By Mike Wise
Monday, November 14, 2005
TAMPA -- About Gregg Williams taking over for Joe Gibbs in the next couple of years . . . never mind.
Okay, that's a bit harsh. But Williams was given the title "assistant head coach-defense" for a reason. Gibbs hired him and forked over head coaching money because Williams is one these mad scientists in the same mold as Tampa Bay's Monte Kiffin, Philadelphia's Jim Johnson and Dallas's Mike Zimmer. These men -- usually Type A, simmering powder kegs -- are paid to concoct chaos in film rooms and make young quarterbacks like Chris Simms fidgety and neurotic, if not downright scared.
Here's what Simms had to say after Washington gave up 36 points for the second time in three weeks -- and a pivotal 54 yards in 54 seconds -- to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers early Sunday evening in a jarring loss.
"I thought the pressure was so-so," said the third-year quarterback, who threw for 279 yards and three touchdowns and finished with a passer rating a shade under 120. "They came early with a double-corner blitz and another couple of times they came late. But in between, I didn't get much pressure at all."
Inside the visiting locker room at Raymond James Stadium, the players looked at this 36-35 thriller like a good, old-fangled NFL shootout in the mold of the Dolphins-Raiders classics. It's the NFL way. After a crestfallen loss on the road, you pack your bags and move on and focus on next week.
But coaches and league observers know better. Four of the last five weeks, Williams's defense has been susceptible to the big play -- the third-and-long slant pattern that neither the linebackers nor the safeties step up to stop.
Four of the defense's worst performances against the run have come in the last seven weeks. Seattle, Denver and the Giants combined to rush for 546 yards. Even the pitiful 49ers ran for 140 yards. The last two weeks, the secondary also has been fraying. It's one thing to give up 304 yards to an ailing Donovan McNabb. But 279 yards to Simms? Letting Edell Shepherd beat you for 30- and 40-yard plays, like Walt Harris and Carlos Rogers did. That's unacceptable for a team with playoff designs.
This has become less an aberration than a real worry, and Williams knows it.
"Defensively, since we've been here, we've been able to negate those plays," Williams said. "We've usually done a good job in coming back in adverse situations."
In a kill-the-quarterback league, Williams did an outstanding job and earned every accolade that came the way of the NFL's third-ranked defense a year ago. But this is 2005, and it's that once-inept offense that has carried Gibbs's team in the second half, not Williams's defense, which came into the game ranked 21st against the rush and sixth against the pass.
This defense is not merely bending, it's breaking in the crucible of big games. Williams was right in playing down the controversial two-point conversion run by the Buccaneers. Depending on your allegiance, Mike Alstott either was stopped or scored. "But we shouldn't have let it get to that point," he said.
Williams did a tremendous job early this season in patching the holes after Antonio Pierce and Fred Smoot left via free agency. He often boasts how any player could be plugged into his aggressive, come-at-you-from-40-different directions, controlled-mayhem system.
A disciple of the old George Allen principles -- he worked for Jack Pardee, who played linebacker for Allen in Los Angeles and Washington -- Williams plays right into the growing public consumption of the throwback NFL influenced by New England's success. It's about the group, not the individual. No matter how much you make or who kept or cut you, you can have a shot if you're hungry enough.
But the longer the season goes on, the more the cracks begin to show, the more the loss of genuine defensive stars begins to hurt. Lemar Marshall has had a nice season, but he does not make the big plays Pierce did -- or the plays LaVar Arrington makes when he is used consistently on third down.
Joey Galloway was running slants across the middle all game, partly because Sean Taylor was injured and not there to dislodge the ball from his gut. Cornelius Griffin had an injured hip flexor, and his presence obviously would have helped the pass rush -- a pass rush Williams deemed woefully inadequate late in the game. The defense gave up touchdowns -- and crucial penalty yards -- after Mark Brunell had rallied the offense to 28-21 and 35-28 leads.
"We didn't win one-on-one pass-rush situations," Williams said. He explained how his defense discouraged Tampa Bay's run but did not live up to the other half of its stated goal.
This was a bad loss for two reasons. First, for most of the second half, Brunell, Santana Moss and Clinton Portis gave compelling evidence that Gibbs's club was, indeed, a playoff team: They forgot their poor first half and still found a way to stay in the game, regroup for the final 30 minutes and rally for what should have been a game-winning touchdown in the final minutes.
Washington embarked on one of those Gibbsian, control-the-clock, move-the-chains drives -- 76 yards in 16 plays that took 8 minutes 34 seconds. It featured a fourth-down conversion and brilliant execution, dink-and-dunk passes, off-tackle runs and a climatic, start-inside-bounce-outside burst by Portis from eight yards out.
Second, they did not lose to a very good team, of which the NFC has one: Carolina. But Washington did beat itself, which is dangerous in Week 10. There is no group of NFC elite; there are some decent teams with some nice parts who all have a shot. After the Giants and Atlanta, both of whom looked fallible in losses Sunday, there is maybe Dallas and then Washington. The Eagles? Good luck. They're imploding daily.
This was a gem of an opportunity to prove their postseason worth. Now it's back to the drawing board. And in 2005, it's not the offense that's sending Gibbs there.