In stacked NFC East, Redskins are division's true wild card

The Redskins will find out right away if their $100 million investment in defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth shows signs of a promising return. Washington opens the season at the New York Giants on Sunday. The expectation is that Haynesworth will help stuff the run and collapse the interior of the passing pocket, forcing Eli Manning directly into the waiting arms of defensive ends Phillip Daniels and Andre Carter.

Getting pressure on the quarterback is the blueprint that every other team in the mighty NFC East has laid out for Washington. Now the Redskins must follow suit if they want to stay with the pack.

All four of the NFC East teams finished ranked in the top eight in overall defense last year. However, the Redskins were far behind the curve in getting to the quarterback. The Cowboys, Eagles and Giants ranked in the top six in sacks. Dallas, in fact, was first. The Redskins ranked 28th.

"That's what is unique about our division," Redskins coach Jim Zorn said. "You hope that you can boast a really good defense, especially a good defensive line, but then you look around every defense in the NFC East and say, 'We're solid but they're solid.' You'd love to say, 'We're the most dominant defense,' because you have to earn that in this division. It's a tough go."

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But figuring out what to do offensively is a week-to-week test -- especially for Washington and Dallas, who seem to still be trying to figure out what they are offensively.

One of the main reasons why the Giants and Eagles are picked to finish atop the division is they have some offensive identity and the most consistent quarterback play. Defense, with all these teams, is a given.

Dallas arguably has the deepest backfield in the NFL, but its offense has been more about Tony Romo, Jason Witten and Terrell Owens the past few seasons. With T.O. in Buffalo, the Cowboys should be a more physical running team but that doesn't mean they will be.

Washington quarterback Jason Campbell looks far more at ease in his second season playing in Zorn's system, but will he when things matter? Campbell is in a contract year and Washington tried to replace him twice in the offseason, so we know he's motivated. Will that translate into efficiency?

Part of that could depend on if the Redskins establish whether they're a running team or a passing team. Washington will face a team Sunday that everyone knows is going to pound the ball in the running game unless Haynesworth and Co. stop them. The Redskins, meanwhile, will try to run the ball with sturdy tailback Clinton Portis and not put too much pressure on Campbell.

"I'll feel much more ready to move on with the season after this first game," Zorn said. "There are so many unknowns."

Those unknowns -- the offensive line, the wide receivers, Campbell -- are why the Redskins, are again, The Wildcard (not the playoff wild-card) in the NFC East.

Like most teams in the division, their wide receiving corps is less than stable. Antwaan Randle El was just moved from No. 2 wide out to the No. 3/slot receiver, which isn't really a demotion since the 'Skins have so many multi-receiver sets and he is better suited to excel from the slot. Second-year player Malcolm Kelly, who had a solid enough preseason to line up with Santana Moss and the first team in his place.

"There's no production and he hasn't made a Pro Bowl yet, but he's earned the right to start," Zorn said of Kelly.

A bigger issue is the offensive line and that issue will be exposed right away against the Giants defensive front which is stacked, gets off the snap arguably better than any team in the NFL, and wears teams down with the depth of talent and tenacity.

Washington's offensive line wasn't healthy from the outset last season after losing Derrick Dockery to free agency and having Chris Samuels come into camp with a gimpy knee and ailing triceps. Dockery is back after a failed experience with Buffalo (was it the Bills or him?) and Samuels is good to go.

"That's where the game will be won or lost, up front," tight end Chris Cooley said. "That's always a tough battle with those guys."

Then there's Campbell. While Romo, Donovan McNabb and Manning have their detractors, Campbell is viewed as the weak link among NFC East quarterbacks. No one doubts his skill, but he's yet to prove himself. He's played with different coordinators and in different schemes since his college days at Auburn, but now he's in his second season with Zorn.

Campbell is a creature of repetition. He does best when he practices things over and over, and runs plays over and over. His best impromptu skill is evading tackles that have just whipped his guys up front. He better hope he doesn't have to repeat that too much.

"Jason, as well as our receivers, are playing faster and are a lot more in touch with the formations, where we want people to line up, go in motion, things like that," Zorn said. "Jason is truly better because of all the work he's put in but also his comfort level of the system and getting to know it better and knowing what those expectations are of him."

One thing Campbell has going in his favor is his teammates' support in him. Even those who might have doubted the quiet quarterback's leadership skills rallied behind him this summer when the team flirted with trading for Jay Cutler or making a deal to move up in the draft to select Mark Sanchez. Players have said that Campbell is simply too decent of a person to have been treated like that and they respect the fact that he stayed his usual calm self and went about doing his job.

Will they still feel that way if he doesn't do his job well enough?

The Giants won't make it easy, but with Haynesworth and promising rookie Brian Orakpo added to the defense, Washington hopes to make other quarterbacks feel some of the heat that's come Campbell's way. If they can force more turnovers and capitalize on them, which is why they added the interior havoc creator and an edge rusher, they've followed the blueprint to likely success.

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