August has not been Al Saunders’ month.
In five preseason games, Washington’s starters have yet to score in Saunders’ ballyhooed offense. Heading into tonight’s game against the visiting Pittsburgh Steelers, the Redskins have produced just 17 first downs and 365 yards in 20 preseason possessions with their No. 1 quarterback.
“We’d like to be more productive,” Saunders said. “We want to score every time we have the ball. But the ultimate important thing in preseason is to make progress in individuals’ fundamentals and techniques. I’d like us to be assignment-perfect.”
Receiver Antwaan Randle El’s Washington debut in 2006 certainly wasn’t perfect. His 32 catches and 351 yards were both career lows. The Redskins went 5-11, the season after Randle El and the Steelers won the Super Bowl.
“Last year wasn’t what I expected,” said Randle El, a former college quarterback whose 93 touches were the second-fewest of his five NFL seasons. “You didn’t get the full gist of what I can do and what we can be as a wide receiving corps overall.”
Indeed, fellow new wideout Brandon Lloyd was even less productive — 23 catches, 365 yards and no touchdowns. Lloyd came to camp behind Randle El and didn’t help his cause by missing most of two weeks — including the preseason opener at Tennessee — with shin splints.
“Me and Brandon have to make the play if we’re given the opportunity,” Randle El said. “Last year, we didn’t have as many opportunities as we would like. We want teams to realize it’s not just one guy. If you double-team [No. 1 receiver Santana Moss] and leave us open, we’re going to wear you out, too.”
But neither Lloyd nor Randle El has ever managed more than 48 catches, 733 yards or six touchdowns in a season. However, coach Joe Gibbs remains high on Randle El, whose 8.8 yards a return in 2006 were also sub-par.
“Randle El’s a very versatile player who people underestimate sometimes,” Gibbs said. “His play carries over to everybody else. He’s extremely tough, well-prepared … a great return guy. Last year, I got frustrated because they were always trying to pin him on the sidelines, always kicking things out of bounds, kicking them high. [But] all that is productive for you because you’re getting better field position.”
Randle El had one catch for 20 yards against the Titans, but he also strained a quadriceps, which kept him out four days.
“I’ll be ready,” said Randle El, who returned to practice Thursday. “I’m excited to see the guys. I talk to some of them, but guys like [fullback] Dan Kreider, I haven’t seen since I left. You develop relationships that you never forget, especially with us winning the Super Bowl, and the way we won it, my last year in Pittsburgh.”
Although the Steelers failed to make the playoffs last season, Ben Roethlisberger, Hines Ward, Troy Polamalu and Co. will be a better barometer for the Redskins than the Vince Young-less Titans were.
“It will be a much better test,” assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams said. “In the first half [in their preseason opener against New Orleans], they had 305 yards. But the way we played Saturday, we probably got their attention, too. They saw that we played physical and fast [on defense]. If there’s an assistant coach who should be in the Hall of Fame, it’s [Steelers defensive coordinator] Dick LeBeau. Our offense will be tested … against his defense.”
That test will be tougher with Pro Bowl left tackle Chris Samuels and three-time 1,500-yard rusher Clinton Portis still sidelined with knee injuries. Todd Wade will rest an ailing shoulder, leaving left guard to Mike Pucillo with the starting offense expected to play at least the first half. The first-team defense, which is healthy, should play more than the four series it did last week.
“Last week, parts of our team looked good and we need to improve the parts that did not look good,” Gibbs said. “You don’t want to wind up in the first half with only a chance to kick a field goal, and that is exactly what we did last week.”
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