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Redskins preseason game #3, vs. Baltimore: 5 things to watch for

I don’t know how many times i’ll get to say it this season, so I might as well say it now. As your undefeated Washington Redskins (who cares if it’s just preseason, it’s still nice to hear!) head into their third preseason game versus Baltimore on Thursday evening (kickoff is set for 8pm on ESPN), here are 5 things to be watching for:

1. This is the “Dress Rehearsal”

For all intents and purposes, Thursday night’s game will be the last time you’ll be seeing the majority of the Redskins starters, until they take on the Giants on September 11th. Most teams already rest nearly all their starters or key players for the final preseason game anyway, and after watching how many players have already suffered season-ending injuries (look at the aforementioned Giants; they’ve lost several key players on defense for the season in this past week alone), there’s no way the Redskins coaching staff wants the same thing to happen to them.

Plan on seeing the Redskins starting unit on both sides of the football for at least the first half, and perhaps even a little spillover of a drive or two into the third quarter. They won’t be opening up the playbook, Osaka-in-’02-style, but this game will give the Redskins coaching staff and the team their final and most useful bits of game film to review before the regular season starts.

2. The final audition(s) for the starting job at Quarterback

Head coach Mike Shanahan is on record as saying that he won’t pick a starting quarterback for the Redskins until “just before” the season opener against New York. Now, the majority of us will likely figure out who the starting quarterback will be by Wednesday of that week – there’s no way Shanahan won’t give a majority of the practice reps to his starter leading up to the game – so this is really nothing more than gamesmanship by the coach.

Anyone who’s been keeping any type of eye or ear on this team knows that the job is John Beck’s to lose, no matter what the coaching staff, their teammates, or anyone else affiliated with the organization will tell you. We’ve seen what Rex can do. Can he lead the team for short periods of time, up to a couple of games here and there, max? Yes he can, although he certainly makes in interesting during that span.

Regardless, both Beck and Grossman are scheduled to each get reps with the first team offense, effectively making this their final on-field “job interview.” Given that Beck already had a bit of a headstart in the race, he’s probably at least a step ahead of Grossman right now, given his steady performance and solid decision making last week against Indianapolis. Beck is also more athletic than Grossman, and is a better fit for the bootlegs and rollouts that Kyle Shanahan employs as a staple of his offense.

Yet Grossman may actually have an edge over Beck, in terms of overall familiarty with the offense in general. Remember: Grossman was with Shanahan (the younger) in ’09, when the former was the backup quarterback and the latter was the offensive coordinator for the Houston Texans.

Grossman played a solid game versus Pittsburgh, and he’s going to need to do the same (if not more) to usurp the job from Beck.

3. Better execution from the Red Zone Offense

The Redskins have done a great job, during the preaseason, of moving the ball “between the 20’s.” But as soon as they get inside the opponents 20 yard line, they seem to stall – an all to familiar refrain from the 2010 version of this team.

The coaching staff will tell you that the key reason for this is that they’ve never actually developed nor practiced their red zone game plan(s) for 2011 yet, but as others have pointed out, neither have the defenses they’ve played. Mike Shanahan admitted that penalties, mental miscues, and critical missed blocks have contributed to drives stalling inside the 20. The team spent more time focusing on their red zone offense this week, especially with the team preparing for this matchup more like a regular season game, as opposed to just another preseason game. So, let’s see if anything changes this week.

4. Keeping up the pace on Defense

Even if it is preseason, this is a pretty staggering stat: the Redskins first team defense has allowed a grand total of just 57 rushing yards, 20 first downs, and 10 points in two games. As of today, they’re the number one team in the NFL in both offense and defense (so enjoy it while it lasts!).

Now, to rain on the parade: the team has faced the opponents projected regular season starting quarterback for just two drives in the entire preaseason; Ben Roethlisberger only played on the Steelers first two drives, and Peyton Manning didnt play at all.

Joe Flacco and the Ravens first team offense will very likely play the entire first half against Washington, just like the Redskins starters will, and Baltimore is a team that makes no apologies about their desire to pound the football and play a smash-mouth style of offense. Last year, the Redskins defense was an absolute sieve against the run (they allowed over 127 yards per game to opponents), so with all the money and draft picks spent upgrading the front seven on defense, it’ll be nice to see just an early glimpse of the return on investment.

5. What can’t Terrance Austin do?

If he keeps on playing the way he has over these last two games, there’s just no way the Redskins coaching staff can keep receiver Terrance Austin off the roster in 2011. Both Shanahan’s have had nothing but praise for Austin, but perhaps most importantly, so has Special Teams coach Danny Smith.

As we’ve mentioned, the Redskins are likely to keep six wide receivers on their active roster. Santana Moss, Jabar Gaffney, Anthony Armstrong, and Leonard Hankerson are locks to make the team. Again, that leaves two spots for Austin, Brandon Banks, rookie Niles Paul, and Donte Stallworth to fight over.

Coaches have been quick to point out that Austin can return kicks almost as well as the fan-favorite Banks, and that Austin is a more polished receiver as well. Between those two, his preaseason performances, the fact that he’s just flat-out bigger than the diminutive Banks (5’11 and 175 lbs vs. about 5’6 and 155 lbs) which will allow him to stay healthier, and that he can contribute more on Special Teams than just returning kicks, Austin seems more and more like a lock to secure that 5th receiver job.

Here’s the more interesting thought, though: Given everything that Austin can do, and Hankerson’s maddening plague of “the dropsies” over the past two weeks (including a big drop against the Colts last week), the coaching staff could very well promote Austin to the 4th receiver, thus keeping him active on the active gameday 45 man roster, and deactivating Hankerson from said 45 man roster, but still keeping him on the overall 53 man roster. If Hankerson’s inconsitencies catching the football continue, the coaching staff may have no choice.

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