By JOSEPH WHITE
AP Sports Writer
WASHINGTON - Mike Shanahan called the next game a "must-win" and swore at himself for putting Robert Griffin III in harm's way on a trick play. The coach said injuries were largely to blame for having the worst pass defense in the NFL and gave reasons why the outlook for the Washington Redskins should improve.
Shanahan was in a more candid mood than usual on Monday.
Maybe it was because Hurricane Sandy forced Shanahan to hold his news conference over the telephone instead of in an auditorium. Or possibly because his team is 3-5 and seemingly can't stop anybody. Then again, it could have possibly been because a loss to the bottom-of-the-NFC Carolina Panthers would indeed signal that the Redskins are destined to be out of the running early once again.
"Everybody knows it's a must-win game when you're 3-5. ... If you have any chance at the playoffs, everybody understands at the midway point that you've got to start playing your best football or you're eliminated awful quick," Shanahan said.
The struggling Panthers (1-6) are good to have as a "must-win" opponent, assuming the Redskins players aren't looking ahead to the bye week that follows. The schedule gets tough afterward, with three consecutive NFC East games and the Baltimore Ravens next on the docket.
Whether the Redskins can break their playoff drought _ and a string of four straight last-place division finishes _ will depend largely on the 52 players who aren't nicknamed RG3. Rookie quarterback Griffin has been disproportionately responsible for whatever success the team has had this season, but, as Shanahan said after Sunday's 27-12 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers: "He's got to have some help."
Against the Steelers, the Redskins dropped some 10 passes, committed seven penalties and allowed Pittsburgh to score on five of its first six possessions in Washington's first lopsided defeat of the season. Griffin has his worst statistical day so far _ 16 for 34 for 177 yards _ but he was playing catch-up all afternoon and lost his NFL lead in completion percentage because of all those drops.
The defense bears much of the responsibility and remains on pace to become the first team in NFL history to allow 5,000 yards passing. Shanahan said he thought the defense was going to be the strength of the team, but it's not the same unit he expected because of injuries to starters Brian Orakpo, Adam Carriker, Brandon Meriweather and some backups, as well as Tanard Jackson's season-long suspension for failing a drug test.
"That doesn't mean that we're not going to improve in the second half of the season," Shanahan said. "I think we've got some guys playing in a couple of positions that hadn't played there, and we'll work as hard as we can to change it up for the positive. When you do change six, seven people that would normally be dressing, you're not the same team."
Despite Shanahan's vow that the Redskins would be among the NFL's disciplined teams, they instead remain one of the most penalized _ third in the league in both penalties and penalty yards. Sunday marked the third time this season they have been flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct in the final minutes of a loss. Shanahan has cited mitigating circumstances each time.
This week's culprit was cornerback DeAngelo Hall, who was ejected after taking off his helmet and berating an official. Hall is scheduled to meet with Commissioner Roger Goodell and could possibly be suspended. Shanahan said the episode wouldn't have escalated if officials had flagged Pittsburgh receiver Emmanuel Sanders for what the coach said was a "full nelson" wrestling move that put Hall on the ground.
"There's no question about it being a foul" on Sanders, the coach said.
Still, Shanahan didn't rule out some kind of team punishment for Hall, pending whatever the commissioner does.
"If there is something that occurs, you've got to be strong enough to stay away from it," Shanahan said. "That's part of being a good leader and a very smart football player."
Shanahan declared himself not very smart on another matter, using an unprintable word to describe how he felt when he watched the replay of the hard hit on Griffin after the quarterback went out to try to catch a pass from receiver Joshua Morgan. He said it's a play he has run successfully with John Elway and Steve Young, but the Steelers had the correct defense called to stop it and that he should have told Morgan to throw the ball only if Griffin was "wide open."