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Redskins eye improvement

By Mark Zuckerman



Uncertainty on the defensive line. Injuries on the offensive line. An inconsistent passing game. A do-or-die punting battle. The memory of an embarrassing shutout loss seven days earlier.

Just where exactly do the Washington Redskins stand heading into tonight's second preseason game and first at FedEx Field?

"We're not ready to start the season yet," quarterback Patrick Ramsey said. "But I think we're all pretty confident about the week we've had and where we're going."

Rarely do NFL teams put too much stock in preseason games, as the Redskins found out the hard way last year. But after last week's 20-0 loss at Carolina, Washington knows it can't afford another disappointing effort tonight against the New England Patriots.

"Everybody wants to know what our goals are, if it's not to get hurt," tackle Jon Jansen said. "The goal is to win. I don't care if it's preseason, regular season or postseason. We want to win. We want to look good. We want to play good and get things rolling."

The coaching staff will have plenty to evaluate tonight, from the new starting center to the competing running backs and tight ends to the two punters who know their jobs are on the line.

In particular, the coaches will be watching how their much-maligned defensive line comes back from a substandard performance against the Panthers. Tackles Jermaine Haley, Brandon Noble, James Cannida and Bernard Holsey will be even more closely scrutinized just as Washington's front office makes its first overtures toward a potential replacement, Denver's Lional Dalton.

NFL sources confirmed yesterday that the Redskins are interested in acquiring the 309-pound veteran, whom the Broncos have put on the trading block. Only 18 months after handing Dalton a $3 million signing bonus along with a seven-year, $22 million contract, Denver is looking to cut him loose. Though he shed 36 pounds off his hefty frame in the offseason, Dalton is coming off a disappointing season in which the sixth-year pro recorded 29 tackles and one sack and was benched for three pivotal games down the stretch.

The Broncos are asking for a mid- to-late round draft pick for Dalton, who is due to make $1.6 million this year. The Redskins, who would likely rotate him with Haley and Cannida, must decide whether he is worth Denver's asking price, whether they can afford to wait until he is released and potentially sign him for the league minimum ($530,000) or whether they'd rather go after another available tackle.

It appears all but certain that Washington will not re-sign Dan Wilkinson. The long-time Redskins tackle, who was released three weeks ago when he refused to accept a pay cut, reportedly is close to signing with Detroit.

The Redskins aren't looking to make any additions on the offensive side of the ball, but they are looking for a much-improved effort after last week's debacle. In a little more than one quarter against Carolina, the first-team offense produced 53 total yards and one first down.

Coach Steve Spurrier said he plans to play Ramsey well into the second quarter, which should give the second-year quarterback more time to find his rhythm after going 2-for-6 last week. Trung Canidate, who ran the ball only three times for 4 yards against the Panthers, will get more opportunities as well in his second start at tailback. Canidate's counterparts in the preseason running back competition continue to be banged up. Ladell Betts (sprained elbow) will not suit up again, and Kenny Watson (sprained knee) will see limited action.

Other positions of particular interest tonight include center, where Wilbert Brown takes over for injured starter Larry Moore; tight end, where Robert Royal appears to have supplanted starter Zeron Flemister; and fullback, where starter Bryan Johnson continues to have trouble catching passes and is being challenged by Rock Cartwright.

The Redskins are unlikely to make final decisions on any of those positions based on this game, but they do intend to make one key move by the end of the weekend. Club officials have informed punters Brian Barker and Brent Bartholomew that whoever performs worse tonight will be cut.

The survivor between Barker, a 14-year pro veteran, and Bartholomew, an unknown third-year punter with nine games of NFL experience, will spend the remainder of the preseason competing with newly signed David Leaverton. Leaverton, a former fifth-round draft choice of the Jacksonville Jaguars who has never appeared in a regular-season game, was signed on Thursday and will handle kickoffs tonight along with kicker John Hall.

Absent will be defensive end Regan Upshaw, who is missing his second game as he recovers from knee surgery. Veteran Bruce Smith will start in his place at right end. Rookie linebacker Chris Clemons, meanwhile, will miss the game after undergoing an emergency appendectomy. Clemons' brother, Nic, already has been out for more than a week with a strained hip flexor.

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