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NFL Preview - Denver (6-2) at Washington (2-6)
By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The Denver Broncos begin the second half of their 2009 season eager to avoid a repeat of what had occurred the previous year. The Washington Redskins may already be doomed to such a fate.
The sputtering Broncos will attempt to put the brakes a two-game skid when the current AFC West leaders head to FedEx Field this Sunday to take on a reeling Redskins team that's simply desperate for a win of any kind.
Denver had been the talk of the NFL world after getting off to a surprising 6-0 start under rookie head coach Josh McDaniels and new quarterback Kyle Orton, but all that glowing praise has begun to subside following a pair of potentially-revealing losses to 2008 postseason participants Baltimore and Pittsburgh in the past two weeks. A previously effective offense was stopped in its tracks by both the Ravens and Steelers, while a defense that was sensational during the Broncos' early run had trouble holding its ground against two of the league's more physical teams.
The Steelers were particularly overpowering in Monday's 28-10 decision at Invesco Field at Mile High, with young running back Rashard Mendenhall piling up 155 yards on 22 carries as the reigning world champs wore down the Broncos over the final two quarters.
Denver's sudden slide has knocked a once-commanding lead atop the AFC West down to a single game over hard-charging San Diego, which won for the third consecutive time with last weekend's 21-20 verdict over the New York Giants, and conjured up memories of the team's epic free-fall down the stretch of last season. The Broncos owned a three-game advantage on the second-place Chargers with three games remaining, but lost each of those tilts and were nudged out by their rivals in a tie-break.
Washington's lack of success has gone on considerably longer. Last Sunday's 31-17 defeat at Atlanta was the Redskins' 12th loss in 16 games dating back to the midway point of last season, and the club will be aiming to avoid its first five-game slide since an 0-5 beginning to the 2001 campaign under then- head coach Marty Schottenheimer.
A punchless offense has been at the forefront of Washington's problems. The Redskins haven't scored more than 17 points in any contest this season and are averaging a meager 13.3 points over the course of their above-mentioned 16- game swoon.
A long-anticipated breakout could be hard to come by in Sunday's matchup with the Broncos, who enter this week's play ranked third in the NFL in both scoring defense (15.5 ppg) and total defense.
The Redskins will also likely have to make do without top running back Clinton Portis, as the two-time Pro Bowler and ex-Bronco received a concussion in last Sunday's loss to the Falcons and isn't expected to be cleared to play.
Portis began his pro career with two very productive seasons for Denver in 2002 and 2003, then was traded to the Redskins in a blockbuster deal that sent standout cornerback Champ Bailey to the Broncos.
Denver holds a 6-4 lead in the all-time regular season series with Washington, including a 21-19 home victory when the clubs last met, in 2005. The Redskins won the previous meeting, taking a 17-10 decision in the Mile High City in 2001. Denver was a 38-16 winner when it last visited the D.C. area in 1998, and the Redskins' most recent home win in the series took place in 1992.
In addition to the regular season series, the clubs met once in the postseason, a 42-10 Redskins win in Super Bowl XXII from San Diego.
McDaniels and Redskins' Jim Zorn will be meeting each other, as well as their counterpart's respective teams, for the first time as head coaches.
WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL
Denver's two recent losses have exposed some glaring weaknesses in the team's 19th-ranked offense (331.8 ypg), as well as the limitations of the steady but unspectacular Orton (1838 passing yards, 9 TD, 4 INT) under center. The offseason pickup mustered an anemic 152 yards on 37 attempts versus Baltimore in Week 8, then was intercepted three times by Pittsburgh's fearsome defense on Monday. Both opponents were able to apply considerable pressure against a front line that probably will be without regular right tackle Ryan Harris (dislocated toes) for a second straight outing. Orton has been able to get the ball in the hands of star wideout Brandon Marshall (44 receptions, 4 TD), who's coming off an 11-catch, 112-yard effort against the Steelers, but the hulking fourth-year pro is averaging just 8.9 yards per reception over the last four games. Electrifying return man Eddie Royal (25 receptions) had 74 yards on five grabs in Monday's setback, one of his best performances in what's been an inconsistent sophomore season as a receiver. Talented tight end Tony Scheffler (18 receptions, 2 TD) has also had sporadic production in McDaniels' scheme, having managed only two catches and 12 yards in the past two weeks. The Steelers were able to exploit Orton by shutting down Denver's running game, with the backfield duo of rookie Knowshon Moreno (423 rushing yards, 11 receptions, 3 total TD) and Correll Buckhalter (353 rushing yards, 1 TD, 20 receptions) held to a paltry 27 yards on 14 attempts.
Don't look for Washington to achieve the level of success that Pittsburgh's defense had against the Denver backs on Monday. The Redskins were unable to contain Atlanta's Michael Turner in Week 9, with the Falcons' workhorse amassing 166 yards on just 18 carries and ripping off touchdown runs of 58 and 30 yards on a unit that stands a very disappointing 25th overall (126.4 ypg) versus the run this season. Well-paid tackle Albert Haynesworth (25 tackles, 3 sacks) and linebackers London Fletcher (75 tackles, 1 sack) and Rocky McIntosh (41 tackles, 1 INT) will be counted on to keep Moreno and Buckhalter in check and put the Broncos into obvious passing situations, which would free up veteran end Andre Carter (35 tackles, 6.5 sacks) and promising rookie linebacker Brian Orakpo (26 tackles, 5.5 sacks) to apply heat to the quarterback. Orton will be facing a quality Redskins secondary that's yielded the fewest passing yards in the league (159.9 ypg), but won't have safety Chris Horton (37 tackles) available after the second-year man suffered a season-ending toe injury in the Atlanta loss.
WHEN THE REDSKINS HAVE THE BALL
The absence of Portis (494 rushing yards, 9 receptions, 2 total TD) may not be a devastating blow to the Washington offense, as backup Ladell Betts (91 rushing yards, 1 TD, 16 receptions) is a capable player who ran for over 1,150 yards back in 2006. The Redskins did record a season-best 136 rushing yards in last week's test, although a portion of that total came on scrambles by quarterback Jason Campbell (1677 passing yards, 9 TD, 8 INT), with Betts putting up 70 yards and a score on 15 attempts. A more significant loss for the Redskins is tight end Chris Cooley (29 receptions, 2 TD), who sustained an ankle fracture in the team's late-October defeat to Philadelphia and could be out until December. The two-time Pro Bowl honoree often serves as the safety valve for Campbell, who's had to endure suspect play out of a patchwork offensive line and a lack of reliable weapons in the passing game on top of substantial criticism for the offense's woes. The former first-round pick has been sacked 11 times over the past two weeks and 25 times on the year, making it difficult for him to get the ball downfield to speedy wideout Santana Moss (33 receptions, 500 yards, 2 TD), Washington's best playmaker.
While Denver's defense has been pleasantly sturdy as a whole this season, the group has displayed some chinks in the armor as of late. After surrendering a scant 10 points in the second half during the team's six-game win streak, the Ravens and Steelers racked up a combined 45 on the Broncos over the past two weeks. The unit did account for Denver's lone touchdown in the Pittsburgh game, however, with rookie outside linebacker Robert Ayers (11 tackles) returning a fumble 54 yards after end Kenny Peterson (25 tackles, 1 sack) sacked the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger. The Broncos took down Roethlisberger three times on the night, giving the club a healthy 26 sacks at the midway point. Converted end Elvis Dumervil (27 tackles, 2 forced fumbles) has certainly done his part towards that impressive total from his outside linebacker spot, as his 10 1/2 sacks is tied for the league lead this year. Denver's strong pass rush has benefited a seasoned secondary that features three players with multiple Pro Bowl appearances in Bailey (45 tackles, 1 INT, 8 PD), safety Brian Dawkins (53 tackles, 7 PD) and recently-signed nickel back Ty Law. Up front, inside linebackers D.J. Williams (63 tackles, 2.5 sacks) and Andra Davis (49 tackles, 2.5 sacks) have been the top stoppers on a defense that ranks eighth against the run (97.0 ypg).
With both of these offenses finding it hard to generate points, there aren't a wealth of intriguing fantasy options on tap for this matchup. Marshall is the one must-play here as Denver's unquestioned go-to receiver, while Royal would make an excellent choice in leagues that reward return yardage. Betts has become a popular waiver claim in the wake of Portis' injury and should get plenty of touches on Sunday, although the Redskins' offensive struggles hinder his value to that of flex status. The Broncos should be able to run the ball on Washington, but the team's backfield split assigns risk to both Moreno and Buckhalter. Moss is the lone Redskins receiver that merits starting consideration, and neither Campbell nor Orton are recommended options at the quarterback position. Both team defenses have performed solidly this year, but Denver's has been more proficient at inducing turnovers and is the better choice.
While the Broncos' recent play hasn't exactly roused championship visions, the Redskins have shown next to no signs of being a competent team capable of taking down an opponent that's played at a high level for most of this season. It may not be a thing of beauty, but Denver should be able to win the battles across both lines of scrimmage and grind out a much-needed victory to stay on top of what's becoming an interesting AFC West race.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Broncos 16, Redskins 10
11/12 16:30:03 ET