- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 16, 2003

They proved they could run an efficient, mistake-free offense, silencing the host of critics who questioned whether they were capable of such a performance.

Now, the Washington Redskins must prove they can do it again — against one of the NFL’s staunchest defenses, nonetheless — or else risk falling back into the abyss of doubt and turmoil that plagued them for the last month.

It was one thing for the Redskins and their new-look offense to produce a 27-20 victory over the Seattle Seahawks. It will be another if they can pull off a similar victory over the Carolina Panthers.

There are other compelling storylines to today’s game at Ericsson Stadium, most notably Panthers running back Stephen Davis’ first regular-season game against the team that unceremoniously cut him last winter. But above all else, most observers want to see whether the Redskins were one-week wonders on offense or whether last Sunday’s performance was a precursor of better things to come.

Washington coach Steve Spurrier won praise from critics around the country last week when he handed play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Hue Jackson. Behind Jackson’s more-conservative plays and a Spurrier-Jackson gameplan that was designed to keep quarterback Patrick Ramsey out of trouble, the Redskins (4-5) ran through the Seahawks and snapped their four-game losing streak in the process.

Seattle, however, wasn’t known for defense and certainly not for putting pressure on the quarterback. Defensive coordinator Ray Rhodes was lambasted by local media for not blitzing Ramsey, a tactic employed by other teams that on countless occasions this season was effective.

The Redskins expect a different approach from the Panthers (7-2) and their standout defense.

“Seattle had not been a great pass rush team; most teams have had time to throw when they rushed their four guys,” Spurrier said. “Carolina is a lot different. They have excellent rushers. All four of those guys are really good.”

More specifically, the Panthers have one of the best defensive end tandems in the league in Julius Peppers and Mike Rucker. Peppers, the 2002 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, already has built such a reputation that opponents are continuously double-teaming the left end. That has freed space for right end Rucker, who has parlayed the lack of attention into a league-high 11 sacks.

“It’s going to be a great matchup for us,” Redskins right tackle Jon Jansen said.

As if the challenge of stopping Carolina’s front four wasn’t daunting enough, Washington must also prepare for blitzing linebackers and safeties. The Buffalo Bills and Dallas Cowboys deployed that strategy, and the Redskins couldn’t pick it up.

Panthers coach John Fox didn’t reveal specific plans his team has in store, but Washington’s players know what to expect today.

“I’d be surprised if they didn’t blitz,” tackle Chris Samuels said.

Whether the Redskins can withstand the pressure and be successful against the blitz will depend on two factors: the ability of their running backs and tight ends to pick up the pass rushers and the ability of Jackson to continue to find ways to keep Ramsey out of harm’s way.

Washington’s offensive line has taken plenty of heat for its inability to protect Ramsey (he has been sacked 26 times), but the tight ends and running backs have come under fire of late because they are usually the ones charged with picking up linebackers and safeties.

Spurrier and Jackson called for more maximum protection packages last week — as many as eight players stay back to block. In addition, the Redskins could benefit from having their top two blocking backs on the field at the same time. Fullback Rock Cartwright saw extensive time at tailback against Seattle and was praised for his running ability, but he’s also adept at blocking.

Cartwright is not slated to start today (Jackson said tailback Trung Canidate will get the first opportunity to carry the ball). However, he will continue to line up at tailback with some regularity, putting Cartwright and fullback Bryan Johnson on the field together.

Along with the extra blocking personnel, the Redskins will look to keep Ramsey out of trouble by putting him in advantageous situations. Last week, Jackson called for quick, three-step drops that allowed Ramsey to get rid of the ball before any defenders could get to him. Ramsey also ran some roll-outs, which are designed to buy him some time.

“I expect to react to whatever they show,” Ramsey said of the Panthers defense. “We expected Seattle to blitz more. So I think the Panthers expect to be able to create some pressure with their front four because they have done that against everyone else. At the same time, we have a capable group up front that can help slow down that push.”

Of course, there is more to today’s game than Washington’s challenge against the Carolina defense. The Redskins realize even the best of offensive performances won’t produce an upset victory unless their suspect run defense can shut down a highly motivated Davis.

Davis, who was cut by the Redskins for salary cap purposes and his poor fit with Spurrier’s Fun ‘n’ Gun offense, has done his best to downplay this game.

“I know he’s going to be real pumped up about it,” cornerback Fred Smoot said. “Anytime a person gets to play against their old team, they’re going to come out with emotion. We need to kill his emotion early in the first half.”

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