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NFL Preview - Minnesota at Washington

NFL Preview - Minnesota at Washington


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Two teams looking to alleviate the sting of a troubling preseason will meet at FedEx Field on Monday night, as the Washington Redskins play host to the Minnesota Vikings in the regular season opener for both clubs.


The Redskins finished the 2006 preseason at 0-4, dropping their quartet of contests by a composite score of 104-27. Washington's first-team offense, now under the tutelage of first-year coordinator Al Saunders, failed to score a single point in the four games, a situation that cast a bright spotlight on both Saunders and veteran quarterback Mark Brunell. Also at issue was the running game, which lost running back Clinton Portis to a partially separated left shoulder early in the first outing and never hit its stride thereafter.


As Skins head coach Joe Gibbs is by now well aware, only one team - his 1982 Washington Redskins - has won the Super Bowl after going winless in the preseason. The 2006 edition of the team, which is trying to build on last year's trip to the NFC Divisional Playoffs, hopes that type of history can repeat itself.


The Vikings didn't finish winless in the preseason, but first-year Minnesota head coach Brad Childress certainly encountered his share of problems during the team's warm-up period.


Childress, formerly the offensive coordinator with the Philadelphia Eagles, lost first-round draft pick and linebacker Chad Greenway (Iowa) to a season- ending knee injury early in the preseason. Then, Childress was forced to jettison No. 1 receiver and 2005 Pro Bowler Koren Robinson, after Robinson was cited for driving under the influence and fleeing police on August 15th.
The first-year head coach's biggest challenge yet will come on the field Monday night, when he makes his debut before more than 90,000 rabid fans in suburban D.C.



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SERIES HISTORY


Washington has a 7-5 lead in the all-time regular season series with Minnesota, including a 21-18 home win when the two teams last met, in Week 17 of the 2004 season. The Vikings had won the two previous meetings, in 1993 at R.F.K. Stadium, and in 1998 at the Metrodome.


In addition to their regular season edge, the Redskins have a 3-2 advantage in the all-time postseason series. The Vikings knocked Washington out of the NFC playoffs in 1973 and 1976, and the Redskins earned postseason wins over Minnesota in 1982, 1987, and 1992. The most memorable matchup between the teams is the 1987 NFC Championship, won by Washington, 17-10, en route to a Super Bowl title.
Gibbs is a perfect 8-0 against the Vikings during his career, including playoffs, and is 4-0 against Minnesota in Redskin home games. Childress will be meting both Gibbs and the Redskins for the first time as a head coach.
VIKINGS OFFENSE VS. REDSKINS DEFENSE


Making a return to familiar surroundings will be Minnesota quarterback Brad Johnson (1885 passing yards, 12 TD, 4 INT), who started 27 games with the Redskins in 1999-2000. Last season, Johnson resurrected his career, starting nine games for the Vikings and leading the team into the playoff hunt after a dismal start presided over by Daunte Culpepper. Just two days shy of his 38th birthday as Monday night's showdown begins, Johnson is the league's oldest starting quarterback. Among the signal-caller's targets on Monday will be holdover receivers Travis Taylor (50 receptions, 4 TD), Marcus Robinson (31 receptions, 5 TD), and Troy Williamson (24 receptions, 2 TD), along with trusty tight end Jermaine Wiggins (69 receptions, 1 TD). Recently-acquired ex- Eagle Todd Pinkston, who missed all of last season with a torn Achilles, should also see some time against the Redskins. Protecting Johnson will be the job of a Minnesota line that allowed a bloated 54 sacks last season, but has made improvements with the return of Pro Bowl center Matt Birk and the addition of ex-Seahawks All-Pro guard Steve Hutchinson. Birk missed all of last season following hip surgery.


Johnson will have life slightly easier on Monday if the Redskins take the field without defensive end Renaldo Wynn (30 tackles) and cornerback Shawn Springs (50 tackles, 1 INT), who are considered questionable with ankle and abdominal injuries, respectively. Both players opened 15 games for Gregg Williams' defense a year ago. Regardless of Wynn's status, the Washington pass rush will be led by holdover Phillip Daniels (8 sacks), the team's sack leader in 2005, and ex-49er Andre Carter (4 sacks with San Francisco), the former first-round draft choice who accumulated 30 sacks in five seasons by the Bay. Without Springs, the Redskins could turn to another ex-Niners first-rounder, Mike Rumph (12 tackles with San Francisco), to start at corner opposite 2005 first-round selection Carlos Rogers (2 INT). Rumph would be making his formal return to the field after missing the final 13 games of '05 with a broken foot. Safeties Sean Taylor (70 tackles, 2 INT) and Adam Archuleta (69 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 INT with St. Louis) round out the secondary, with Archuleta making his Redskins debut after five years with the Rams.
Minnesota has a new face in the backfield, as ex-Raven Chester Taylor (487 rushing yards, 41 receptions, 1 TD with Baltimore) will make his formal Vikings debut on Monday night. Taylor amassed 1,599 rushing yards and caught 105 passes as Jamal Lewis' backup for four years with the Ravens (2002-2005), and the Toledo product will now get the chance to both run his own show and become the reliable back Minnesota has lacked since Robert Smith's retirement following the 2000 season. Last year, the Vikings finished a distant 27th in NFL rushing offense. Spelling Taylor on Monday will be Ciatrick Fason (62 rushing yards, 4 TD), who was used mainly as a short-yardage back during his rookie season of 2005.


The Redskins were a solid 13th in the league against the run last season, and their core of '05 run-stoppers returns largely intact. The tone-setters are defensive tackles Cornelius Griffin (35 tackles, 4 sacks) and Joe Salave'a (31 tackles), who started a total of 25 games a season ago. Behind them is a classy linebacking corps including Lemar Marshall (98 tackles, 4 INT, 2 sacks) in the middle, Marcus Washington (93 tackles, 7.5 sacks) on the strong side, and Warrick Holdman (23 tackles) the weak. Marshall and Washington were 1-2 on the team in stops last season, and Marshall was the Redskin leader in INTs. Holdman, who takes over for departed former Pro Bowler LaVar Arrington, is the only relatively new face, though he did start seven games with the Skins last season. Second-round draft pick Rocky McIntosh (Miami (FL)) figures to see time on the weak side as well.


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REDSKINS OFFENSE VS. VIKINGS DEFENSE


The biggest concern for the Redskins and their legion of supporters heading into Monday's game is the status of Portis, who partially separated his left shoulder in a preseason loss to the Bengals on Aug. 13th. Portis' public remarks on Thursday seemed to indicate that the running back was doubtful for Monday, though he continued to be listed as questionable on the official injury report. Without the three-time 1,500-yard rusher, the Redskins would turn to one of three backs - Ladell Betts, Rock Cartwright, and/or T.J. Duckett - to do the running. Betts (338 rushing yards, 10 receptions, 2 TD) and Cartwright (199 rushing yards, 2 TD) are both holdovers, and both have started contests in the Washington backfield. Duckett (380 rushing yards, 8 TD with Atlanta), meanwhile, was acquired on Aug. 23rd in a three-way trade also involving ex-Broncos wide receiver Ashley Lelie. Duckett, the former first- round pick out of Michigan State, amassed 2,175 yards and 31 touchdowns in four years with the Falcons (2002-2005)
Looking to stop Portis or whoever does the running for Washington on Monday night will be a Vikings defense that finished 19th in the league against the rush a year ago. The run-stopping effort will begin on the interior line, where defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin boasts two of the top tackles in the business in Pat Williams (66 tackles, 1.5 sacks) and Kevin Williams (42 tackles, 4 sacks). The latter Williams, who saw his production decline amid injury problems in 2005 after a Pro Bowl performance the year before, will look to regain his form in '06. The linemen will look to set the team's linebacking corps - Napoleon Harris (25 tackles, 1 sack) in the middle, E.J. Henderson (75 tackles, 1 sack) on the weak side, and Ben Leber (22 tackles, 2 sacks with San Diego) on the strong side - up for success. Harris, who started just three games last year after coming over in the Randy Moss deal prior to 2005, is primed for a larger role. Leber is the new face, having started 52 games in four years with the Chargers before losing the last seven games of 2005 to a foot injury.
Portis' potential absence will place even more pressure on Brunell and the passing game, which struggled mightily in the preseason. Brunell (3050 passing yards, 23 TD, 10 INT) completed just 16-of-35 passes for 174 yards with an interception in '06 warm-up action, compiling a miserable 49.0 QB rating. The performance was a surprise for the veteran quarterback, who underwent a renaissance in 2005 with a single-season career best for touchdown passes. The offseason upgrade of the receiving corps, which added Brandon Lloyd (48 receptions, 5 TD with the 49ers) and Antwaan Randle El (35 receptions, 1 TD with the Steelers) to an existing group including '05 Pro Bowler Santana Moss (84 receptions, 9 TD) and tight end Chris Cooley (71 receptions, 7 TD), was also seen as a mark in the offense's favor. Saunders will be seeking some crisper play from his offensive principles on Monday, and will need continued protection from a line that allowed a modest 31 sacks a year ago.


Minnesota continues to boast one of the biggest-name secondary units in the NFL, albeit one that failed to live up to its reputation a year ago. The Vikings were just 22nd against the pass in 2005. Looking for more consistency will be holdover corners Antoine Winfield (4 INT) and Fred Smoot (2 INT), as well as safety Darren Sharper (51 tackles, 9 INT). Smoot makes his return to FedEx Field after starting 59 games as a Redskin from 2001 through 2004, prior to his free agent defection to the Vikings. Sharper, who led the NFC in interceptions last season, slides over to strong safety to make room for Dwight Smith (73 tackles, 2 INT with New Orleans), a 47-game starter for the Bucs and Saints over the past three seasons. Hoping to take some of the pressure off of the secondary will be a young pass rush anchored by recent first-round draft picks and defensive ends Kenechi Udeze (1 sack) and Erasmus James (4 sacks). Udeze, the No. 20 overall pick in the 2004 draft, missed 13 games last season following knee surgery.


OVERALL ANALYSIS


The Steelers' double-digit victory over the Dolphins on Thursday night was exhibit A in establishing the case that preseason results are meaningless. Like the Redskins, the Steelers were 0-4 in preseason play. Washington does have plenty of concerns entering its opener, and the offense might not run up and down the field, but Williams' rock-solid defense will be the unit setting the tone in this one. Minnesota lacks the offensive punch to sustain drives consistently, and the Washington D will take advantage of that fact, set Brunell and company up with some short fields, and fuel the Monday night win.


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