Plowing through the 300-pound offensive linemen and tossing the hefty tight ends aside was the easy part for the Washington Redskins pass rushers yesterday. Once they reached Minnesota Vikings Pro Bowl quarterback Daunte Culpepper, something accomplished with regularity, the difficulty of their assignment increased.
The Redskins pestered Culpepper throughout their season-ending 21-18 victory at FedEx Field, but rarely could they bring the hulking yet elusive quarterback down. The relentless defensive pressure derailed Minnesota's big-play offense, eroding its timing and forcing Culpepper to repeatedly flee the pocket, but it resulted in just four sacks of the 6-foot-4, 264-pound passer. Culpepper threw balls away and hurried passes into the turf to avoid taking sacks, often doing so with defenders draped all over him, as the NFL's second-ranked defense coming into the game contained and frustrated the Vikings.
Redskins linebacker Lemar Marshall holds on to Minnesota quarterback Daunte Culpepper.
(Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
"We wanted to rattle [Culpepper] and disguise our coverages," Redskins middle linebacker Antonio Pierce said. "That's a big dude right there, and sometimes it took two or three of us to get him down. We wanted to pressure him. That's the head of their team, and if you rattle him, that's their whole offense right there, him and [Pro Bowl wide receiver Randy] Moss."
The Redskins never allowed Culpepper to get comfortable, and he had to resort to quick dump-offs to running backs and tight ends for much of the game to get rid of the ball before he was hit. Washington eliminated the Vikings' hallmark deep passing game -- they entered this game tied for the NFL lead with 17 receptions of 40 yards or more by their wide receivers, but had none yesterday -- save for a last-second jump ball in the end zone that closed out the scoring.
Culpepper, who came into the game completing 70 percent of his passes, failed to develop a flow, and only once completed more than four straight passes. "Offensively, we lacked a tremendous amount of rhythm," Minnesota Coach Mike Tice said.
Washington's coaches were worried that the Vikings' three- and four-receiver sets would provide difficult matchups for their defensive backs, but the problems never materialized in large part due to the intensity of the pass rush.
"Their defensive front is so good," Culpepper said. "Their linebackers are so fast and good, and their defensive backs are solid. We knew this was going to be a tough game, and we knew this was going to be the best defense we played all year."
Despite yesterday's effort, the Redskins failed to close the gap on the Pittsburgh Steelers in the competition for the No. 1 defensive ranking in the league. The Steelers defense had another strong showing against the Buffalo Bills and will end the season as the top-ranked unit. The Bills finished second, the Redskins third.
Cornelius Griffin, who had an outstanding season at defensive tackle, was the first player to get in Culpepper's face, just missing him on the Vikings' second drive, and soon multiple Redskins would be meeting the Vikings quarterback in the backfield.
Defensive end Renaldo Wynn chased Culpepper into an errant pass on Minnesota's first trip inside the 5-yard line -- they ended up having to settle for a field goal to make it 7-3 -- and by the second half the Redskins were finally figuring out how to bring the quarterback down, as end Demetric Evans sacked Culpepper for a five-yard loss. Evans and linebacker Lemar Marshall dropped him for an eight-yard loss three plays later.
"He looks like a 'D' lineman back there at quarterback," Evans said. "But we eventually learned how to tackle him. We went down low, wrapped him up and took his legs away from him."
"With a guy like Culpepper, who scrambles a lot, you can't sit and wait and be timid," Griffin said. "You've got to go get him and make him make a move, either run it or throw it."
The Redskins actually blitzed less than they usually do -- cornerback Shawn Springs did come from the outside to get his sixth sack, tied with Griffin for the team lead -- and instead generated most of their pressure with the defensive line. Defensive backs and linebackers moved about before the snap, keeping Culpepper guessing whether a blitz was coming, but often ended up sitting back in zone coverage and relying on the ends and tackles for pressure.
The defensive line was a major area of concern entering the season, and could still be bolstered by the addition of a true power pass rusher, although Gregg Williams, assistant head coach-defense, said that is not imperative.
The line knew it had to have a big game yesterday. The Redskins were without injured starting cornerback Fred Smoot and Springs sat out much of the second half with an upset stomach. Rookie Garnell Wilds, an undrafted free agent, ended up covering Moss on several occasions, and if Culpepper had time to sift through his options and make pinpoint passes, the outcome of the game may have been different.
"When you're in a situation like we were this week, with the receivers they have and with our young defensive backs, this is a game where the linemen have to put it on our shoulders and make their job a little easier," Redskins tackle Brandon Noble said. "I think we did that, and at the same time those youngsters did a great job out there, too."