- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 3, 2006

It has been a little more than two months since the Washington Redskins began training camp and quarterback Mark Brunell said he would be disappointed if the team didn’t take another step forward in the postseason.

Since then, Clinton Portis and Shawn Springs suffered injuries. The offense experienced growing pains before rallying to their current standing as No. 3 in yards. Fans panicked after an 0-2 regular season start. That panic receded after wins over Houston and Jacksonville.

Now it’s on to the next four games — at the Giants, home against Tennessee, at Indianapolis and, after the bye, home against Dallas? Here are six areas to watch for the next month.

1. Portis’ health — Portis carried 27 times against the Jaguars and reported the shoulder made it through the game. He should continue to expect a heavy workload because that’s what associate head coach-offense Al Saunders believes in. Portis has shown how important he is to the Redskins’ offense the last two games (43 carries for 198 yards and three touchdowns). When Joe Gibbs’ teams have 40 or more rushes, the Redskins are 120-19. When they have 25 or fewer rushes, they’re 9-48.

2. Springs’ return — But not too quickly. Springs won’t be of use if he comes back at less than 100 percent. Mobility is the top priority for a cover cornerback and Springs will need all of his parts working. Springs has missed all four regular season games and hasn’t survived a full practice since Aug. 11. When he does come back, he’ll have an impact on the defense because it will allow Gregg Williams to be more aggressive. My guess is that Springs will return in a reserve role for the Tennessee game on Oct. 15.

3. Coverage issues — The Redskins’ defense is having trouble covering running backs and tight ends. Those two position groups have combined to make 31 catches for 370 yards (11.9 average). Sure, the linebackers and safeties have to be aware of a team’s top receivers, but too many completions are being made to wide open backs and tight ends, who then gain a lot of yards after the catch.

4. Brunell’s effectiveness — The 36-year-old southpaw has passed for 590 yards and four touchdowns in the last two games. But remember, he had a great first half of 2005 before sliding. Maybe there’s something to be said for resting him during the week so his throws have more zip on Sundays. But as long as the offensive line — no sacks allowed in the two wins — keeps No. 8 upright and the rush doesn’t force him out of the pocket, he might have three more good months left.

5. The progress of Andre Carter and Adam Archuleta — Each big-ticket free agent acquisition had their first sack of the season in the last two weeks (Archuleta at Houston, Carter against Jacksonville). They will be expected to produce more of the same as they get more comfortable with the defense. Carter showed flashes of the motor that earned him a huge contract during the offseason, but I’m withholding judgement on Archuleta until Springs comes back. Without Springs, Archuleta is forced to play more coverage, and he clearly struggles in that role. With Springs, Archuleta can be used as a run stopper and blitzer.

6. John Hall’s production — Maligned for most of the preseason, Hall has proved why Gibbs had so much confidence in him. Hall is 8-for-9 on field goals this season and has taken over the kickoff duties with decent success. The longer Hall stays healthy, it represents one less problem Gibbs has to be concerned with and might also let Saunders be more aggressive inside the 30-yard line when he doesn’t have to worry about a sack taking the Redskins out of field goal range.

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