(Sports Network) - The resurgence of the Washington Redskins has begun to take place under another new regime, while the Detroit Lions are still waiting for their turnaround to transpire in the team's latest rebuilding phase.
There have been a few glimmers of hope in the Motor City, however, and the return of the organization's hopeful franchise quarterback for this Sunday's clash with the improved Redskins at Ford Field figures to generate a little more optimism for the long-suffering Lions.
After enduring a humbling 4-12 campaign under former head coach Jim Zorn last season, Redskins owner Dan Snyder made another major organizational shuffle that has been a common event during his decade-long rule of the storied team. This one came with a proven winner, however, as the ever-impatient patriarch lured two-time Super Bowl champion sideline boss Mike Shanahan away from a one-year sabbatical to whip his highly-paid and mismanaged group into shape.
The results so far have been impressive, as Washington has already matched its victory total of the last stand of the ill-fated Zorn era and emerged as a credible contender in an NFC pack with few standouts. The 4-3 Redskins currently sit just a game behind the New York Giants for first place in the NFC East and boast victories over three teams (Dallas, Philadelphia, Green Bay) that made the playoffs a year ago.
The acquisition of six-time Pro Bowl quarterback Donovan McNabb from the division-rival Eagles in April was designed to accelerate the process, but the veteran triggerman has been merely ordinary at the outset of his tenure with the Burgundy and Gold. Instead, the Redskins have gotten by on both grit and resourcefulness, winning all six of its games by six points or more while producing an NFC-best plus-eight turnover margin.
Washington's knack for capitalizing on its opponents mistakes was none better illustrated in last Sunday's matchup at Chicago. The Redskins forced six turnovers out of the error-prone Bears, none bigger than a 92-yard interception return touchdown by cornerback DeAngelo Hall that provided the deciding points in a 17-14 win that was more about survival than beauty.
Hall, one of the lightning rods for criticism of a defense that's allowed more yards than any team in the league this season, did his part to silence those detractors with a record-setting day. The flashy coverman tied an NFL single- game mark with four interceptions of Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler, including the tide-turning pick late in the third quarter that put his team ahead to stay.
Another of the Redskins' maligned defenders made a monumental impact as well in last week's triumph. Two-time All-Pro lineman Albert Haynesworth, relegated to a supporting role after a bitter feud with Shanahan that lasted all through training camp, had one of four Washington sacks and helped force a Cutler fumble at the goal line that thwarted a Bears' scoring chance.
As for the Lions, a team that hasn't notched a winning ledger since 2000 appears to be headed to another sub-.500 mark after losing five of its first six contests of this season. Detroit has been competitive in nearly all of its games, however, and displayed its growing potential in the team's most recent effort at Ford Field, throttling the St. Louis Rams by a 44-6 count back in Week 5.
The Lions followed up by playing the soaring Giants tough in a 28-20 road setback the subsequent week, despite losing quarterback Shaun Hill to a fractured left forearm in the second quarter.
Hill had been filling in for Matthew Stafford, Detroit's selection with the No. 1 overall choice of the 2009 draft who had been laid up with a separated right shoulder he incurred in the season opener. The talented 22-year-old has since healed, getting some additional recovery time with the Lions on a bye last week, and is on track to return to the starting lineup on Sunday.
The Redskins got a glimpse of Stafford's considerable promise when these teams squared off in Detroit during Week 3 of last season, with the former University of Georgia star throwing for 236 yards and a touchdown on 21-of-36 passing to guide the Lions to a 19-14 win.
Washington has a 27-11 advantage in its all-time regular-season series with Detroit, which dates back to 1932, but the Lions came away with the above- mentioned 19-14 victory over the Redskins at Ford Field during Week 3 of the 2009 campaign. Washington had won three straight over Detroit prior to that setback, with two of those triumphs having taken place in the Motor City.
In addition to the regular-season set, the clubs have met three times in the postseason, with Washington taking all three matchups. The Redskins prevailed in NFC First Round Playoff games in 1982 and 1999, and also defeated the Lions for the 1991 NFC Championship.
Shanahan is 2-1 lifetime against the Lions, with all three of those games coming during his 14-year tenure with the Denver Broncos from 1995-2008. Detroit's Jim Schwartz is 1-0 versus the Redskins and will be opposing Shanahan for the first time in his career.
WHEN THE REDSKINS HAVE THE BALL
While Washington's passing game has been rather spotty, with McNabb (1761 passing yards, 6 TD, 7 INT) struggling with accuracy issues at times and a lack of overall depth from the receiving corps also factoring in, the team has been significantly more effective moving the football on the ground as of late. Running back Ryan Torain (381 rushing yards, 3 TD, 5 receptions), a former Shanahan draft choice in Denver, has delivered back-to-back 100-yard efforts after taking over for the injured Clinton Portis while benefiting from a few adjustments across the line, with the practice-squad promotee coming off a career-best 125-yard, 21-carry performance against the Bears. The Redskins are still averaging better than 250 yards a game through the air, however, with veteran wide receiver Santana Moss (42 receptions, 548 yards, 2 TD) and tight end Chris Cooley (35 receptions, 2 TD) serving as productive targets for McNabb and the previously-unknown Anthony Armstrong (14 receptions, 1 TD) showing flashes as a deep threat. McNabb has thrown two interceptions in each of the last two games, including one that was returned for a touchdown by the Bears this past week.
The opportunity is there for another big day for Torain on Sunday, as the Detroit defense is allowing 138.8 rushing yards per game (27th overall) and an unwanted 4.9 yards per attempt and was grated for 167 yards on the ground by the Giants two weeks back. Injuries and questionable talent have created instability at linebacker, but the anticipated return of DeAndre Levy in the middle could help ease those concerns. The second-year pro has played in just one game so far this year due to a nagging groin strain, but appears ready to resume his post opposite aging strongside starter Julian Peterson (33 tackles, 1 sack). The Lions have been better at harassing the quarterback, with rookie Ndamukong Suh (22 tackles, 4.5 sacks) and high-motor end Kyle Vanden Bosch (26 tackles, 2 sacks) energizing a pass rush that's generated a solid 16 sacks on the year. That pressure that lent a boost to a somewhat shaky secondary that does sport one playmaker in cornerback Alphonso Smith (21 tackles, 4 PD), a preseason acquisition from Denver who leads the team with three interceptions.
WHEN THE LIONS HAVE THE BALL
Though Hill did a serviceable job in his steed, the Lions are excited to finally get Stafford (83 passing yards) back on the field directing an offense that has its share of weapons. The strong-armed sophomore remains an unknown quantity, however, because he's missed half of the team's games since the start of the 2009 season due to various ailments, but did look sharp in the opener prior to getting hurt. Stafford will have plenty of options to choose from when he drops back to pass, the best being stud wide receiver Calvin Johnson (29 receptions, 437 yards, 5 TD), a six-foot-five, 230-pound matchup nightmare who burned the Giants for 146 yards and a touchdown on five catches back in Week 6. Veteran Nate Burleson (12 receptions, 2 TD) brings a big-play complement to Johnson on the outside, while tight ends Brandon Pettigrew (33 receptions, 1 TD) and Tony Scheffler (26 receptions, 1 TD) are both steady underneath alternatives. Stafford's going to need to shake off the rust quickly, considering Detroit doesn't have much of a running game to speak of. Rookie running back Jahvid Best (249 rushing yards, 5 total TD) is averaging just 3.2 yards per attempt as the primary ball-carrier, but he's a dynamite receiver whose 31 catches and 285 receiving yards rank among the league's best at his position.
Detroit's strong cast of pass-catchers could present a dilemma for a Washington defense that's surrendered the second-most yards through the air in the league (292.1 ypg) along with a 65 percent completion rate. Hall (57 tackles, 7 PD) leads the league with five interceptions after his banner outing against the Bears, but he's also been picked on mercilessly at times, and safeties LaRon Landry (68 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) and Kareem Moore (23 tackles, 1 INT, 4 PD) have experienced coverage issues on occasion as well. The pass rush can be devastating when operating at maximum strength, however, especially now that Haynesworth (9 tackles, 1 sack) seems to have his head on straight after his battle with Shanahan and some personal problems. Coordinator Jim Haslett loves to bring the blitz, and expect him to bring the house in an attempt to rattle the lightly-seasoned Stafford. Outside linebacker Brian Orakpo (23 tackles) is one player the Lions must account for, with the 2009 Pro Bowler backing up an 11-sack rookie campaign with seven through the first seven games this season. The run defense, headed up by the hard-hitting Landry and durable inside linebacker London Fletcher (68 yards, 1.5 sacks) has been inconsistent, but did hold the punchless Bears to 66 rushing yards a week ago.
There are a few quality choices on both sides in this contest, with Johnson probably the safest bet for fantasy owners. Although the quarterback switch could have an affect on his overall numbers, he'll still see a lot of passes his way and especially so within the red zone. Moss and Cooley are also solid plays as Washington's only two reliable receivers, with both Burleson and Pettigrew holding some value at their positions. The two main running backs, Best and Torain, are each starter-worthy and don't have big threats to their touches, but Stafford owners should take a wait-and-see approach even against a defense that's been prone to giving up yards. McNabb offers some intrigue, but only as a bye-week fill-in with the Redskins likely to establish the run. Detroit has a usable kicker in veteran Jason Hanson, who's made seven field goals beyond 40 yards, while the Redskins own the better fantasy defense and draw a potentially favorable matchup against a young quarterback.
While the Redskins have proven they can hold their own against opponents more formidable than the one-win team they'll face this week, they've also got a few liabilities the Lions may be able to exploit. Detroit has some very good skill players that should pose problems for Washington's gambling defense, and there's been a trend of teams performing well after a bye week when playing at home this season. Stafford is the obvious wild card here, as the Lions won't win if he doesn't play well, but Schwartz's team figures to be both hungry and well-prepared after its respite and is fully capable of handling the somewhat unpredictable Redskins if it's able to execute.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Lions 23, Redskins 17