Coach Mike Shanahan's message to his veterans was simple: "Put up or shut up."
The Redskins, 3-5, face the 1-6 Panthers at FedEx Field on Sunday, and while this isn't the most important game on the schedule, it could be the starting point for any impending turnaround.
The Panthers are a rudderless team, their former rookie-of-the-year quarterback seems lost, and their second-year coach is firmly on the hot seat. That makes them dangerous in a "they've got nothing to lose" sense.
But there's also the one-win outfit that has regularly looked overmatched over the first two months of the season. Which brings us back to Shanahan's message.
“This is where normally football teams are taken over by their veterans,” the coach said about the team's defense pulling together (via the Washington Post). “You can go one direction or the other. You expect these guys to play at a higher level, even with some inexperienced guys. You expect them to get the most out of these other players that may not have played at the highest level they can. It’s either step up or shut up. And this is where you’ve got to get it done.”
The Redskins were outplayed on both sides of the ball during last week's loss to the Steelers, but the game before that, a loss to the Giants, came courtesy of a 77-yard Eli Manning-to-Victor Cruz touchdown pass with 1:37 on the clock -- and on the heels of Robert Griffin III giving the 'Skins the lead with his own TD strike, a 30-yarder to Santana Moss.
Put another way: Washington's defense folded late and that had everything to do with the final score.
For starters, it would help if cornerback DeAngelo Hall could avoid getting ejected. Beyond that, injuries have also been an issue -- linebacker London Fletcher is nursing a sore hamstring, and Adam Carriker and Brian Orakpo are already done for the season. And Orakpo's presence has affected second-year linebacker Ryan Kerrigan's productivity.
“Obviously, it’s a lot easier on [Kerrigan] last year when he has ’Rak running around with him,” defensive coordinator Jim Haslett said. “But it’s a different dynamic this year. I think he’s doing fine. ...He’s going to draw attention because he’s the guy, and he’s going to have to overcome some things. We’ve moved him inside, doing different things with him. But when you’re the guy, they’re going to find ways to neutralize you like that.”
Kerrigan admits that he has to get off blocks quicker if he's going to get to the quarterback.
“I’m getting decent push lot of times on the offensive tackle, but I’m allowing him to hold onto me and kind of drag me by the quarterback," he said. "So, the big thing for me is make sure I finish the play and not just create push."
That becomes a tougher task against Cam Newton, who shares RGIII's athleticism but in a much bigger package.
On the other side of the ball, the offense continues to evolve, even after a subpar performance in Pittsburgh. Shanahan admits that he had no idea that Griffin would be capable, at this point in the season, of doing some of the things he's done.
“Offensively if you told me before the season we had the ability to do some of the things we’re doing with a young football team, I would say that doesn’t happen very often in the National Football League unless your defense is number one or in the top three or four,” Shanahan said via the Post. “It just doesn’t happen. It just says a lot about the guys we do have on our football team right now. And special teams, I think at times... we’ve played well. At times we’ve been a little bit inconsistent. That’s what we’ve got to do. We’ve got to start playing our best football and find a way to win those games in the fourth quarter that we haven’t done.”
Even at 3-5, the 'Skins' fate has yet to be decided. They have five divisional games remaining after the bye, but first things first: getting to 4-5.