Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley
Admit it. Some of you felt sorry for the Redskins when the NFL's diabolical schedule makers sent them to the Meadowlands to open the season for the second consecutive year. The Giants were still holding Super Bowl XLII ceremonies right up to kickoff last September, and then they punctuated the evening by devouring the Redskins' lifeless offense.
The Skins' newbie head coach, Jim Zorn, looked like he was in over his head, but now he's returning to Giants Stadium with more experience and a much-improved roster -- at least in my opinion. As we countdown the hours to Sunday's game, let's take a look at my Five Things To Watch (If You're So Inclined).
It's finally time to take the training wheels off Jason Campbell. The Redskins -- namely Dan Snyder and Vinny Cerrato -- put the former Auburn quarterback through a mental grinder by pursuing Jay Cutler and Mark Sanchez in the offseason. Through it all, Campbell kept a good attitude and won the respect of his teammates. None of that will matter Sunday at 4:15 p.m. ET. The Giants will have Campbell under siege from the opening possession and he'll have to make plays. The Redskins can lean on running back Clinton Portis as much as possible, but Campbell will have to take shots down the field -- and that's the part that still worries Redskins fans. Now in his second year in Zorn's offense, Campbell seems to be getting through his progressions a lot quicker. And he's learned from backup Todd Collins that it's OK to dump off the ball if nothing's there. The Redskins have immense respect for Giants defensive ends Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora, but they feel as if they're in a much better position to protect Campbell this season. It wouldn't surprise me if the Skins take a shot deep within the first couple plays. Zorn's big on trying to set the tone early and a big play in the passing game could send Campbell's confidence soaring. Watch Campbell's body language early in this game. He's been a little more fiery this preseason. I think you'll be able to tell right away how comfortable he is. If he gets off to one of those 2-of-8 starts, it could be another long afternoon for the Skins.
We'll actually see Albert Haynesworth line up in a meaningful game. This is not a guy who needs a lot of reps in the preseason. I expect him to be a disruptive force from the opening snap. Haynesworth isn't in Washington to collect a lot of sacks, although that would certainly be nice. He's one of the rare players in the game who demands constant attention. When he's fresh, there' s no one in the league who can block him one-on-one. Haynesworth prides himself in occupying two or three blockers throughout the game, which should benefit the Redskins' pass-rushers. Even though he's lining up at linebacker, you'll see rookie Brian Orakpo move to defensive end on passing downs. Haynesworth told me recently that he and Orakpo have been devising their own little games at the line of scrimmage. The two of them can put a lot of pressure on the Giants' offense. You'll see Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride call a lot of slants and wide receiver screens in an attempt to combat the Redskins' pass rush. For the Redskins to have any chance of winning this game, they need to be dominant on defense. And they now have the personnel to get it done.
How do you succeed on offense without a proven playmaker on the outside? Well, the Giants will try to show us how it's done. We all know that the Patriots began their dynasty with a rather nondescript group of wide receivers. And I'm sick of hearing about how the loss of Plaxico Burress will handcuff this Giants team. Last year, the Giants didn't have much recourse when Burress shot himself in the thigh in November and missed the rest of the season. Now they've had almost an entire offseason to prepare for the post-Burress era. You may see even more emphasis on the running game and players such as Kevin Boss and rookie Travis Beckum will take on significant roles. The good news is that first-round pick Hakeem Nicks is well on his way to claiming a starting spot. He made big plays late in the preseason -- and I think he'll potentially be the No. 1 option at receiver by the time October arrives. For now, the Giants have enough weapons to cover up their lack of experience at receiver. And I haven't completely written off Steve Smith and Domenik Hixon like some of you have.
The Giants' defensive line has to lead the way. My team of editors at ESPN.com seemed very interested in a column about how dominant the Giants' defensive line was going to be in '09. The problem I kept running into is that the dominance was hard to detect during training camp. Players who were supposed to play a big role on the line -- DT Chris Canty, DT Fred Robbins, DT Jay Alford -- were all fighting through injuries, so we still don't know exactly what this line is going to look like. Oh, and there's the whole Umenyiora walkout that occurred once the team returned to its new digs in the Meadowlands. I still feel like the combination of Tuck, Umenyiora and Mathias Kiwanuka is one of the best pass-rushing rotations in the league, but we need to see the Giants' line perform well in the regular season before we crown them the best in the league. I know this: The Redskins will try to line up and run right at Umenyiora. They want to test him, and they feel as if Pro Bowl fullback Mike Sellers gives them an advantage that most teams don't have. The Giants feel they missed a shot at a Super Bowl repeat primarily because of the defensive line wearing down in December and January. They've gone to great lengths to address that. On Sunday, we'll find out how that's going. I'm anxious to see if this defense looks any different with Bill Sheridan replacing Steve Spagnuolo as the defensive coordinator.
The Giants could be vulnerable in the secondary. Now that second-year cornerback Terrell Thomas has announced that he's starting, we know where the Redskins will be throwing the ball. The Giants don't want to rush starter Aaron Ross back from a nagging hamstring injury, so it looks like Thomas will start and Kevin Dockery will remain in his nickel spot. Dockery didn't practice Wednesday because of a hamstring injury, but he should be ready to go Sunday. Thomas had an excellent camp and he definitely has a bright future with the Giants. I think he'll end up covering the Skins' second-year wide receiver Malcolm Kelly a lot of the time. Kelly has excellent hands that allow him to catch the ball in traffic. Zorn has studied every angle to see where the Giants might be vulnerable, and he'll do everything possible to get some isolation plays against Thomas. You should also keep your eye on Redskins tight end Chris Cooley at all times. Watching him run routes against safety Kenny Phillips could be highly entertaining.
I'll be in the Meadowlands on Sunday to cover all the action. Thanks for visiting the NFC East blog.