Here we go again.
For the second time in two years, Washington Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan is causing a stir with his quarterbacks. In his first season with the team in 2010, Shanahan sent shock waves throughout the D.C. area by opting to bench Donovan McNabb in favor of Rex Grossman during a two-minute drill in a loss at Detroit.
Shanahan flip-flopped back to McNabb until Grossman took over the job for the final three weeks of that season and held it over the early stages of 2011.
However, a few days before this Sunday's road matchup with the Carolina Panthers, Shanahan had to again decide whether he wanted Grossman to remain under center after a putrid performance versus Philadelphia last week, or to ignite the John Beck wick.
"I have two guys that I believe in," Shanahan said on Monday. "I believe in Rex and I believe in John Beck. I told [the media] that from day one. Both guys I am hoping are going to be here for a long time."
Beck will now take over as the starter, with Shanahan making the announcement Wednesday after keeping his quarterbacks on the edge for a few days. Grossman was benched in favor of Beck in a 20-13 Week 6 loss to the Eagles in which he fired four egregious interceptions, including three to safety Kurt Coleman, and finished just 9-of-22 passing for 143 yards.
Washington fell to second in the NFC East behind the 4-2 New York Giants with the defeat and has lost two of three games after a promising 2-0 start.
This weekend's tilt in Carolina may not be so assuring for Beck in his first start since 2007, however, with two starting offensive lineman out for Washington because of injury. Left guard Kory Lichtensteiger is done for the season after suffering a knee injury against the Eagles and left tackle Trent Williams could miss a few weeks with what Shanahan described as a high ankle sprain. Regular center Will Montgomery was moved to left guard and reserve lineman Erik Cook took over at Montgomery's spot last Sunday.
Some other possible moves on the line could feature Jammal Brown going from right tackle to fill Williams' spot and Sean Locklear moving in to Brown's post. Locklear replaced Williams on the line against the Eagles.
The Redskins will play back-to-back road contests in Carolina and Buffalo before returning to FedEx Field to host red-hot San Francisco on Nov. 6. The Redskins are 1-1 on the road this season, having lost at Dallas before beating the St. Louis Rams in Week 4.
Carolina can't seem to catch a break this season and is coming off its most lopsided loss of the year last Sunday at Atlanta. The 31-17 margin was also the third defeat in a row for the Panthers, whose previous four losses were by seven points or less.
The Panthers' 1-5 start matches last season's record after six games, and first-year head coach Ron Rivera wasn't too pleased after his team blew a 17-14 lead in the fourth quarter. Atlanta scored 17 points in the final period for the win.
"This one is a tough one to take just because of what happened in the fourth quarter," Rivera said. "It wasn't good enough, just unacceptable.
"We're a young football team, but that's over. It's time for us to start moving forward. We're six weeks into this, and it's time for us to start playing like we've been around."
Cam Newton is one of those players Rivera could usually exclude from that diatribe, though the rookie quarterback had arguably his worst start as a pro in the loss. Newton was intercepted three times while passing for 237 yards with no touchdowns, marking the first time this season he did not throw a scoring pass. He also recorded his worst quarterback rating yet at 44.6.
Newton said after Sunday's loss ownership needs to be taken by the players, with himself included.
The loss is an indicator on how Carolina's season has gone, since it's having trouble closing out games in the fourth quarter. The result wasn't the first time the Panthers squelched a lead over the final 15 minutes of the game, and Rivera knows something needs to happen fast in order to turn the club's 1-5 mark around.
The Panthers have two games versus Washington and Minnesota on the docket before a bye week. By then they hope to have solved their woes and have the defense improved.
Atlanta converted 7-of-11 third-down opportunities last week, and Rivera said he will sit down with defensive coordinator Sean McDermott in order to tighten areas up before it gets worse. Injuries, of course, have also put a damper on the unit, which figures to see a lot of Washington running backs Ryan Torain and Tim Hightower this weekend.
The Redskins have won seven of nine all-time meetings with Carolina, but the Panthers came through with a 20-17 decision in the most recent matchup, which took place in Charlotte in 2009. Washington also lost to the Panthers at Bank of America Stadium in 2003 and hasn't posted a victory as the visitor in this series since a 28-25 triumph on Dec. 13, 1998. The Redskins' last win of any kind over Carolina occurred in 2006, a 17-13 verdict at FedEx Field.
Shanahan is 2-1 lifetime against the Panthers, with all three of those games taking place during his tenure with the Denver Broncos from 1995-2008, while Rivera will be taking on both the Redskins and Shanahan for the first time as a head man. Shanahan lost in his only previous appearance at Bank of America Stadium, a 30-10 setback to the Panthers while with Denver in 2008.
WHEN THE REDSKINS HAVE THE BALL
Whether or not Shanahan enjoys playing mind games with his players, Redskins veteran wide receiver Santana Moss (23 receptions, 2 TD) wasn't on board with someone losing their starting job after one bad outing. He defended Grossman in saying it shouldn't even be a question who starts this week and felt his quarterback deserved a second chance. Moss also added that star quarterbacks Tom Brady and Michael Vick both threw four picks in a game this season and didn't lose their jobs. Grossman (1,132 passing yards, 6 TD, 9 INT) has been intercepted seven times in his last three games, however, for a Redskins offense ranked 17th in passing at 232.4 yards per game. Beck has made four NFL starts, all with Miami during the 2007 season, and was able to give the offense some life last week by throwing for 117 yards while rushing for a touchdown in his only appearance this year. Tight end Chris Cooley has only eight catches this season and was bothered by a knee issue at the start of the year. He is expected to have surgery on a broken index finger suffered last Sunday and is out for this game. Washington's ground attack was stuffed for 42 yards last week, with Hightower (233 rushing yards, 1 TD) not playing because of a shoulder injury and Torain (157 rushing yards, 1 TD) recording 22 yards. Torain is expected to start again on Sunday.
Carolina collapsed in the fourth quarter in last Sunday's loss at Atlanta and squandered a chance for its second win of the season. McDermott instilled a 3-4 scheme for three plays in the game and could utilize that defensive approach more often against the Redskins, who will most likely run the ball more frequently with Beck getting the starting the nod. Rivera used the 3-4 as San Diego's defensive coordinator last year, when the Chargers were No. 1 in the league in total defense, and is on board with showing opposing offenses different looks. Defensive end Charles Johnson (21 tackles, 5 sacks) is Carolina's best defender and even lined up at outside linebacker last Sunday. He brings an edge-rushing presence from his position, so it wouldn't be a surprise for McDermott to keep him there gunning for Beck. Johnson said it's easier to rush the passer standing up because his vision wasn't impaired by an offensive lineman, and posted a sack for the fifth time in six games during the loss. The Panthers are next-to-last in rushing defense, allowing 140.3 yards a game, and are tied for 28th in scoring defense (27.2 ppg). Falcons running back Michael Turner pummeled the Panthers for 139 yards on 27 carries and two touchdowns last week. Linebacker Thomas Williams (9 tackles) made his first NFL start in Atlanta and had two stops, and the team has yet to show the same defensive starting lineup in consecutive games in 2011.
WHEN THE PANTHERS HAVE THE BALL
Carolina's offense has been just a few plays away from winning some games, but that wasn't the case in last Sunday's loss to Atlanta. While the Panthers' defense allowed 17 unanswered points in the fourth quarter, the offense came up short on several chances to keep the game from getting away. Newton (1847 passing yards, 7 TD, 9 INT) was making his homecoming to Atlanta but disappointed some of his supporters by throwing three interceptions, including one to Falcons defensive tackle Corey Peters that set up a score. Newton said all the right things afterward, talking about players looking themselves in the mirror and asking what can be done to right the mess. The rookie, who also had an interception in the end zone with less than a minute left in the first half, led the Panthers in rushing with 50 yards on six carries. He is tied with Jonathan Stewart (210 rushing yards, TD) for second among Panthers in rushing yards and leads the team with six rushing touchdowns. Carolina is fifth in the NFL in both passing and total yards, but top wideout Steve Smith (32 receptions, 675 yards, 3 TD), who came into the Atlanta game averaging nearly 23 yards per catch and more than 121 yards per game, was held to five receptions for 66 yards. The Redskins are 11th against the rush and will also have to stop DeAngelo Williams (302 rushing yards, 1 TD), who fell back to earth with 44 yards on 12 carries against the Falcons, one week after racking up 115 yards and a score versus New Orleans. He still needs just 30 receiving yards to become first player in team history with 4,000 rushing and 1,000 receiving yards.
Stopping Newton should be Washington's top priority, since he's accounted for most of the Panthers' yards this season. It had trouble containing Vick, who ran for 54 yards and passed for 237 more, last week, however. The Redskins allowed 192 yards on the ground and 422 total to the Eagles and are 11th against the rush and ninth in pass defense this season. They're also sixth in yards allowed, permitting 321.6 per game, and may need to keep a spy in the middle of the field to keep the mobile Newton at bay. Linebackers London Fletcher (34 tackles, 1 sack) and Rocky McIntosh (38 tackles, 1 sack) ended with 12 and 11 stops, respectively, last week for the Redskins, whose defense needs to be come out more fresh and fast against Carolina. They were staring down a 20-0 hole versus Philadelphia before getting back into the game late. On a positive note, the Redskins didn't allow a second-half point to the Eagles and hope to ride that success into this weekend's tilt with the Panthers. Safety LaRon Landry (15 tackles) and defensive tackle Barry Cofield (5 tackles, sack) both agreed that the defense picked up the tempo too late, however, and couldn't finish. Washington allowed just 10 points off the offense's four turnovers, though. Redskins stud linebacker Brian Orakpo (16 tackles, 4 sacks) was disappointed in his team's underneath coverage against Philadelphia and said that will be corrected in time for Carolina.
KEYS TO THE GAME
It will be interesting to see if Shanahan's latest experiment at quarterback will work better than it did last season. Grossman was the beneficiary of Shanahan pulling the plug on McNabb, and now the former has to deal with being on the other end of the switch. Whether Beck can get the team to bounce back and turn things around in Washington remains to be seen. He said he was excited for the chance, but it could come at a cost behind a banged-up offensive line. Look for Torain and possibly Hightower bailing out the former BYU star.
Newton has to protect the football, as his three interceptions cost the Panthers their second win of the season last week. Smith had an off day against the Falcons, but still has made a catch in 65 consecutive games, the third- longest streak in team history behind Wesley Walls' 70 games from 1996-2001 and Smith's own 68 games from 2002-06. If Carolina can get its passing game established early on against a tough Washington secondary, chances of coming out on top will improve drastically.
Will Washington's patched-up offensive line be able to hold up for the inexperienced Beck in his first start since 2007? McDermott will devise the best possible defensive scheme to disrupt Beck in the pocket, though the Panthers registered only one sack of Matt Ryan in Atlanta. Johnson is Carolina's best pass rusher and looks for his 14th sack in the past 14 games, so the Redskins will need to account for him.
A change at quarterback can rally a team for a few victories, and it can also backfire in the face of a head coach. Shanahan will look like a genius after Beck leads the Redskins to a win over Carolina on Sunday, but the inexperienced signal-caller won't be doing it alone. Washington's defense played poorly out of the chute last week, but is quite capable of ruffling Newton's feathers and throwing the rookie off of his game. A strong defense is a quarterback's best friend (just ask Trent Dilfer or Brad Johnson), and Beck needs all the help he can get to kill those early-game jitters. A solid ground game wouldn't hurt either.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Redskins 23, Panthers 19