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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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Cowboys bus involved in fatal crash in Arizona

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Cowboys bus involved in fatal crash in Arizona

KINGMAN, Ariz. (AP) -- Four people were killed Sunday when bus carrying Dallas Cowboys staffers but no players collided with a van on a northwestern Arizona highway.

The fatalities were passengers in the van, Arizona Department of Public Safety spokesman Quentin Mehr said. But the bus occupants emerged uninjured.

"All on the bus came through OK with some bumps and bruises," Cowboys spokesman Rich Dalrymple (DAHL'-rimp-ul) said in an email.

Dalrymple said the bus was only carrying members of the franchise's staff but would not say how many. There were no players on board.

The two vehicles collided in the afternoon on U.S. 93, about 30 miles north of the city of Kingman, according to DPS.

The crash shut down at least one lane of the highway that serves as the main route between Phoenix and Las Vegas.

The bus was on its way to a Dallas Cowboys fan event in Las Vegas. Charles Cooper, manager of GameWorks entertainment center in Vegas, said the session with 50 to 75 fans was scheduled for 3 p.m. PDT. People were already waiting when the president of a Las Vegas Cowboys fan club called to relay news of the accident. The event was subsequently canceled. Cooper says the team mascot was supposed to appear.

After the Las Vegas stop, the bus was scheduled to go on to Oxnard, California for the team's training camp. Members of the organization typically take a bus two weeks before the camp starts and make stops along the way.

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DeSean Jackson throws out first pitch at Sunday's Nationals game

DeSean Jackson throws out first pitch at Sunday's Nationals game

You know, if this whole football thing doesn't work out for DeSean Jackson, maybe he could give baseball a shot.

The Redskins wide receiver was on hand Sunday at Nationals Park to throw out the first pitch and did a pretty good job.

Photo credit @byersjackson gas that 1st pitch ⚾️💨💨

A video posted by Desean Jackson (@0ne0fone) on

Jackson throws it from the mound and gets it to home plate, though just a bit outside. The throw was certainly good enough to keep Jackson off the list of other professional athletes with horrible first pitches (see John Wall).

RELATED: DON'T FORGET ABOUT NILES PAUL

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Redskins have many options at tight end, but don't count out Niles Paul

Redskins have many options at tight end, but don't count out Niles Paul

The Redskins are loaded at tight end - Jordan Reed is the emerging star and Vernon Davis the veteran with a stellar track record. But don't forget about Niles Paul. Lost last season to a broken ankle, Paul looked strong throughout Washington's offseason work, and with the team heading to Richmond this week to begin training camp, the former Nebraska receiver has been clear he plans to compete for playing time despite his loaded position group. 

"If you’re not out there competing to be the No. 1, I don’t know why you’re in the league," Paul said on ESPN980 earlier this summer.

Paul's mindset is admirable, but Reed is locked in as the No. 1 tight end. There's no debate there. And GM Scot McCloughan did not bring Vernon Davis to Washington without plans of playing him. 

But here's the thing with Paul - he can be very good.

In the first four games of the 2014 season, Paul caught 21 balls for 313 yards and a touchdown. He was averaging nearly 80 yards receiving per game in that stretch, the best of his career. It's no surprise that Paul put up those numbers when Reed was out, as he was injured Week 1 and did not suit back up until Week 6 of that season. 

RELATED: VERNON DAVIS PLANS TO COMPETE FOR TOP SPOT 

Paul has proved himself a strong backup to Reed, and in Reed's three-year career, he has missed 14 games. Last year Reed stayed mostly healthy - he missed two games - but it would hardly be a surprise if the Redskins have to go one or more games without their new $50 million tight end. Davis will be expected to step up should that happen, but the team might lean on Paul more in that situation, in addition to a major role on special teams as well. There were also a few snaps this summer where Paul worked as a fullback - a role the tight end might have to take on with the departure of Darrel Young. 

Jay Gruden acknowledged Paul's hard work during minicamp.

"He’s done an unbelievable job in rehab to get himself to this point," Gruden said. "We didn’t expect him back until training camp."

A 5th-round pick in 2011, Paul has already surpassed expectations with a five-year NFL career. That he outpaced his rehab schedule should not come as a shock.

Should he significantly contribute this fall, even considering Reed and Davis will be the first and second targets at tight end respectively, would not be a surprise either.