Reporting Grant Paulsen
1. Will the gaping holes Tim Hightower’s been running through still exist against Baltimore’s stingy front?
The Redskins ran wild in Indianapolis with Tim Hightower and Roy Helu both breaking off runs longer than 50-yards and the two combining for over 170-yards in limited work. But can Washington’s offensive line open up enough holes to move the ball on the ground against the Ravens? Baltimore’s run defense ranked 5th in the NFL last season, extending the team’s eight year streak of ranking in the top 10 at stuffing the run.
Washington has already had three tailbacks rush for over 60 yards in its two preseason games, and the team even averaged five-yards per carry against Pittsburgh’s starting front-seven. But the Steelers’ starters were only on the field for about 20 plays. Tonight will be the first true test for Washington’s offensive line.
In the eight seasons since 2002, Baltimore has ranked 6th, 8th, 9th, 2nd, 2nd, 3rd, 5th and 5th at keeping teams from moving the chains on the ground. Needless to say, if Hightower and the rest of Washington’s running backs are still running though holes big enough to drive cars through tonight, than Mike Shanahan’s zone-blocking scheme might just be taking flight in Washington.
2. Which quarterback will win the Redskins’ starting job?
Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said that both John Beck and Rex Grossman are going to get a chance to work with Washington’s starters, and we may even see both of them take the field in the first half. Can either of them the show the Shanahans what the father and son are looking for?
For Grossman: Can he eliminate turnovers and alleviate forcing the ball into tight coverages or fumbling the ball when he gets hit? For Beck: Can he continue to show a grasping of the Redskins’ offense? Can he make accurate, smart, fast decisions so that he can get the ball out to the right receiver quickly. And most importantly, can Beck find a couple of the open receivers downfield he opted not to chuck the football to last week?
Perhaps the better question should be is the quarterback battle already over? Many think John Beck has already won Washington’s job just by not doing anything to lose the gig. I’m still of the belief that if he struggles immensely tonight, Grossman can play his way into the starting lineup on Sep. 11.
3. How will the Redskins’ defense respond to extensive work against another team’s starters?
Washington’s defense has given up less preseason yards than any team in football. The unit has allowed just 10 points and 20 first downs in two dominating performances and a week ago the Redskins’ first-team defense allowed just one rushing yard against Indianapolis.
But the Redskins’ defense has faced an adversary’s starting quarterback for all of one drive in two games. Ben Roethlisberger got very little work in week-one and Peyton Manning didn’t suit up for the Colts in week-two. Neither, it should be noted, did the top four wide receivers on the Colts’ depth chart. That isn’t to say that Washington’s ability to out-gain Indianapolis by over 260 yards wasn’t impressive. But the fact that the Colts were short-handed has to be considered.
Tonight will be the first time the Redskins play a primarily healthy opposing team’s starters for two-plus quarters. That should be telling. How will the Redskins’ secondary, yielding an NFL best 99 passing yards per-game this preseason, perform when asked to defend a starting quarterback for more than a few plays? How well will the Redskins stop the run when a team isn’t one-dimensional? Another suffocating defensive performance would go a long way toward showing just how improved Jim Haslett’s defense is in 2011.