By Howard Bryant
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 14, 2006
In an odd moment inside the Washington Redskins' locker room yesterday, 6-foot-3, 317-pound Joe Salave'a sat at his locker, balancing three full-size bottles of water in one massive hand. Near the door was 6-3, 285-pound defensive lineman Renaldo Wynn, who was seated next to 6-5, 285-pound defensive lineman Phillip Daniels, and 6-3, 300-pound Cornelius Griffin. Usually noisy and bustling, the room was virtually empty. No one was talking.
For the four men -- last season's starting defensive line -- sitting unbothered on their stools represented nothing more than a simple stolen respite from a week made troublesome either by revisiting Monday's frustrating 19-16 opening loss to Minnesota or by staring directly ahead to Sunday night's daunting confrontation in Dallas against a winless Cowboys team still smarting from losing its opener in Jacksonville as well as being swept in two games by the Redskins last season, important games that cost the 9-7 Cowboys a spot in the playoffs.
But in a sense, their solemn presence in a locker room temporarily devoid of the offensive stars on the talent-laden Redskins also provided a certain symbolism that did not go unnoticed by Salave'a. Later in the day, it was amplified by other members of the defense and it translated into a clear message: Despite the arrival of Brandon Lloyd and Antwaan Randle El, the emergence to stardom of Santana Moss and the record-breaking running of Clinton Portis, the Redskins' signature during the Joe Gibbs II era is defense.
Defense has been the personality of the Redskins -- last season the Redskins were ranked ninth overall in total defense, sixth in the conference, and in 2004 they were ranked third overall, first in the NFC -- and yet Monday night the defense let opportunities slip tantalizingly through its fingers. It was a fact that made the predicament of beating the Cowboys in Dallas or face an 0-2 hole that much more difficult for Salave'a, who after two days of dissecting the game film of Monday's loss found himself even more disappointed.
"There were plays to be made, man," Salave'a said. "You look at it again, and you see it here and there, and in some big situations. Those situations are supposed to, you know, belong to us, and we let it go. All I can say is, we'll have something for them if we see them again."
In meetings, the Redskins' defensive coaches have stressed to the players that the failures to capitalize on opportunities in the Minnesota game had a doubling effect: Not only did the Redskins fail to seize the momentum in the game, but crucial mistakes emboldened the energized Vikings to continue scoring drives.
Cornerbacks coach Jerry Gray used a difficult night for his defensive backs -- particularly second-year starting right cornerback Carlos Rogers, who struggled in coverage against Vikings wide receivers Troy Williamson and Marcus Robinson -- as a challenge. Rogers will go up against Cowboys wide receivers Terrell Owens and Terry Glenn, an elite tandem.
"The thing you have to do is bounce back. To me, as a defensive back, whenever you look at it, you're only as strong as what you remember," Gray said. "Everybody's going to pick on you and you have an opportunity. To me, the only chance you're going to get to be the best in this league is to defend the best. And we've got a great test this week."
More upsetting to the Redskins were the number of times they brought a blitz, and foiled a play, only to be hit with a penalty. When the Redskins' defense is at its best, linebacker Marcus Washington said, the blitz forces offenses into poor throws, panic, interceptions and penalties.
But on Monday, the Vikings ran 65 plays. The Redskins blitzed 20 times, but only three times did the pressure force Minnesota into a costly mistake or play-negating penalty. Minnesota quarterback Brad Johnson was sacked by Demetric Evans and fumbled on a second-quarter blitz, and on two other occasions, the blitz forced illegal formation and false-start penalties.
But while the Redskins' blitz forced two Vikings penalties for 10 yards, the Redskins were hurt by their own mistakes on the blitz. Five times the Redskins' blitz cost them in penalties that totaled 45 yards and four automatic first downs.
In the second quarter, safety Vernon Fox forced Johnson into a hurried, incomplete pass, but that play was negated when Washington was called for holding. The Vikings ended the drive with a field goal. On a key third down in the third quarter, Fox and Washington pressured Johnson, but cornerback Kenny Wright was called for defensive holding. The Vikings scored a touchdown on that drive.
In the fourth quarter, with Johnson near his goal line, Washington and safety Adam Archuleta blitzed over left tackle, forcing an incomplete pass. But safety Sean Taylor was called for a 15-yard personal foul. Five plays later, Archuleta rushed on a run blitz and dropped Chester Taylor for a six-yard loss. But Archuleta was called for a five-yard face-mask penalty on the play.
Finally -- on perhaps the biggest play of the game -- with the Vikings using a maximum-protection blitz package on third and nine from the 48 with 2 minutes 50 seconds left in the game, Williamson beat the blitz, broke a Rogers tackle and gained a first down only to be nailed by Taylor, who was called for a 15-yard face-mask penalty that put the Vikings in field goal position.
"In going over the game, a lot of the things we gave them on third down, the penalties, gave them a new set of downs, and after one of those penalties, they ended up scoring," said Washington, who was credited with five tackles and two quarterback hurries. "You can't do that. You have to have more poise, and get off of the field on third down. When you get them to third down, play well on first and second, you have to finish on third."