Work in Sports
What We Learned
Three things we know after the Ravens-Redskins game
LANDOVER, Md. -- For the first time since 1997 and only the second time ever, the Baltimore Ravens and Washington Redskins cranked up their regional rivalry Sunday at Washington's FedEx Field. Both teams left the field 5-2, but the Redskins, winners of four in a row, won bragging rights via their 10-3 victory. Sports Illustrated's Don Banks checks in from the game with three observations:
1. Maybe this is as pretty as it gets for the Washington Redskins this year. Maybe their penchant for winning ugly is the way it's going to have to be for this well-paid collection of all-stars who were assembled with just one goal in mind: A Super Bowl title. Maybe it was our expectations that were out of whack.
With their defeat of visiting Baltimore on Sunday, the Redskins won their fourth in a row to stay tied with the New York Giants for first place in the NFC East at 5-2. Washington has scored between 10 and 21 points in all seven of their games, with no margin of victory or defeat larger than 10 points.
After their offseason spending spree added the likes of Bruce Smith, Mark Carrier, Deion Sanders and Jeff George to a roster that went 10-6 and won a playoff game last season, the Redskins were expected to dominate this season, rolling over all but Tampa Bay and St. Louis in the NFC. But a funny thing happened on the way to the playoffs. Washington has been forced to scratch and claw for every one of its wins this season. The Redskins have won by a field goal three times, a touchdown once, and only 10 points in their pivotal Week 4 division showdown at the New York Giants.
The Redskins, 30th ranked last year defensively, have shown their most dominance on that side of the ball. Six of the team's seven opponents have been held to 17 points or fewer, and Washington's 99 points allowed are the lowest ever for a Norv Turner-coached Redskins team through seven games. On offense, Washington is still waiting for 1999-level production. Against Baltimore's stellar No. 4-ranked defense, Washington only amassed 246 yards of offense and didn't take the lead for good until running back Stephen Davis' 33-yard touchdown burst two plays into the fourth quarter. But when it had to be, the Redskins offense was superb, running the final 5:30 off the clock and hogging the ball so effectively that the Ravens offense never even got a chance to mount a last-second game-tying rally.
Washington on Sunday got big contributions from the likes of reserve receiver James Thrash (career-high six catches for 62 yards), tight end Stephen Alexander (season-high four receptions for 35 yards), and backup middle linebacker Kevin Mitchell, whose game-turning end zone interception of Tony Banks just before the half was the first pick of his career. Who would have thought this preseason that such relative no-names would wind up being center stage in Washington?
"We struggled today," Redskins quarterback Brad Johnson said. "It was tough, especially in the first half. But when we got that seven-point lead, it looked like about a 20-point lead. It was big."
In the course of the game, the Redskins lost cornerback Darrell Green (strained calf), and saw players like Smith, Davis, LaVar Arrington and defensive end Marco Coleman (an NFL-leading 10 sacks entering the game) leave the field for short periods due to injuries. In addition, guard Keith Sims and offensive tackle Chris Samuels played despite hurts that cost them practice time. No matter. Washington is doing what it takes to win. It just doesn't look anything like the victories we imagined.
2. There was a moment early in the fourth quarter when it became obvious: Washington cornerback Deion Sanders is at times hanging on by his fingernails. Down 10-3, Baltimore started a drive at its 25 with 14:09 remaining. On first down, Ravens quarterback Tony Banks looked and found receiver Qadry Ismail for a 28-yard gain to the Washington 47. On the play, Ismail put a move on Sanders to get free near the line, hauled in the pass and blew by the Bandana-ed One as if he was standing still. Sanders managed to get hold of Ismail by the jersey, perhaps saving a touchdown.
Sanders played Sunday after missing some practice time this week with a sore back. He was not asked to return punts -- receiver James Thrash filled that role -- and Sanders didn't get on the field on the Ravens' first two series. Washington instead went with three safeties, with reserve free safety Matt Stevens playing cornerback at times.
Despite his injury, Sanders clearly is no longer capable of shutting down his half of the field, as was his specialty in both San Francisco and Dallas. The Ravens frequently looked Sanders' way, albeit with not great results. That was as much a part of Banks' struggles as it had to do with Sanders. But Ismail and rookie Travis Taylor both made catches against Sanders, who finished with three tackles and one pass defended.
When Washington signed Sanders this offseason, there were whispers that they were paying 1996 prices for the scaled-down 2000 model. Through seven mostly inconsistent games, Sanders has proven those whispers correct.
Sharpe had a team-high four catches for 50 yards in the Ravens' modest 199-yard offensive showing, but Coates caught just one pass for six yards, that coming in the first quarter. For the season, Sharpe is now the team's leading receiver with 24 receptions for 305 yards and two touchdowns. Coates has been a virtual non-factor, pulling down just four passes for 22 yards and no scores. By pairing the two most productive tight ends of the 1990s, the Ravens were supposed to be able to give opposing defenses way too many problems to solve on any one play. With rookie running back Jamal Lewis in the backfield and Ismail and Taylor split wide, the Ravens looked poised to become as multiple an offense as there was in the NFL.
But with Banks' struggling to get his receivers the ball, the Ravens this season have been held without a touchdown in four of their seven games. Sharpe and the rest of the Ravens offense are at a loss to explain it.
"In practice we look great and we move the ball against out defense," he said. "And that should be an indication that we can do some things. But when it comes down to game time, we don't get it done, and that's very disappointing. Because I know we can score more than three points. I know we can score more than 12 or 15 points. We're just not doing it."