Marshall Performs Under Pressure

Lemar Marshall's interception of Mike McMahon's underthrown pass to Bruce Perry set up Washington's go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter.
Lemar Marshall's interception of Mike McMahon's underthrown pass to Bruce Perry set up Washington's go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter. (By Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)
By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 2, 2006

PHILADELPHIA, Jan. 1 -- Lemar Marshall never had a chance to think about just how much rested on his hands.

Under that much pressure, he said, he might not have caught it.

Even an hour after Marshall safely secured the most important catch of his career -- a momentum-changing interception early in the fourth quarter of a 31-20 win over the Eagles -- the ramifications of the play still made his head spin.

Marshall's interception with 12 minutes 37 seconds left, Redskins players said, stood out as one of the most important catches of the season.

It triggered a crucial chain of events -- a Clinton Portis touchdown run, a come-from-behind win -- that helped Washington cement its first playoff berth since 1999.

"Luckily, the whole thing happened in a second and I didn't have time to think," Marshall said. "If I had time -- if I was like, 'Oh man, catching this is the most important play of my life, the most important thing in our season' -- I might have been shaking or something. When I go back through it, it's like, 'Man, that was a pretty huge momentum shift.' That's something I'll never forget."

Marshall retold his career highlight over and over to media members for 20 minutes in locker room. Every time, he became more excited, as if the full significance of his interception had only begun to sink in.

On the Eagles' first drive of the fourth quarter, Marshall ran onto the field and shouted at his teammates, demanding that one of them make a play. The Redskins trailed 20-17 and during a brief huddle before they ran on the field, Marshall and the Washington defense agreed it was time to halt Philadelphia's momentum.

"We were looking at each other like, 'We need a turnover. Now,' " defensive end Renaldo Wynn said. "We knew that if we came up with the ball for the offense, we could win that game. We wanted to make something happen."

Marshall saw his chance when Mike McMahon dropped back to throw on third and 15, arching a pass toward running back Bruce Perry. Marshall ran to his left, jumped and knocked the ball into the air. He kept his eyes on the ball, dived forward and lunged.

It was an instinctive action Marshall only recently mastered. Starting in training camp, the linebacker practiced tip drills with other Washington players. He practiced batting the ball and then diving after it. Thanks to the repetition, his hands improved tangibly: Before this season, he'd never had an interception; now he leads the team with four.

"I've seen him become way more confident," Wynn said. "He knows that he's a guy who can make a big play. He's a leader. He's got good hands. I've seen it."

So Wynn hardly felt surprised when he saw Marshall dive after his fourth-quarter tip Sunday and come up with the ball. As teammates mobbed him, Marshall hugged the ball to his chest. Then dropped it and raced to the sideline, where he watched Clinton Portis score the go-ahead touchdown, a 22-yard run on the very next play.

Marshall "put us in field position," Portis said. "All we had to do was go 20 yards and push it in."

When they did, nobody celebrated more wildly than Marshall. He greeted Portis and slapped the running back on his helmet. Then he took off down the sideline in a quick sprint, slapping and pushing everyone in sight.

"I knocked over the strength coach," Marshall said. "Luckily he was the strength coach, 'cause any other coach might not have been okay. I was just going crazy with all the excitement. I mean, we knew the defense needed to make a play, and I knew we could do something huge. Then to have it turn out like it did? I've never been so excited."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company