t allow more than 17 points in any of its final 10 regular season games.
“They have a great defense,” Hicks said. “They’re very fast, very physical. But we have a very explosive offense. It should be a pretty good showdown.”
Despite the turnaround by the Washington defense, which has given up an average of just 14 points the past eight games (not counting two special teams touchdown and another on a fumble return), it’s hard to see the Redskins scoring enough points without Davis to pull off the upset.