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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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#RedskinsTalk Podcast Episode 40 - Seriously, when will the Redskins pick a coordinator?

#RedskinsTalk Podcast Episode 40 - Seriously, when will the Redskins pick a coordinator?

As the Redskins settle into the offseason without both an offensive and defensive coordinator, JP Finlay and Rich Tandler debate who will get the jobs, and when they will be announced. 

RELATED: 2017 NFL MOCK DRAFT 1.0: CORNERING THE MARKET

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Redskins defensive coordinator resume: Jason Tarver

Redskins defensive coordinator resume: Jason Tarver

The Redskins have interviewed some high-profile candidates for their open defensive coordinator position. When it was reported that they will meet with former Raiders defensive coordinator Jason Tarver, the reaction among the fans was, “Who?”

Let’s take a look at what Tarver’s qualifications are to get the job of running the Redskins’ defense.

Before becoming a coordinator: At the age of 22, Tarver took a coaching job at West Valley College in California, and did that while earning his bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from Santa Clara. After that he was a graduate assistant at UCLA for three years before getting into the NFL in 2001, when the 49ers hired him as a quality control coach. Tarver worked his way up to outside linebackers coach in 2005 and did that job until 2010, when he was let go went Mike Singletary was fired as the head coach. After a year as the defensive coordinator at Stanford, Dennis Allen hired Tarver to run the Raiders defense in 2012.

More Redskins: Early first-round draft possibilities

Note: If you want more complete stats on Tarver’s defenses check out his page on Pro Football Reference. DVOA stats via Football Outsiders. A negative DVOA percentage is better than a positive number. Zero is average.

For players, * designates Pro Bowl selection, + designates first-team All-Pro

2012 Raiders (4-12)

Rankings: Yards 5,672 (18th), points 443 (28th), takeaways 19 (26th), 3rd down 39.1% (20th), DVOA 12.5% 29th
Notable players: DT Richard Seymour, DE Lamarr Houston

It should be noted that Allen had a defensive background so he had a hand in these numbers. This team just wasn’t very good as indicated by the fact that Seymour, at age 33, was one of their best defensive players.

2013 Raiders (4-12)

Rankings: Yards 5,918 (22nd), points 453 (29th), takeaways 22 (21st), 3rd down 43.1% (28th), DVOA 10.3% (26th)
Notable players: S Charles Woodson

They did make an effort to shore up the defense by bringing back Woodson and drafting cornerback D.J. Hayden in the first round. But Hayden only played in eight games and Woodson could only contribute so much at age 37. The pass defense struggled, ranking 29th in DVOA.

Related: Redskins offensive coordinator resume: Matt Cavanaugh

2014 Raiders (3-13)

Rankings: 5,721 (21st), points 452 (32nd), takeaways 14 (30th), 3rd down 38.5% (14th), DVOA 6.3% (26th)
Notable players: LB Khalil Mack, S Woodson

Allen was fired after an 0-4 start and Tony Sparano took over as interim head coach the rest of the way. Sparano has an offensive background so perhaps Tarver is more fully accountable for these results than those in other seasons. They did draft Mack with the fifth overall pick but his impact as a rookie was limited as recorded four sacks. Hayden again missed half of the season and, again, the defense was near the bottom of the NFL.

Stay up to date on the Redskins! Rich Tandler covers the team 365 days a year. Like his Facebook page www.Facebook.com/RealRedskins and follow him on Twitter @Rich_TandlerCSN.