- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Washington Redskins envisioned something different for Antwaan Randle El when they poached him from the Pittsburgh Steelers: an effective third receiver who wasn’t afraid to do the dirty work over the middle and could find the first-down marker.

In 2005, the Redskins thought he was an ideal complement to Santana Moss and Brandon Lloyd. That didn’t happen: Lloyd was a bust, which thrust Randle El into an every-down role.

Trying again last year, the Redskins drafted Malcolm Kelly and Devin Thomas in hopes of changing Randle El’s role. The rookies struggled, and Randle El set career highs with 53 catches and four touchdowns.

But if one game this year is any indication, the Redskins have found Randle El’s perfect role.

In Sunday’s season-opening loss to the New York Giants, Randle El, working mostly from the inside receiver position, caught seven passes (tied for the most since he came to the Redskins) for a team-high 98 yards.

The passing game, which was efficient when Jason Campbell had time, was a positive in the loss. The Redskins took only one deep shot but posted nine completions of 11 or more yards (including four to Randle El). All this came with Moss, Kelly and Thomas combining for three catches.

All of Randle El’s catches came when he lined up as the inside receiver.

“Like I told him, he’s an outstanding slot receiver because of his speed and quickness, and he has experience so he can beat the nickel corner,” receivers coach Stan Hixon said Tuesday.

Randle El lost the No. 2 job to Kelly during training camp, a decision that didn’t chafe him much because coach Jim Zorn runs so many three- and four-receiver formations.

“I had to get away from stressing about it because I wanted to be the starter,” Randle El said. “But of course that didn’t happen. I just had to transfer my focus.”

That focus was evident against the Giants. Even though Kelly is the second receiver, Randle El was on the field for two more snaps, and six of his catches resulted in first downs. By sitting out 16 plays and even taking a series off, Randle El stayed fresh for key situations.

“He wasn’t tired by playing both outside and inside [positions],” Hixon said. “When he went in, he was at top speed. And being the second year in the offense he knows what he’s doing, and he and Jason can react a lot faster to each other.”

Said Zorn: “He did a wonderful job. We had him open a lot, and he just beat his guy. He got into open space and was able to do something with the ball.”

Randle El doesn’t have Moss’ downfield ability but knows how to find an open pocket in coverage. His quarterback experience at Indiana and 112 games in the NFL give Randle El a defined view of where Campbell needs him to be.

“He knows what everybody is doing,” Hixon said. “When he gets a chance to read the defense, he knows which defender will be in his area, and that comes from playing receiver and doing his film study.”

The Giants concentrated their double teams on Moss to the outside and also kept an eye on tight end Chris Cooley, who also caught seven passes. That left Randle El in man coverage.

“It was great - I was loving that,” he said. “That’s why we need every guy ready to go, because if they try to take one or two of us, the others have to be where you’re supposed to be and when you’re supposed to be so Jason can find you.”

Zorn also revealed that he isn’t afraid to empty the backfield, which essentially invites the opposing defense to blitz. That opens up underneath patterns for a quick throw to Randle El.

The Redskins went without a running back eight times and gained 46 yards. Only one time did Zorn have four receivers on the field - he spread the field by moving Cooley or running back Ladell Betts to an outside receiver spot or going two tight ends with Cooley and Fred Davis.

“Yeah, we like that empty,” Randle El said. “We knew they would try to blitz us when we empty a couple of times, and we tried to beat them with some quick routes.”

Said Zorn: “It’s really a change-up, and it keeps defenses on their heels a little bit and off their pure pass rush.”

With Randle El and Cooley established and unafraid to spread the field, Zorn’s next job is to devise ways for Moss and Kelly to break loose. Moss is just glad the passing game was functional without his production.

“[Randle El] and Cooley ate those guys apart, and that’s what I like about the situation - they’re going to set me off, and I’m going to set somebody else off,” he said. “When it comes, I’m going to be ready for it. Just to see our offense be moved by other guys, it was helpful to see.”

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