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NFL Preview - Washington (2-2) at Carolina (0-3)
By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The Carolina Panthers will be coming out of a bye week in a virtual must-win mode, a feeling the Washington Redskins have seemingly experienced throughout this entire 2009 season.
The two embattled teams will square off this Sunday at Charlotte's Bank of America Stadium, where the Panthers hope to re-establish their home dominance.
Carolina, the reigning champion of the NFC's South Division, has gotten off to its worst start in a decade after dropping each of its first three tests of the 2009 campaign. That's only one loss fewer than the team's entire regular- season total of last season, when the Panthers amassed a gaudy 12-4 record and nearly captured the top overall seed in the conference playoffs.
This year's Carolina squad has been plagued by a leaky run defense and a startling penchant for mistakes on the offensive side. The Panthers are surrendering an unhealthy 182.7 yards per game on the ground in the early going, while their 12 giveaways and minus-eight turnover ratio are both the worst marks in the league.
Carolina was bullied for 212 rushing yards in its last outing, a 21-7 road loss to Dallas in Week 3. Quarterback Jake Delhomme added to the misery by throwing a pair of interceptions, giving the struggling veteran seven picks over the season's first three games.
Washington enters this Week 5 clash on more solid footing than the Panthers, although the club's 2-2 record has hardly inspired an overload of optimism to a front office and fan base that have been desperately clamoring for a winner. The Redskins' two victories have come at home against St. Louis and Tampa Bay, teams that have combined to lose 22 consecutive games, by a total margin of just five points.
The Redskins put themselves in a 10-0 halftime hole in last Sunday's matchup with the wayward Buccaneers, but found their stride after the break and scored 16 straight points to rally for a 16-13 triumph. Quarterback Jason Campbell was able to shake off an awful first half in which the former first-round pick committed three turnovers to toss two third-quarter touchdown passes that spurred the comeback.
Washington will try to carry over that momentum as it attempts to end a five- game road losing skid dating back to last season.
The Panthers, who haven't begun a year with four straight defeats since an 0-7 beginning in 1998, were a perfect 8-0 at Bank of America Stadium during the 2008 regular season. That streak came to an end with a forgettable 38-10 Week 1 loss to Philadelphia in which Carolina sealed its fate by turning the ball over seven times.
The Redskins hold a 7-1 advantage in their all-time series with the Panthers, including a 17-13 home victory when the teams last met, in 2006. Carolina scored its only win of the series in previous meeting, a 20-17 triumph in 2003. The Redskins are 2-1 in Carolina all-time, with wins there in 1997 and 1998.
Panthers head coach John Fox is 1-1 as a head coach against Washington. The Redskins' Jim Zorn will be meeting both Fox and the Panthers for the first time as a head coach.
WHEN THE REDSKINS HAVE THE BALL
Although Washington has had its trouble scoring points and received inconsistent play out of Campbell (963 passing yards, 5 TD, 5 INT), the offense did get a very encouraging sign in running back Clinton Portis' (281 rushing yards, 4 receptions) performance during the Tampa Bay win. The two-time Pro Bowl participant, who's been battling nagging calf and ankle injuries, delivered season-bests of 98 yards and 25 carries last week, injecting some needed life into a running game that's been dormant for much of this year. The Redskins' big-play threat is provided by Santana Moss (17 receptions, 293 yards, 2 TD), as the veteran wide receiver showed by burning the Bucs for a go-ahead 59-yard touchdown last weekend, while tight end Chris Cooley (22 receptions, 254 yards, 2 TD) has been extremely reliable as Campbell's go-to- guy in tough spots. Washington is still averaging a meager 14 points per game despite those capable weapons, partly due to the lack of a dependable third receiving option and a suspect offensive line's struggles in pass protection.
Portis could be in line for another productive day this weekend, considering the Panthers are allowing 5.4 yards per rush attempt over their first three games. In an effort to shore up the run defense, the team signed journeyman tackle Hollis Thomas during the bye week, with the hope that the 340-pound plugger can lend some necessary bulk to a front wall that's too often been pushed around at the point of attack. The added beef should help out the excellent linebacker duo of Jon Beason (21 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) and Thomas Davis (34 tackles, 1 sack), both of whom excel in open space, as could the expected return of hard-hitting strong safety Chris Harris, who's yet to play this season due to a bone bruise to his knee. If Carolina is better able to contain the run, that should also make standout end Julius Peppers (9 tackles, 1 sack), who's coming off a 14 1/2-sack season in 2008, even more dangerous along the edge in passing situations. The Panthers have given up just 179.7 yards per game (6th overall) through the air thus far, but that's a deceiving number due to teams' preference to attack them on the ground.
WHEN THE PANTHERS HAVE THE BALL
Carolina certainly doesn't lack talent or experience on the offensive side, as shifty running back DeAngelo Williams (180 rushing yards, 2 TD, 9 receptions) racked up over 1,500 yards and 20 total touchdowns during a breakthrough 2008 and gritty wideout Steve Smith (15 receptions, 190 yards) has earned three trips to the Pro Bowl over the last four years, while both Delhomme (601 passing yards, 2 TD, 7 INT) and 36-year-old wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad (14 receptions) have had long and accomplished careers. Turnovers have been a crippling factor to a team that has scored the third-fewest points in the league this season, however, and Delhomme also hasn't gotten a great deal of help from an underachieving line that's surrendered seven sacks. The Panthers also have failed to establish a dependable running game, a surprising development for a squad that ranked third in the NFL in rushing offense a year ago, with the combo of Williams and sophomore power back Jonathan Stewart (99 rushing yards, 7 receptions) having averaged a pedestrian 93 yards per week. One of the Panthers' few bright spots on offense has been tight end Dante Rosario (6 receptions), who's hauled in a touchdown pass in two straight games.
The Redskins currently sport the league's fourth-best pass defense (173.5 ypg), although the unit hasn't been challenged much in recent games by the likes of St. Louis' Marc Bulger, Detroit rookie Matthew Stafford and untested Tampa Bay triggerman Josh Johnson. Washington did limit the overmatched Bucs to a paltry 100 net passing yards in last week's win and sacked Johnson three times, with promising rookie linebacker Brian Orakpo (13 tackles, 2 sacks) recording one of those takedowns. The defense hasn't been as sturdy versus the run early on, however, having permitted an average of 128 yards per game at the season's quarter point. It's hard to blame middle linebacker London Fletcher (52 tackles, 1 sack) for the team's shortcomings in that area, as the durable veteran has compiled at least nine tackles in every game this year. The club made a switch at strong safety during last Sunday's victory, with fourth-year pro Reed Doughty (24 tackles) replacing Chris Horton (24 tackles) in the starting lineup and coming through with a team-best 11 stops (10 solo) against Tampa.
Could this be the week where Williams and Smith, two elite fantasy performers a year ago, finally break out and reward their patient owners? Both remain sure-fire starters despite their dips in production. Muhammad is a decent option as a flex player in points-per-reception leagues, but Delhomme still needs to be avoided until the slumping Cajun can work out his turnover problems. Campbell carries a great deal of risk at the quarterback position as well, but the Redskins do have a few steady point-producers in Portis, Moss and Cooley. With all the mistakes the Panthers have committed on offense this season, the Washington defense could be a solid choice for this week.
While Carolina's early-season showing hardly inspires confidence, let's not forget that this is a team that won 12 times in 2008 and still has the nucleus intact from that successful season. The week off should do the Panthers some good, as will facing a Washington offense that hasn't posed many problems for the opposition in recent weeks. It likely won't be a thing of beauty, but Carolina's extra preparation time and home-field edge should be enough to get the defending NFC South champs a long-awaited return to the win column
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Panthers 16, Redskins 14
10/08 17:06:50 ET