In the First Round, Defense Scored a KO

By Michael Wilbon
Sunday, January 8, 2006

TAMPA -- This is why Gregg Williams stayed. This is why he passed on being a head coach, for the moment, because he believes he has the kind of defense that can win on the road in the playoffs even on a day when the offense is at an all-time low. Williams couldn't have that feeling right now coaching the Texans or Saints or Rams, but he has it coaching the Redskins' defense.

This is why he remained an assistant even though a head coaching job for the same money or more could have been his, because he's already coordinating a defense that can carry a team deep into the playoffs right now.

No kid quarterback was going to beat Williams and the Redskins' defense Saturday, not even Phil Simms's kid, Chris, who had been doing all the right things over the final third of the season. With the Redskins' offense being held to an NFL all-time playoff low for yards gained by a winning team, the Redskins' defense knew that it needed to produce, and did so lavishly in a 17-10 victory here in Tampa.

It was a wonderful throwback playoff game if you like head-knocking, if you like linebackers more than quarterbacks, if you like interceptions and fumble recoveries more than yards after the catch and 80-yard hookups, if you like spitting more than end-zone strutting.

The Redskins' defensive players joked with Williams before the game that they were going to make him earn every bit of that $8 million deal he signed earlier in the week. And then they all went out and earned their keep, inducing young Simms to start and end the game by throwing tipped interceptions.

Great defense and a sharp, accurate call on a Tampa Bay non-catch in the end zone, which prevented overtime, were the story of the Redskins' first playoff victory since the 1999-2000 season.

And in a strange way, that probably helps Joe Gibbs more than any coach in football. The Redskins were so shut out offensively that Gibbs will treat part of the game like a loss, and the offensive players and coaches will go into red alert when they arrive at work for practice this week.

"We've got to do better than this next week," guard Derrick Dockery said. "One, the penalties. We've got to cut them out. Two, the time of possession [Tampa held the ball for nine minutes longer the Washington]. The defense played great. They got us the ball. But we've got to do more with it. I know we played against the number one defense in the league, and I know they played like they were ranked. But we've got to hit the meeting room and find out what's wrong because Seattle is a very, very good team and we're going to have to be better."

NFL players call games like this one "slobber-knockers." And there was plenty of knocking and slobbering on both sides. Defensive end Renaldo Wynn broke his right forearm. Clinton Portis might be lucky to have suffered no more than multiple bruises and a shoulder stinger. Chris Samuels, trying to block Tampa's Simeon Rice, re-injured his knee. It wasn't a body-bag game, but as Buccaneers Coach Jon Gruden said, "It was tough to get the ball down the field." It was probably very good for the Redskins that their best cornerback, Shawn Springs, didn't test his injured right groin in such a nasty, violent game because now he should be set to go in his return to Seattle.

There's no sense talking about the offense in a game the Redskins won exclusively on defense. Sean Taylor returned a fumble for a touchdown. And LaVar Arrington set the whole thing in motion by intercepting a tipped pass from Simms on the Buccaneers' second offensive possession. Those two defensive plays handed the Redskins a 14-0 lead. And even though there was more drama than Gibbs wanted to see in the fourth quarter, the 14 points were the ballgame.

Arrington isn't one to speak in cliches and he's smart enough to see the irony in him making such a huge play in his first career playoff game after a season in which he was, shall we say, de-emphasized. "Crazy, isn't it?" Arrington said. "With everything that's gone down this season, it makes all the wrongs right. It's a great, great feeling, a storybook feeling. Let's hope it has a real Hollywood-movie ending."

Who knows exactly how this latest Taylor episode will end. He says he did not spit in the face of Buccaneers running back Michael Pittman, "and I believe him," Williams said. But more important for the record is that referee Mike Carey, a man beyond reproach, apparently watched as Taylor spit in Pittman's face. Carey went so far as to announce into his microphone that Pittman wouldn't be penalized for retaliating with a smack upside Taylor's helmet.

While spitting in a competitor's face is unforgettable and unpardonable, and sleazy and vile at the very least, Pittman isn't the most sympathetic victim. Still, it's Carey's word against Taylor's, and given the latter's list of incidents, I'll take Carey's word over Taylor's. One would think a stiff fine is in order, but given that the referee was watching with his own two eyes, it shouldn't stun anybody if the NFL goes even further in punishing Taylor. Remember, last year at FedEx Field the Bengals' T.J. Houshmandzadeh told officials Taylor spit on him.

Even though Taylor's thuggish act gave the Buccaneers a fresh set of downs, his mates on defense bailed him out. The Buccaneers had three possessions with great field position in the fourth quarter, and still the Buccaneers couldn't score. While being No. 9 statistically in the NFL defensive rankings, the Redskins looked every bit as impenetrable on defense as the Buccaneers and Bears, who rank higher.

Even when Tampa Bay appeared to score, the Redskins wound up giving up nothing because Edell Shepherd couldn't hold onto a perfectly thrown touchdown pass with three minutes to play. Shepherd had jumped into the stands to celebrate. Meanwhile, the officials had correctly ruled that he didn't have control of the ball as he went to the ground. One couldn't help but think how the regular season game between these two teams ended in huge controversy when Tampa's Mike Alstott was ruled to have crossed the goal line on the game-deciding two-point run even though video replays conclusively showed he was down before crossing the plane of the goal line.

The third-down play was the dropped pass, and Simms had another chance on fourth down but overthrew Shepherd, whose legs might have carried him faster had he not spent himself moments earlier by doing a Lambeau leap. A wide receiver who doesn't pat himself on the back 100 times a game is difficult to find in this league.

Nonetheless, the Redskins came here with a healthier defensive line than in the regular season and they were on a mission to pressure Simms, and did.

Williams cooked up stuff all week to get after Simms, which is the way to attack any playoff neophyte. What a nice time to justify the boss's reward. Now, the Redskins draw a much better and more diverse offense in Seattle, where the defense will have to deal with a better, more experienced quarterback in Matt Hasselbeck and the league's MVP in running back Shaun Alexander. "We're going to get back in the laboratory," Williams said, "and come up with another plan."

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