By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 23, 2005
Earlier in the season, the deflected football might have dropped to the ground or ended up back in the hands of the offense. But Sunday, on the Washington Redskins' first defensive play of the game, the ball caromed high off defensive end Phillip Daniels's hand and hung in the air near teammate Cornelius Griffin, who made a nifty interception to set up Washington's first score in a 35-7 blowout of the Dallas Cowboys.
It was the first of four turnovers forced by the Redskins' defense, matching a season high set just the week before, and a complete departure from the first nine weeks of the season. The defense is playing with a renewed effectiveness since suffering some midseason hiccups. Players are flying to the football and pressuring the passer, and the aggression is paying off with repeated big plays to help keep the Redskins in the playoff hunt.
Tomorrow, the defense has the opportunity to reverse its worst outing in two years under assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams, when it conceded 36 points and 262 rushing yards in an Oct. 30 loss to the New York Giants. A victory against New York at FedEx Field would guarantee that Washington remains in at least the final wild-card spot entering the final weekend of the season.
The Redskins, eighth in the league in defense, anticipate needing to create turnovers, confuse second-year quarterback Eli Manning and contain Pro Bowl tailback Tiki Barber if they are to knock off the Giants, the NFC-East leaders.
"The last few games we really haven't left any plays on the field," Griffin said. "We made the plays we're supposed to make. When the opportunity presented itself, we've made the plays and we've executed."
Having Griffin, a former Giant who is Washington's premier defensive lineman, back in good health has been vital to the team's defensive resurgence. He succumbed to a painful hip flexor injury on the first series of the game against New York at the Meadowlands. With Griffin and tackle Joe Salave'a again anchoring the middle of the defense, the group has approached its 2004 form, when it ranked first in the NFC.
"We had to get it back in our minds that we have to carry this team because you don't win championships without a great defense," linebacker Chris Clemons said. "We talk about it all the time -- how tough our defense needs to be -- and we're getting back to that level."
Washington has registered 16 sacks in the past five games, after getting only 14 in the first nine games. The Redskins have feasted on 14 turnovers in the last five games as well, after languishing with seven through the first nine games. They are allowing a touchdown less per game in that span as well.
The Redskins say getting to play before 90,000 at FedEx Field should aid their pursuit of more sacks tomorrow, should the noise cause problems for New York's offense. "If our crowd is as loud as they were Sunday, I think that's going to help us out a whole lot," Daniels said.
Above all else, the Redskins have prided themselves on being dominant against the run, a mentality that resulted in the team leading the NFL in fewest yards allowed per carry last season (3.1), setting a modern franchise record. But in the Washington-New York game on Oct. 30, Barber took his first carry 57 yards and rambled through missed assignments and sloppy tackles the entire game, finishing with 206 yards -- his career best at the time.
Washington had been conceding huge runs with regularity at the time but has corrected the problem since that game, with very few exceptions. San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson broke off two long runs late in the Chargers' Week 12 victory against the Redskins. That included the game-winner in overtime when the Chargers running back capitalized on a tired Redskins defense after being neutralized for much of the game. Beyond that, the Redskins have not yielded a run of any consequence over the last seven weeks.
The Redskins have held opponents to 62 rushing yards or fewer in five of the last seven games, with San Diego producing 202, and Dallas mustering 109 Sunday. The Cowboys picked up 51 of their rushing yards on a late run with the result already well in hand (the Cowboys had 11 rushes for 24 yards in the first half). Washington is holding teams to 3.48 yards per carry over the last seven games, nearing Pittsburgh's NFL-best standard of 3.4.
"The key thing right now is coach [Greg] Blache and coach Williams and coach Dale [Lindsey], those guys are pretty much simplifying things for us," Salave'a said. "There're some concepts we weren't really good at as far as understanding the techniques that we played on certain calls, and Sunday was a phenomenal job of guys homing in on knowing their roles."
The turnaround in the pass defense occurred after a 36-35 loss to Tampa Bay on Nov. 13, when inexperienced Buccaneers passer Chris Simms repeatedly burned Washington on the blitz to complete a Tampa Bay comeback. Since that game, opposing quarterbacks have posted a horrid 57.23 passer rating over five contests, with just three touchdowns and nine interceptions. That's a complete reversal from the first nine games, when Washington allowed eight passing touchdowns with just four interceptions.