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Keys to NFC divisional games

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Old 01-09-2006, 10:50 AM   #1
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Keys to NFC divisional games


Washington Redskins at Seattle Seahawks (Saturday, Jan. 14, 4:30 p.m.)

1. Like every great defensive coordinator, Gregg Williams of Washington is at his creative best on third down, when he can mix and match coverages and pass rush schemes and try to force the action and maybe force a turnover. But the conundrum for Williams is that the Seattle offense never seems to be in third down. Not just third-and-long, but third down, period. The Seahawks had only 192 third-down snaps in the regular season, the second-fewest in the NFL, behind only Indianapolis. So the fact the Seahawks converted a fairly modest 39.6 percent of their third-down plays isn't as much a factor as it might be for some offensive units. Seattle led the league in scoring drives of 80 yards or more, a testimony to the patience and consistent playmaking skills of Pro Bowl quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, but also to his ability to keep the Seahawks out of precarious situations. That is, in part, why the Seahawks had just 17 turnovers, second fewest in the league.

When the Seattle offense gets into tempo, and coach Mike Holmgren is dialed in with his play-calling, it is one of the most efficient units in recent league history. Obviously, Williams, who demonstrated in the Redskins' wild-card victory at Tampa Bay that he is worth every penny of the $8 million contract extension to which owner Dan Snyder signed him last week, can't wait for third down to spring whatever surprises he might have in his deep grab bag. The Seahawks, who averaged 6.25 yards on first down, just aren't in very many disadvantageous down-and-distance situations. Williams might have to try to force the action on earlier downs. This is a more high-octane Seattle offense than the one that the Redskins limited to 17 points in an Oct. 2 overtime win at FedEx Field, and the Redskins' defense will have to be even better than it was that day.

2. Is it better to have one great, dominating wide receiver, or a full contingent of lower profile yet very consistent wideouts who seemingly come at you in waves? This game might help answer that question. Clearly, the most explosive big-play performer in this game will be Redskins wideout Santana Moss. The five-year veteran in '05 brought to the Redskins the vertical dimension the offense sorely needed. His 17.7-yard average was second highest among players with at least 60 receptions and Moss had 10 catches of 40 yards or more. Six of his nine touchdowns were 32 yards or more and he averaged 43.7 yards per scoring catch. But the Redskins didn't have another wide receiver with more than 22 catches and no one stepped into the No. 2 complementary role. Tight end and H-back Chris Cooley had 71 receptions and seven touchdowns and he is very clever in the red zone.

The Seahawks really miss safety Ken Hamlin when it comes to devising coverage schemes against intermediate receivers such as Cooley, and will probably try to bracket him with some linebacker help. But look for Seattle to double-team Moss all day, and to try to get cornerback Marcus Trufant locked on him, because no other Washington wide receiver scares anyone. In long-yardage situations, it's a given that Washington quarterback Mark Brunell is going to look for Moss. Seattle ranked 25th versus the pass this season, so it's got some holes, for sure. The cornerback spot opposite Trufant, where both Kelly Herndon and Andre Dyson have taken turns as the starter, has been especially suspect. On the flip side, injuries to starting wideouts Bobby Engram and Darrell Jackson, both of whom missed considerable playing time, meant Hasselbeck had to distribute the ball almost like a point guard. Engram still had 67 catches, but four other wideouts registered double-digit receptions and Joe Jurevicius, signed as a free agent to play the slot role, had a huge year. Jurevicius scored 10 times on just 55 catches, a phenomenal ratio, and no defense wants the long, gangly wideout running crossing routes unchecked through a secondary. It's key that the Redskins get a body on Jurevicius and that, in red-zone situations, they get up on him early. Washington really needs cornerback Shawn Springs, the former Seattle first-rounder who missed the wild-card game at Tampa Bay with an injury, to be available for the divisional round.

3. Redskins weak-side linebacker LaVar Arrington, often accused of freelancing, will need to play one of the most disciplined games of his career if the Redskins are to contain league MVP Shaun Alexander. The Seahawks love to run their star tailback to the left, behind the Pro Bowl duo of tackle Walter Jones and guard Steve Hutchinson, and that will put Arrington squarely in the middle of the action. Alexander is tough enough to corral, but it's when linebackers get sealed inside and can't hold containment on the perimeter that he starts turning three- and four-yard carries into longer gains. In the wild-card victory, Washington's linebackers totaled 32 tackles, and they're going to have to run to the football and surround Alexander to have a chance to spring another upset. In the regular-season matchup, Washington "held" Alexander to 98 yards and one touchdown on 20 carries. We're betting coordinator Gregg Williams would take those numbers again. If you want to see some old-fashioned trench warfare, keep an eye on Hutchinson's battles against the Washington tackles, each of whom had superb outings in the wild-card triumph. Cornelius Griffin and Joe Salave'a are tough-minded and intense, penetrate surprisingly well, and won't back down. Once the quickest 310-pounder in the league, Griffin isn't as fast as earlier in his career, but he is a difference-maker in the middle of the line. Salave'a is a journeyman who has finally found his niche. The inside line play, especially when Seattle is on offense, won't be for the faint-hearted.

4. The Redskins got plenty of pressure from their front four in their wild-card win, blitzed sparingly and preferred to play a drop-and-cover game. But they had just 35 sacks in the season and Seattle surrendered only 31 sacks. Washington right defensive end Phillip Daniels is certainly the team's hot pass rusher, with six of his eight sacks in the regular season coming in the final three games. He'll be matched up against Walter Jones in most situations. It wouldn't be surprising to see Williams use Arrington a little more as a rush end in an attempt to pressure Hasselbeck. Despite not having a single defender with double-digit sacks, the Seahawks led the NFL with 50 quarterback takedowns, and had 12 different players with at least one sack. Seattle isn't a big blitz-quota team, but will send rookie linebacker LeRoy Hill off the edge sometimes. The bet here is that Seattle will try to focus on 43-year-old right guard Ray Brown, starting in place of the injured Randy Thomas, and see if it can force him to pick up some inside blitzes, likely from first-year middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu, who probably should have been the league's defensive rookie of the year.

5. Beware Redskins backup tailback Ladell Betts. Yeah, we said Ladell Betts. In games like this one, featuring a pair of premier backs like Shaun Alexander and Washington's Clinton Portis, it's occasionally the No. 3 runner in the game who makes some plays. And Betts, an effective nickel tailback who logs more snaps than many No. 2 tailbacks in spelling Portis, can make plays. Not a lot of big plays, but the kind of little ones that add up. Betts ran for 338 yards on 89 carries and, in a game that doesn't exactly feature a lot of return threats, he might be a factor on kickoff runbacks. Betts averaged 25.9 yards and scored a touchdown on kickoff returns this season. As an inside runner, he's got some punch, and can break tackles. A message to Seattle defenders: Don't let down too much when Portis goes to the sideline for a breather.

Inside Redskins-Seahawks

X-factor: For a second consecutive week, Washington's regular cycle will be disrupted, since the Redskins play a second straight Saturday contest. Plus, the Redskins will have to make a long flight to the Pacific Northwest, never an easy trip. Seattle won all eight games this season at Qwest Field and the Seahawks are now 24-10 at home since the stadium opened in 2002. The home field, from a scoring standout, has been worth about a touchdown more per game for the Seahawks. Seattle lost its only playoff game at Qwest Field, losing last year to the Rams.

X-and-O factor: The play of each team's defensive tackles figures to be a key to the outcome of the game. Not many people watch the interior line play in any game, let alone a postseason contest, but keep an eye on the trench battles in this game. The Washington tandem of Cornelius Griffin and Joe Salave'a played with great intensity in the Redskins' wild-card victory at Tampa Bay, and will face a terrific Seattle interior trio of center Robbie Tobeck and guards Steve Hutchinson and Chris Gray. The Seattle tackles are a bit more active, but Rocky Bernard, the best penetrator of the bunch, has now gone six games without a sack.

Rx factor (health): Washington -- Lost starting left defensive end Renaldo Wynn to a broken right forearm on Saturday and his steadiness as an excellent two-way player will be missed. Cornerback Shawn Springs missed the wild-card game with a hamstring strain and might still be gimpy. The Redskins, of course, will be without right guard Randy Thomas, who suffered a broken leg last month.
Seattle -- A pair of cornerbacks, Marcus Trufant (back) and Andre Dyson (ankle), have been slowed by nagging injuries. And linebacker D.D. Lewis (knee) is also less than 100 percent.

Numbers cruncher: Matt Hasselbeck's completion rate for December, 76.1 percent, was the highest in league history for the month. In his last four games, Hasselbeck threw only 16 incompletions and had nine touchdown passes. In that stretch, his passer rating was 104.2 or better every week, and three times he had a rating of 127.0 or better. The seven-year veteran, who operates what is arguably the purest version of the "West Coast" style offense in the NFL, has been uncannily accurate down the stretch and unflappable. The Redskins are going to have to come up with something to disrupt his rhythm.

The Redskins will win if: They gain more than the 120 yards on offense they managed last week. OK, seriously, Washington needs to control the clock with Clinton Portis, keep Mark Brunell's attempts at about 20, and avoid third-and-long situations, where their veteran quarterback tends to get happy feet and his lack of arm strength is more obvious. A few takeaways wouldn't hurt, either. The Seahawks will win if: They continue to move the ball offensively with the kind of peak efficiency they have demonstrated much of the season. Seattle is a unique offense, one that leads the NFL in scoring drives of 80 yards or more, but is also near the top of the statistics in so-called "explosive" plays. Oh, yeah, the Seattle defense definitely must limit the big plays by Washington wide receiver Santana Moss, the Redskins' one notable home run hitter on offense. Moss had six catches for 87 yards in the regular-season game.
-- Len Pasquarelli
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Old 01-09-2006, 01:17 PM   #2
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Re: Keys to NFC divisional games

Keys to victory-
1. Force turnovers in the passing game.. Alexander rarely fumbles, but when pressured Hasselbeck can force throws into coverage.. We need to create at least 2 short field situations for our offense..

2. 40 minutes time of possession.. We need to keep their offense off the field.. I'd be happy to see Brunell run the play clock down to 3 before every snap if need be. That much time of possession means we are eating up yards as well so it would be an advantageous situation either way..

3. Flawless special teams.. The Bucs wouldn't have gotten the Simms TD if it hadn't have been for that long PR and Frost can't shank another 14 yd punt like he did at the end of the game..

4. Taylor Jacobs.. It's now or good bye.. With double coverage on Moss, LB & S coverage on Cooley, Thrash injured, Jacobs has to make an impact in the passing game if this team is going to win in Seattle.. It's become too easy to defend the Skins passing game if your front 4 can pressure the QB, which Seattle can do. Jacobs needs to start making teams pay for leaving him one on one.
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