- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 1, 2006

The subplots are many.

Mark Brunell and his stitched-up left elbow face his former team. Byron Leftwich faces his boyhood team. The Jacksonville Jaguars defensive front goes against the Washington Redskins’ offensive line. And there’s a marquee matchup in the secondary — the Redskins’ Santana Moss against the Jaguars’ Rashean Mathis.

But when the all-important big picture is brought into focus, it is clear for the Redskins: If they beat the Jaguars, they’ll be 2-2 at the season’s quarter pole and right in the thick of the conference and division playoff races; if they lose to Jacksonville, they’ll be 1-3 and in the same position they were in moments before kickoff last week at Houston — big-time trouble.

“The difference between 2-2 and 1-3 is big,” Brunell said. “Fortunately, we’re at home. Unfortunately, we’re going against one of the best teams in the NFL.”

Said defensive end Phillip Daniels: “We have to do whatever it takes to get back to a level playing field.”

What it will take is the Redskins’ best effort of the season. Jacksonville, a 12-4 playoff team last year, is probably better this year. The Jaguars are 2-1 with wins over Dallas and Pittsburgh and a narrow 21-14 loss at Indianapolis last week.

The Redskins need a top performance from Clinton Portis (164 total yards, two touchdowns last week) against the Jaguars’ third-ranked run defense; a strong showing from Moss, who has no 100-yard games and no touchdowns this season; a better start by the defense, which has allowed opening-drive scores each game; and a team-wide reduction in penalties (the Redskins lead the league with 30).

“This is one of the top-flight groups in the league,” coach Joe Gibbs said. “We’ve got to play perfect across the board. We have to get them off the field with our defense, try to make something happen with our offense and special teams will be a big deal.

“You’re hoping for error-free play because that’s the only way you have a chance.”

While playing error-free is close to impossible, playing well across the board is not.

In the locker room this week, Redskins special teams players were wearing T-shirts that read, “Execution Under Pressure,” a slogan not limited to that group.

“That goes for everybody,” Daniels said. “That’s the thing about this game — you have to execute to be any good. If you don’t, they’ll find holes in your game and take advantage.”

One hole will be on defense, where the Redskins’ will again be without cornerback Shawn Springs, missing his fourth straight game.

Portis’ return last week helped fix the holes on offense, which totaled 495 yards against a poor Houston team. He ran 16 times for 86 yards and two touchdowns and caught two passes for 78 yards.

The passing game, running almost entirely short routes, also featured a 22-for-27 day by Brunell.

But the next step for associate head coach Al Saunders is to find holes in the Jaguars’ secondary to use more of his deep-ball offense.

Of the eight completions that gained 20-plus yards, three came on short passes that were turned into big gains, highlighted by Portis’ 74-yard reception.

“Bubble screens, wide receiver screens, swing screens to the running backs and receivers — they do a lot of different things with the short passing game,” Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio said.

Said Saunders: “You do what you think is effective on a given day and we would like to throw the ball downfield more than we have.”

Portis’ return should aid Saunders’ efforts to stretch the field. When Portis is on, the defense is forced to commit an extra defender, which, the Redskins hope, creates more room downfield.

“That’s what we’re hoping for, understanding full well that it’s not easy,” Brunell said. “It would be big for us. Last week was a special day and hopefully we’ll be able to carry that momentum. But we have our hands full.”

Although the Jaguars’ defense is a shell of the one Brunell saw in his final Jacksonville season (2003), Brunell knows the basics: Monster defensive tackles, physical corners, solid linebackers.

“Sometimes you watch film of a team and you can find an area where you think you can attack,” he said. “That’s not the case with this team.”

Said Gibbs: “I don’t think anybody expects to have what happened [in Houston] happen this week. It just doesn’t happen.”

Jacksonville is in the middle of the pack offensively (16th), averaging 322 yards a game. But they feature just as many weapons as the Redskins. Leftwich, playing for the first time in the area, is completing 64.4 percent of his passes. Five Jaguars players have at least 10 catches. And Fred Taylor (240 yards rushing) is being complemented by rookie Maurice Jones-Drew (6.8 yards a carry).

“We’re trying to get to .500 and they’re trying to avoid .500,” Portis said. “We’re going to slug it out.”

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