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Under Brunell, Passing Game Improving

It was the last play of the third quarter. Mark Brunell dropped back to pass on 3rd-and-9 and fired a pass 30 yards downfield to Santana Moss, who leaped over two defenders to make an acrobatic catch at the St. Louis Rams' 9-yard line.

That play has gone somewhat unnoticed in the aftermath of last Sunday's 24-9 win over the St. Louis Rams, but it helped set up the Redskins' second touchdown, a 1-yard score by Clinton Portis.

That play crystallized the leap that the Redskins' passing offense has made this year, even in a game that was hallmarked by a ground game that compiled 257 yards.

The Redskins' offense is ranked 12th overall in the NFL and 18th in passing offense. Last year, the offense was ranked 30th overall and 31st in passing offense.

"We talked all offseason about getting the ball down the field and being explosive," Brunell said. "That was one of things that was lacking last year. This year, we've been able to get the ball down the field.

"Santana has been a huge part of that. To do that, you have to have the time and you have to have the protection. Our offensive line has done a great job. We've been running the ball well, too, and that sets up the play action, so everything works together."

Added head coach Joe Gibbs: "You want to be balanced. We ran it a lot on Sunday mainly because we were so successful running it. But the goal is to be balanced. I think we can make big plays in the passing game. Certainly when you're rushing the ball well, you hope to get some big plays out of [the passing game]."

Brunell's passing yardage totals have tapered off in recent weeks, mostly because teams are rolling coverage to Moss and David Patten and James Thrash have been injured. But Brunell is having his best season since 2002 when he played for the Jacksonville Jaguars.

This season, Brunell has completed 226-of-389 passes for 2,687 yards, a 58.1 completion percentage, with 16 touchdowns. His QB rating is 87.8, 11th best in the league.

Brunell has spread passes around, with most of the deep passes going to Moss. The 5-10, 190-pound receiver leads the offense with 66 passes for 1,111 yards. He needs to average 81 receiving yards per game to break the Redskins' single-season receiving mark of 1,436 yards by Bobby Mitchell in 1963.

The Redskins' offense has been slowed by untimely penalties and turnovers at various points this season. Brunell has seven fumbles, mostly the result of defensive pressure. But he has just five interceptions, a league low among quarterbacks who have thrown more than 201 passes.

The 13-year veteran is experienced enough to know when to throw the ball away, even if that's not popular among fans.

"I don't like throwing it away," he said. "I'd rather hit a guy. But many times receivers are covered, so I'd much rather throw it out of bounds than try to force it in there. It can get tipped up and intercepted. If you turn the ball over, you're going to lose games--it's as simple as that. I know fans don't like to see it, but many times the smart thing to do is put it in the third row."

Gibbs has coached three different quarterbacks to the Super Bowl and knows what he wants from a signal-caller.

"What I've noticed with quarterbacks--and we watch all the good ones--is that the real good quarterbacks at this level have a sixth sense," Gibbs said. "They know the position so well that they can drop back and kind of feel the pressure. They're focused downfield. If you can see them looking at the pressure, that's the first sign that you have big trouble. To keep the focus downfield and slide away from the pressure is a huge deal.

"The good quarterbacks know when to get rid of the ball and make good decisions with the ball. Sometimes that means throwing the ball away for us. That's a huge deal. If you don't have that feel, you're going to get hit back there and leave balls on the ground. There'll be a lot of bad things happening to you."

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