Thanks to an unforgiving rash of injuries at the position, the Washington Redskins have been forced to cycle through a series of different lead running backs this season in search of a more permanent answer.
Veteran Clinton Portis couldn't shake a series of injuries and was recently placed on I.R. Larry Johnson got just five carries before his release. Ryan Torain appeared to be the answer in Portis' absence but has been slowed by a hamstring strain. Undrafted rookie Keiland Williams is the team's second-leading rusher but he ceded time last week to the recently-added James Davis. They even have first-year man Andre Brown on the roster now, becoming the second team to sign that very same player shortly before facing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this year (Carolina did the same thing in Week 10).
Washington's passing attack, however, is the exact opposite, and not surprisingly ranked ninth in the NFL in yards per game.
The Redskins' quarterback is Donovan McNabb, one of the most experienced passers in the league and the starter for all 12 games so far. McNabb has thrown all but seven of Washington's passes this season – the exceptions coming during the infamous Rex Grossman two-minute drill at Detroit on Halloween. Only four active quarterbacks in the league have more career passing yards than the Redskins' starter: Brett Favre, Peyton Manning and Kerry Collins.
More to the point, though, McNabb has been relying on the same top targets all year, and they have given him and the Redskins exactly what was expected. Since 2005, the Redskins have had the same two players at the top of their receiving list every season except one: wide receiver Santana Moss and tight end Chris Cooley.
The exception in that span was 2009, when injuries limited Cooley to seven games and 29 receptions. From 2005-08, however, Moss averaged 69.8 receptions per season and Cooley averaged 69.3. Moss led the team in catches in '05, his first year as a Redskin, with Cooley second. In each of the next three years, Cooley topped the list with Moss second.
So the Redskins' receptions chart in 2010 looks about as one would expect: Moss at the top with 64 receptions, Cooley right behind with 60. Moss is on pace for 85 receptions, which would be one over his career high as a Redskin (84 in 2005) and Cooley is on pace for 80, which would be three under his career high (83 in 2008).
In other words, as much as the Buccaneers' defensive game plan usually starts with containing the opposing running game, it's pretty clear that Moss and Cooley will be Concerns 1A and 1B at FedExField this Sunday.
"When you're talking about Santana you're talking about speed, talent and quickness," said Tampa Bay Head Coach Raheem Morris, who was serving a coaching internship with the New York Jets in 2001 when they drafted Moss. "We've been able to see him a lot – it's almost like we're division opponents, we play each other so commonly. I know him pretty well. He's tough to deal with because he can run by you. He's quick enough to foot-fake you and create those kinds of problems as well. You've got to match up."
Obviously, the Bucs would have an easier time matching up with Moss if they hadn't just lost star left cornerback Aqib Talib, who had three interceptions against the Redskins a year ago, to a season-ending hip injury. But Talib's replacement in the starting lineup, second-year corner E.J. Biggers, is one of the team's fastest players and has done well this year when challenged on deep balls.
"We've got some guys that can match up with him somewhat," said Morris. "Biggers is a quick, shorter, faster guy like he is and he gives us probably the best chance to cover a guy like that. But we also have a guy like Myron Lewis, who has length and can cause some problems for him. You've got to go out and play the game situations."
Cooley is another in a string of dangerous tight ends the Buccaneers have faced in the last month. Tampa Bay did quite well against San Francisco's Vernon Davis in Week 11 and Atlanta's Tony Gonzalez in Week 13 but were burned for a 65-yard touchdown by Baltimore's Todd Heap in Week 12. In holding Gonzalez to three catches for 38 yards last Sunday, the Buccaneers occasionally utilized savvy cornerback Ronde Barber as a spy on the pass-catching big man.
"Cooley you know is going to be a big-time third down, big-time red zone threat," said Morris. "He's a competitor. He's been a big-time threat since he's been in the league. He also presents problems. With a tight end, whenever you have a problem that you can't answer you just put Ronde on him and then try to figure it out from there. We have some athletic linebackers we can put in coverage sometimes who do a good job. Sometimes you've got to use Ronde, sometimes you can use a linebacker and sometimes you can use a safety as well. We'll mix it up on all those guys and try to figure it out."
Tampa Bay counters Washington's ninth-ranked passing attack with their own seventh-ranked pass defense. That's nothing new – the Bucs have finished in the top 10 in the NFL's pass defense rankings in 12 of the last 14 seasons. They have, along the way, endured injuries to key player and overcome the loss of starters on multiple occasions. They expect to do the same with their current Talib-less lineup, and they won't be adjusting the game plan to accommodate Biggers, Lewis or any other new contributors.
"Every game plan is different," said Morris. "You go into some game plans with the mentality of man[-to-man coverage], you go into some game plans with the mentality of zone. We have our plan for those guys and we'll go out and try to execute it to the best of our ability. We have to figure out the rest of those things as they come. But you don't dictate it around Aqib. Really, it's about the next man stepping up and becoming that guy. We didn't change [the game plan] in Atlanta when it happened, so you've got to be ready to assume those responsibilities."
Among the Leaders
Aqib Talib had four interceptions as a rookie in 2008, five in his first season as a full-time starter in 2009 and now six in what has truly been a breakout year in 2010. Talib's pick total ranks just one behind that of Philadelphia's Asante Samuel for the NFL lead, but unfortunately the Bucs' top pass thief won't get a chance to catch Samuel over the last quarter of the season. Talib went to injured reserve on Monday thanks to a hip injury suffered against the Falcons.
Still, Talib is likely to finish the season as one of the NFL's most prolific interceptors in 2010. Only seven players in the league have as many as five picks so far this season, and only four others have at least four, so the bar isn't likely to go much higher than where Talib finished. And while Morris has made it clear with his "stats are for losers" mantra that team statistics can often be misleading or irrelevant, Talib's interception total is a validation of sorts of the Buccaneers' belief that their young corner has ascended to an elite level in the NFL.
Other Buccaneers rank among league leaders in various statistical categories through the first three-quarters of the season, and they too are seeing their enormous potential reflected in the league's charts. Here's a look at some of Talib's teammates who still have a chance to build on their impressive totals so far:
- Second-year quarterback Josh Freeman has matured rapidly in just his second season in the league, and his first as an opening-day starter. One of the most encouraging things about his play has been his ability to avoid costly turnovers. In fact, Freeman has thrown only six interceptions all season, a miniscule 1.6% of his 381 passes overall. That's good for sixth in the entire NFL in lowest interception percentage, ahead of such established stars as Aaron Rodgers, Phillip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger and Peyton Manning.
- Freeman is also tied for first in the league in third-and-one rushing, having succeeded on all four of his attempts this season. One of the 11 players he's tied with at 100% is his teammate, running back Cadillac Williams. That statistic may be more of a novelty than a harbinger of future success, but it's still interesting given the recent attention paid to the Bucs' efforts on third-and-short.
- Running back LeGarrette Blount may have spotted most of his fellow rookie backs about a month as he adapted to the Buccaneers' offense after a September waiver claim, but he has quickly made up for lost time. So far, Blount has caught all of the other rookie runners – Jahvid Best, Ryan Mathews, etc. – except for New Orleans Christopher Ivory on the league's rushing chart. Ivory leads all rookies with 636 rushing yards but Blount is right behind at 599. Blount and Ivory (and Indianapolis' Javarris James) are also tied for the NFL lead among rookies with five rushing touchdowns.
- Speaking of rookies and touchdowns, no receivers have been more prolific than the Bucs' Mike Williams. Williams has caught seven TD passes, one ahead of Dallas wide receiver Dez Bryant and New England tight end Rob Gronkowski for tops among all NFL newcomers (and tied for 12th among all players, actually).
- Williams has taken over the NFL lead in all receiving categories among rookies, actually. His 50 catches are tied with Detroit's Best for most among rookies; the next wideout on the list is Bryant, who has 45 but is now out for the season. Cincinnati's Jordan Shipley has 44. Williams' 760 receiving yards, which rank 21st among all players, is best among rookies by a wide margin; Bryant is second nearly 200 yards back at 561 and no other rookies are in the NFL's top 50. Bryant does have Williams in one category among rookies – overall touchdowns, with eight – but Williams has four more games to catch him.
- If it seems like Buccaneers tight end Kellen Winslow has been particularly valuable on third downs this season, the stats support that impression. Among all players in the NFL, Winslow is tied for fourth with 23 receptions on third down; the only players ahead of him are Atlanta wideout Roddy White, Miami receiver Davone Bess and St. Louis receiver Danny Amendola. Winslow is first on the chart among tight ends, with Washington's Chris Cooley next with 18.
- Wide receiver Micheal Spurlock has recently lost several long returns to penalties, but he still remains one of the league's biggest threats on kickoff returns. His average of 25.2 yards per return ranks 12th in the NFL and eighth in the NFC.
Injury Updates: Williams Held Out of Practice
The Buccaneers have a slim injury report this week, as they did last week as well, but of course in both cases that has been a function of the recent stampede to injured reserve. With Talib, Jeff Faine, Davin Joseph, Kyle Moore and Cody Grimm now out for the season, the reworked roster is mostly fresh and healthy.
In fact, the Bucs had only three names on their report to start the week, with linebacker Quincy Black and Kellen Winslow sitting out Wednesday's practice and linebacker Dekoda Watson returning to full participation.
Black was allowed to rest his injured ankle, which has been an issue since he sprained it in Atlanta in Week Nine. He subsequently missed two games but has returned for the last two and started on the strong side. With Winslow, the Buccaneers were merely following their common pattern of giving the veteran tight end some prearranged rest for his knee. Watson missed last week's game due to a hamstring strain but appears to be headed towards a return in Washington.
On Thursday, however, the Buccaneers added rookie wide receiver Mike Williams to the list due to a sore knee. Williams did not practice on Thursday but the Buccaneers are hoping the right amount of rest will allow him to overcome the injury by Sunday.
"He's been fighting through it for a couple of weeks here," said Morris. "He's a tough guy. He goes out and he plays, and right now it's a little bit sore. We've just got to get him to tomorrow, see what he can do tomorrow, get him through Saturday and hopefully get him into the game."
The Redskins' injury report was much lengthier and includes several starters who are real question marks. The biggest concern is in the secondary, where strong safety LaRon Landry has missed the last three games with an Achilles heel injury and right cornerback Carlos Rogers has missed two of the last three with a hamstring ailment. Neither player practiced on Wednesday or Thursday.
Three other Redskins were limited to start the week: receiver/kick returner Brandon Banks (knee), safety Kareem Moore (ankle/biceps) and running back Ryan Torain (hamstring). Torain has missed the last four weeks with his injury but both Banks and Moore played last week against the New York Giants. Rookie left tackle Trent Williams, who missed his start against the Giants and has a shoulder injury, participated fully in practice on Wednesday and Thursday. Torain returned to full participation on Thursday.