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Game preview: Redskins at Steelers

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Game preview: Redskins at Steelers

What: Redskins (3-4) vs. Steelers (3-3)

Where: Heinz Field, Pittsburgh, Pa.

When: Sunday, 1 p.m.

TV: Fox WTTG-5

Redskins Kickoff and Postgame Live: Comcast SportsNet noon and 4.

When the Redskins visit Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers on Sunday, the focus figures to fall on the same issue that’s plagued Washington throughout the season’s first seven games: the defense’s inability to prevent big plays and/or stop opponents in the clutch. 

Last week, the Giants snatched away a near certain victory in the final moments when wide receiver Victor Cruz sprinted 77 yards – untouched! – for the type of touchdown the Redskins' beleaguered secondary has yielded all too often in 2012.

The Redskins’ pass defense, in fact, is tied for the most passing touchdowns allowed with 16. Six of those scores have come from 33 or more yards out, and two have come from 73 or more.

It’s the biggest reason the team’s pass defense ranking has plummeted from 12th to 32nd in the span of a year. It’s also the biggest reason the Redskins sit a game below .500 as they approach the season's midpoint.

The dramatic drop off has defensive coordinator Jim Haslett searching for answers. 

“We gave up 222 yards a game in the passing game last year,” Haslett said this week. “We’re giving up 328 right now, which is crazy. But you add those two or three [big] plays every game, you get 100 yards. It’s the same scheme, the same players. We’ve just got to execute better.” 

The Redskins' task gets no easier with Roethlisberger under center Sunday. The 30-year-old, two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback is off to one of the best starts of his nine-season NFL career as he directs a revamped offense he recently described as “dink and dunk,” which contrasts sharply with the Steelers' vertical passing game of yesteryear. 

Roethlisberger ranks fifth in passer rating (two spots behind the Redskins’ Robert Griffin III), 10th in passing touchdowns (11) and is tied with Griffin for fewest interceptions (3) among quarterbacks who’ve started all of their team’s games. Roethlisberger is also fifth in passing yards per game (294), while the DeAngelo Hall, Josh Wilson and Madieu Williams-led  secondary is yielding 73 more passing yards per outing than the mid-pack Raiders. 

Pittsburgh’s plan of attack could be to pick apart the Redskins’ vulnerable backend with short and intermediate, quick release throws from Roethlisberger to wide receivers Antonio Brown, Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders as well as tight end Heath Miller. Then again, given their opponent's struggles against the big play, it wouldn't be all that surprising to see new offensive coordinator Todd Haley take a shot or two downfield, either.

At 3-4, the Redskins still have time to turn around their season. To do that, though, they’ll need to find some consistency on defense and win a game or two that, on paper, they shouldn’t.

This is one of those games.

Here are three more storylines the crew at www.csnwashington.com will be monitoring Sunday:

1-Although London Fletcher (hamstring, head) had not been ruled out as of Friday morning, it’s possible the veteran’s iron man streak will come to an end at Heinz Field.

Fletcher has played in 231 consecutive games -- the longest among active players -- dating to his rookie season in 1998. If the 37-year-old is sidelined, Tampa Bay’s Ronde Barber will take sole possession of the streak. Barber suited up for his 231st game in a row Thursday in Minneapolis.

Fletcher did not practice on Wednesday or Thursday because of the right hamstring strain he suffered against he Giants and balance problems he began complaining about Monday. He spent several hours with a neurologist Thursday. 

Coach Mike Shanahan is expected to give an update on Fletcher’s status Friday afternoon. 

2-Injuries are a fact of life in the NFL. But this is getting ridiculous. 

On defense, the Redskins have lost linebacker Brian Orakpo (shoulder) and defensive end Adam Carriker (knee) for the season, while safety Brandon Meriweather has yet to play because of a knee injury.

On offense, the team will be without leading receiver in tight end Fred Davis, who tore his Achilles’ last week, and No. 1 wide receiver Pierre Garcon, who figures to be sidelined for the fifth time in eight games with a plantar plate tear in his right foot. In addition, right tackle Jammal Brown (hip) hasn’t taken a single snap all season.

There’s a limit to the number of starters a team can lose before the effects are obvious. One has to wonder if the Redskins, depleted by an $18 million salary cap penalty, have crossed that threshold.

3-Another key matchup: The Redskins' top-rated rushing offense vs. the Steelers' rushing defense. Behind Griffin and fellow rookie Alfred Morris, Washington leads the NFL in rushing yards per game with 177.7. Pittsburgh, meantime, is yielding only 92.5 yards per game (ninth). Something's got to give. And if it's the home team's defense, the Redskins ought to have a decent shot at pulling off an upset on the road becuase the Steelers are 0-3 when allowing 94 or more rushing yards in a game. 

4-Tight end Chris Cooley, a fan favorite who rejoined the Redskins this week, will play in an NFL game for the first time since Oct. 16th, 2011. 

Shanahan said Cooley, who was released in training camp, has looked to be in good shape during practice this week. But the coach also handed the No. 1 tight end responsibilities to Logan Paulsen -- for now, anyway.

So it remains to be seen how Cooley will be deployed. But keep in mind that his role could evolve/increase in the coming weeks as the 30-year-old gets readjusted.

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Redskins vs Eagles Preview: 5 things to know as Washington gets desperate

Redskins vs Eagles Preview: 5 things to know as Washington gets desperate

Losers of two straight games and for the first time in a month outside of the playoff picture, a desperate Redskins squad travels to Philadelphia for a 1 p.m. game on Sunday. All the action kicks off on CSN with Redskins Kickoff at noon, but to get ready for the action, here are five storylines to watch:

  1. Getting back to good, or at least decent - Two weeks ago the Redskins seemed like a dangerous playoff squad with a strong offense and an improving defense. After two straight losses where Joe Barry's defense has given up 62 total points, the questions are mounting for Washington. Can the defense get stops on 3rd down? Generate a turnover? The good news for the Redskins is that the Eagles are struggggggling. Their offense has not score more than 15 points in three straight weeks. 
  2. Feed the fat one - After giving Rob Kelley just 28 carries in the last two games, Washington offensive coordinator Sean McVay owned up to the Redskins lack of run game, "I definitely feel like I could’ve been more patient on some of those early down and distances where you get a little bit pass-heavy. And that’s something that as a decision-maker and as a coordinator, I have to do a better job." In a Week 6 win Kelley and Matt Jones piled up more than 200 rush yards against the Eagles. The 'Skins offense likely won't feature Jones, but expect McVay to feed Fat Rob plenty on Sunday.
  3. Playing in pain - The Redskins offense features a number of dynamic playmaking threats, but arguably the best is tight end Jordan Reed. On Thanksgiving in Dallas, Reed separated his left shoulder, and though he finished that game he was forced out of action in Arizona. Expect Reed to be back Sunday, and expect Kirk Cousins to look for him early and often. On the season, Reed has more than 600 receiving yards and five TDs.
  4. If it ain't broke - Kirk Cousins has had more success against the Eagles than any other team in the NFC East. In four career games against Philly, COusins averages 336 yards per game passing to go with a 101.3 QB rating. He's thrown 10 touchdowns against the Eagles to just two interceptions. The biggest win of his career came last year when Cousins and the 'Skins clinched the NFC East title at Lincoln Financial Field. Cousins suceeds against the Eagles, and there's no reason it should stop Sunday. 
  5. Don't fly away - Rumors are starting to circulate that the Eagles would like to bring back DeSean Jackson next season. It's well known that Jackson will probably hit free agency after this season, and if Philly did pursuit their former playmaker, it would make sense. But between now and then, Jackson has another opportunity to torch his former team and help the Skins pursue a Wild Card bid at the same time. In his past two games, Jackson and COusins have connected on deep patterns, and there's little reason to tbink the same won't happen Sunday.

Numbers & Notes

  • If tight end Vernon Davis catches three passes he will become the 12th tight end in NFL history to record 500 career receptions.
  • With two more catches, wide receiver Jamison Crowder will set a single-season career high in receptions. He caught 59 passes in 2015.
  • If the Redskins win would mark five straight victories against the Eagles for the Redskins for the first time since a six-game winning streak in the series across the 1981-84 seasons.

Want more Redskins? Check out @JPFinlayCSN for live updates or click here for the #RedskinsTalk Podcast on iTunes, here for Google Play or press play below. Don't forget to subscribe!

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Enemy Intel: Yes, Redskins fans, you need to root for the Cowboys again

Enemy Intel: Yes, Redskins fans, you need to root for the Cowboys again

Here is my weekly Redskins-centric spin around the NFL:

Before we get going, let’s line up the NFL wild card contenders by current seed and their remaining four games.

Giants (8-4): Cowboys, Lions, @Eagles, @Redskins
Bucs (7-5): Saints, @Cowboys, @Saints, Panthers
Redskins (6-5-1): @Eagles, Panthers, @Bears, Giants
Vikings (6-6): @Jaguars, Colts, @Packers, Bears
Packers (6-6): Seahawks, @Bears, Vikings, @Lions
Cardinals (5-6-1): @Dolphins, Saints, @Seahawks, @Rams
Saints (5-7): @Bucs, @Cardinals, Bucs, @Falcons
Eagles (5-7): Redskins, @Ravens, Giants, Cowboys

—The Redskins can knock the Eagles out of any practical chance of making the playoffs with a win on Sunday. An Eagles loss would mean they could finish no better than 8-8 and that is highly unlikely to get it done this year.

—For a second straight week, Redskins fans need to root for Cowboys to win. Or for their opponent to lose. Some wanted to make that distinction last week when Cowboys played the Vikings and the optimal outcome for the Redskins was a Dallas win. However you want to look at it, a Giants loss to Dallas could move the Redskins to within a half game of the No. 5 seed.

MORE REDSKINS: Assessing the four remainig opponents

—There should be no hesitation about pulling for the Saints to beat the Bucs. A Washington win and a Tampa Bay loss puts the Redskins back into playoff position with the No. 6 seed. The Bucs are 2.5-point favorites at home. They are the hot team, coming in with four straight wins while New Orleans has lost three of four. The Saints are on the fringe of contention but Redskins fans need to pull for the teams ahead of Washington in the standings.

—The Redskins can’t look for much help when it comes to the team immediately behind them in the standings. The Vikings visit the Jaguars, who are locked in to yet another season of double-digit losses. You might be tempted to look for the home underdog to put up a fight and they might. But Blake Bortles has thrown three pick sixes this year and the Vikings have returned two interceptions for TDs this year. Look for such a play to be decisive and for the Vikings to remain tight with Washington in the standings.

—The other team a half game behind the Redskins is the Packers. They host the Seahawks in what could be very snowy conditions in Green Bay. Seattle is a three-point favorite but if the weather gets crazy anything could happen. Redskins fans need to root for the Seahawks, for obvious reasons.

RELATED: Three Redskins out on Sunday, Reed questionable

—The Cardinals creeped back into contention with their win over the Redskins. That win and the fact that they have a tie on their ledger means that the Redskins do not want to finish with the same record as Arizona. This is one of the few situations where a tiebreaker would matter. It’s an easy call to pull for them to fall to the AFC Dolphins.

—I went 2-1 last week, winning with the Patriots over the Rams and the Seahawks over the Panthers. I have four NFL picks this week, all of them road favorites: the Redskins -1 on the road over the Eagles, the Cowboys -3 at the Giants, the Falcons -6 over the Rams in L.A., and the Seahawks giving three to the Packers.