By Tarik El-Bashir
What: Redskins vs. Bears
Where: Soldier Field, Chicago, Ill.
When: Tonight, 8 p.m.
TV: Comcast SportsNet (exclusive HD broadcast), NBC 4
After a full offseason, more than three weeks of training camp and one exhibition game, Coach Mike Shanahan already knows which players will take the field first for the Redskins on Sept. 9 in New Orleans.
But that doesn’t mean his job is done. In fact, it’s about to get tougher as he chooses the second and third stringers who’ll comprise the special teams units and give the roster the depth it needs to survive the grueling regular season.
“We know who our starters are,” Shanahan said Thursday, asked how his approach changes from week-to-week in the preseason. “But there’s a lot of competition in other positions where it could swing either way. You’re trying to find the top 53 and your practice squad with an additional eight.”
The battle for backup roles got off to an intriguing beginning in Buffalo.
Rookies Richard Crawford and Alfred Morris, among others, impressed. Veteran Brandon Banks, meantime, surely seeks a second chance.
Tonight, the competition intensifies.
Here are four positions the crew at www.csnwashington.com will be scrutinizing in the Windy City:
1) Few battles are as tight as the one at wide receiver. Pierre Garçon, Leonard Hankerson, Santana Moss and Josh Morgan will be Robert Griffin III’s top targets, likely in that order.
After that, it’s a free-for-all between Anthony Armstrong, Banks, Dezmon Briscoe, Aldrick Robinson and Terrence Austin.
In all likelihood, only two spots remain.
Armstrong did not suit up in Buffalo because of a sprained AC joint in his right shoulder, so he needs to make up for lost time.
Banks, on the other hand, needs the coaching staff to forget about his disappointing performance in Buffalo, where he was targeted nine times but only hauled in two passes for seven yards. To be fair, Banks slipped at least once and Rex Grossman wasn’t exactly on-target. But the pint-size playmaker must be better against the Bears – on offense and as a returner, where suddenly finds himself under pressure from Crawford.
As for Briscoe, since he doesn’t contribute on special teams, he must earn a roster spot based on the merit of his pass-catching abilities. He was not targeted against Bills, but the 6-2, 210 pounder is expected to have a bigger role in Chicago.
2) Madieu Williams and Brandon Meriweather appear to be the favorites to claim the starting jobs at free and strong safety, respectively. Hard-hitting Tanard Jackson, based on practice reps, also appears to be in the team’s plans to help buttress a position that was seen as one of the Redskins’ biggest weakness last season.
That leaves DeJon Gomes, Reed Doughty and rookie Jordan Bernstine battling for one, maybe two spots. Against the Bills, both Gomes and Bernstine recorded four tackles, which was tied for third most on the team behind linebackers Bryan Kehl (6) and Chris Wilson (5). Bernstine also made a tackle on special teams.
3) After his breakout performance in Buffalo, Shanahan figures to want another look at Morris.
Shanahan already knows what he has in Evan Royster, and with both Tim Hightower (knee) and Roy Helu Jr. (Achilles’ tendinitis) are sidelined, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Morris line up with the first team.
A powerful, one-cut runner, Morris rushed for a game-high 54 yards on 15 carries against the Bills’ second and third stringers. But can he catch a pass? Can he pass block? If he plays with the first team, how will he fare against seven-time pro bowler Julius Peppers and a Bears’ defense that’s a step up in class from Buffalo’s?
4) Griffin isn’t fighting for a job, obviously. But more will be expected from him in his second professional start. The touted rookie is expected to play 30-35 snaps, up from the 14 he took in Buffalo, where he impressed with his poise and ability to read the Bills’ defense and audible changes at the line of scrimmage.
Griffin did not attempt any of the designed runs Shanahan has put into the playbook to accentuate his speed and elusiveness against the Bills. Griffin, who joked this week that he hasn’t been tackled since the Alamo Bowl in December, could benefit from executing those plays at full speed, against opposing defenses. But will Shanahan expose his prized rookie to potential injury?
Will Griffin attempt spread the ball around more effectively? Three of his four completions last week were to Garçon.
Will Griffin receive adequate enough protection from the injury-riddled offensive line to accomplish much? Trent Williams (foot) and Maurice Hurt (knee) are probable, according to Shanahan, while Chris Chester (ankle) is questionable.
Answers to those questions, and more, will begin emerging a few hours from now at Soldier Field.