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There was a major breakdown in pass protection. Washington Redskins offensive linemen realized their mistake the moment quarterback Jason Campbell dropped back Sunday late in the fourth quarter against the New Orleans Saints, but there was nothing they could do.
So as wide receiver Santana Moss sped down the right sideline and a frustrated crowd of 88,246 watched attentively, one thought raced through left tackle Chris Samuels's mind. "Please," Samuels recalled, "somebody give Jason a chance to get that ball to 'Tana."
Fullback Mike Sellers provided a timely assist in diverting a defensive lineman who had a clear path toward Campbell. And then Campbell made perhaps the biggest play of his brief NFL career — teaming with Moss on a 67-yard touchdown pass that provided the go-ahead score in a stirring 29-24 victory.
The Redskins overcame shaky performances on special teams as they rallied from a nine-point third-quarter deficit in their home opener during the hottest game played at their home stadium (the temperature at kickoff was 90 degrees with 55 percent humidity). After a poor performance in a season-opening loss to the New York Giants, the Redskins outgained the high-powered Saints in total yards, 455 to 250.
"A game like we had today, what we did, it could do wonders for this team," Moss said. "It could do wonders for Jason."
Campbell had 321 passing yards, the touchdown to Moss and a sparkling 104.1 passer rating. Moss had seven receptions for 164 yards. Top running back Clinton Portis had 96 yards on 21 rushes and scored two second-half touchdowns, leading a running game that produced 149 yards and a 4.8 yard average per carry.
Washington's defense, which was ineffective against the run in the first half in Week 1, rebounded nicely, limiting the Saints to 55 yards on 19 rushes. Pro Bowl defensive end Jason Taylor recorded his first sack as a Redskin, and Saints quarterback Drew Brees faced pressure throughout the game.
Rookie safety Chris Horton, in the starting lineup with strong safety Reed Doughty sidelined because of flu-like symptoms, had quite a debut, intercepting two passes and recovering a fumble. The Redskins also played without strong-side linebacker Marcus Washington (hamstring, hip).
Horton's second interception occurred on the Saints' possession after the Campbell-Moss connection, and it all but sealed the first win for Jim Zorn, the Redskins' rookie head coach. "The thing I am most excited about," Zorn said, "is that our players believe that we can move the ball the way that we did."
Campbell and Moss made another big play to provide complete closure. Facing a fourth down at the two-minute warning, the Redskins needed two yards to prolong the possession. Zorn, Washington's play-caller, put it on Campbell's shoulders again.
Campbell completed an eight-yard pass to Moss, triggering the beginning of a celebration on the sideline that extended into the locker room. The Redskins evened their record early in the 2008 season, which has been a grind for Campbell.
The subject of intense media and fan scrutiny after his lackluster opening outing against the Giants, the fourth-year quarterback displayed the type of talent and mettle that should silence critics for at least this week. On Sunday, Campbell made things happen under difficult circumstances, and this could be the start of something big, many Redskins players said.
"I think we've all said what we think of Jason as a player and the talent we think he has," said tight end Chris Cooley, whose clutch reception in the fourth quarter helped prolong a drive that Portis capped with one of his impressive touchdown runs.
"It was just one game (against the Giants). It wasn't like it was the whole season. I think we all expected Jason to come back and just move forward."
Campbell did that. He blocked out the boos — "Yeah, you hear it, you hear all the boos, but you just keep playing," Campbell said — maintaining his focus as the crowd grew restless in the third quarter. Washington trailed, 24-15, after Saints multi-threat star Reggie Bush raced untouched down the left sideline for a 55-yard touchdown on a punt return with two seconds to play in the quarter.
Rookie punter Durant Brooks's poor punt contributed to Bush's big play. Brooks, given the job after battling veteran Derrick Frost in the preseason, also botched a hold on a short field-goal attempt that place kicker Shaun Suisham missed in the second quarter. On a punt return in the second, Antwaan Randle El fumbled while being hit, and the Saints recovered, setting up their first touchdown.
"It was a tough day" for special teams, Brooks said. "I know I had a disappointing day. Definitely, by far, it was disappointing."
The Saints, however, would not score again after Bush's return, and Campbell was only getting started. Washington's defense did its part while repeatedly getting back the ball for Campbell in the fourth.
On first and 10 from Washington's 18-yard line with 10 minutes 36 seconds to play, Campbell was sacked for a 12-yard loss. But on the next play, Campbell found Cooley for a 23-yard gain and a first down. "That could have been the play of the game right there," Campbell said. "That's just what Chris Cooley does."
Campbell was sharp on the drive, completing all five of his attempts for 82 yards. Portis's eight-yard touchdown, and Suisham's successful point-after attempt pulled the Redskins to 24-22.
On its next possession, New Orleans gained nine yards and then punted. Starting at Washington's 33-yard line with 3:38 remaining, Zorn wasted no time in taking a shot with a deep pass. "Thankfully, we have a coach like Coach Z," Moss said. "He was aggressive. He said, 'Hey, you're not expecting this. Then you better expect this.' "
The play, on which Moss ran a post route, almost ended before it got started. With Sellers and No. 2 running back Ladell Betts in the backfield, the Saints showed they were going to bring pressure from the outside.
Campbell changed the blocking assignments, sending Betts to his right. But there was one problem. "There was a miscommunication, and we didn't get it picked up in time," center Casey Rabach said.
Sellers, who made a terrific lead block on Portis's first touchdown run, quickly noticed the breakdown and took on defensive lineman Kendrick Clancy. He shoved Clancy, whose momentum carried him past Campbell as Campbell stepped up in the pocket and delivered a perfect pass to Moss, who beat cornerback Tracy Porter.
Moss wasn't even the primary target on the play. Randle El was supposed to be the No. 1 option, with Moss the secondary receiver.
"Man, that (defensive) lineman came through the line," Sellers said, shaking his head. "All of a sudden, I saw a flash, so I just tried to get on him as soon as possible, and Jason got it off. If I don't get him, it's over, but Jason stepped up and made a great play."
Standing at his dressing stall as he prepared to leave for the interview room, Campbell smiled a smile of relief. "You know, you can't get too high in this game because you've got to keep going," Campbell said. "But, yeah, this one feels good."