By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 12, 2006
There are two ways to look at this, Pierson Prioleau figures, and he always has classified himself as an optimist.
The safety could take his new reputation -- that he's a target -- as the ultimate insult. After all, Prioleau said, opponents want to throw his way because they believe he's too slow, too small and too indecisive to make a play. "If you're a target," Washington cornerback Ade Jimoh said, "there's a problem."
Or, Prioleau decided, there could be an opportunity.
The seventh-year defensive back, who sometimes replaces Sean Taylor and plays frequently on third downs, has spent the last several weeks struggling with an attitude adjustment he called a "major challenge" in his career: take a role that comes with an inherent lack of respect and approach it proudly.
It's a challenge for which he's well suited. Prioleau has built a solid NFL career on his ability to take bad news and spin it positively. He received almost no scholarship offers, but then clawed his way into college football. He spent a half season out of the NFL midway through his career, but found his way back into the league.
"My outlook is always positive," said Prioleau, one of the Redskins' best tacklers on special teams. "I've basically decided, 'If you want to throw at me, fine. Bring it on.' The way I'm going to look at it is that any team who thinks I'm a target is just going to give me more chances to make a big play. It could be a positive thing for me."
So far, Prioleau's attitude has served him well. He has made 37 tackles and excelled when occasionally placed in the starting lineup. In a game against Arizona, he led the team with seven tackles, recorded one sack and forced and recovered a fumble. He's capable of lining up -- and making big plays -- at any position in the defensive backfield.
"He's small," cornerback Shawn Springs said of the 5-foot-11 Prioleau. "But doesn't hit like it."
Prioleau faced his toughest challenge Saturday in Washington's 17-10 win over Tampa Bay -- and he played, coaches said, about as well as anyone could have expected.
When Taylor was ejected from the game late in the third quarter, Prioleau -- who had spent most of the game watching from the sideline -- suddenly started playing almost every down. Tampa Bay quarterback Chris Simms threw in Prioleau's direction repeatedly but never enjoyed the big-play result he sought. The safety finished with four tackles, twice bringing down wide receiver Joey Galloway in the open field.
"He's extremely well-prepared and very professional," Coach Joe Gibbs said. "He's always in here studying film. He knows the game plan inside out. He got thrown into the breach again the other night and played a lot for us in a real tough situation."
It's a reliability the Redskins anticipated when they signed Prioleau after the Buffalo Bills released him last March. Prioleau had played for Redskins coaches Gregg Williams and Steve Jackson in Buffalo. There, both coaches were impressed with the safety's versatility and ability.
And they were smitten with his attitude.
"He's the type of blue-collar guy who is willing to work through anything," said Jackson, Washington's safeties coach. "I've never heard him make an excuse or say there was something he couldn't do. You can always count on him. You can't help but like him, either, because he's always so positive."
Prioleau came to Buffalo as the ultimate underdog, with a list of deficiencies surpassed only by his reputation for conquering them. He played high school football in Alvin, S.C., atown of about 800 people -- and hardly attracted any attention. Recruiters liked his play-making ability but not his size. Prioleau had resigned himself to a career at Wingate, a Division II school in North Carolina, when Virginia Tech offered him a scholarship two weeks after signing day.
His NFL career followed a similar pattern. Drafted in the fourth round, Prioleau played for two seasons in San Francisco before the 49ers released him. He spent the first half of the 2001 season out of the league until the Bills took a chance and signed him. Prioleau, in his first two starts, totaled 21 tackles, 2 sacks and 3 broken-up passes . He remained a pillar of the team's secondary for the next three years.
"Every time I get a chance, I go into it with this idea that I'm going to take advantage of it," Prioleau said. "I have so much fun and energy and drive doing what I do that I can't help but be positive. When I get challenged, that just gives me a chance to prove everybody wrong."
In Washington, Prioleau said, he found the greatest challenge of his career. He came to the team hoping for more playing time, but instead found less. A reliable starter for much of his career in Buffalo, he still grapples with the notion that he's now a role player. A target.
Coaches said Prioleau knows Washington's defensive schemes better than any first-year player in memory. He came in with plenty of experience playing for Williams's defense, and he thoroughly prepares to play several positions: either cornerback or safety spot and nickel back.
"We like guys here who can fit into any position," Williams said. "That gives you a lot of flexibility on defense."
Williams's motto is that every one of his players is a starter. Nobody, Jackson said, accepts that philosophy better than Prioleau.
"I still prepare like I'm going to play every snap," Prioleau said. "When you're a situational guy, you have to be exact, because you only get a certain amount of opportunities to contribute. You want to make sure you do what you're supposed to do.
"It doesn't matter that I don't start. If teams are going to come after me, I better be more ready than ever."