By Howard Bryant
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 27, 2006
It was the kind of challenge cornerback Shawn Springs relishes, the kind from which the Redskins had infrequently emerged victorious this season: a one-on-one matchup against Carolina's Steve Smith, arguably the most dangerous wide receiver in the NFC.
Shadowing individual receivers is not what Redskins assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams advocates. Against the Indianapolis Colts, Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne were not given one-on-one treatment. Terrell Owens, Terry Glenn and Joey Galloway were not either.
But yesterday, Williams told his best cornerback to be a shutdown corner and go toe-to-toe with Smith, who was averaging more than 100 yards per game, and the result was a classic fight between cornerback and receiver and a Redskins defense that also appeared to take up the challenge, playing its most physical, complete game of the season.
"Not only do you have that tough duty of having to cover who I think is one of the best receivers in the National Football League in Steve Smith, but you have to be physical with him because he's a very stout receiver," Williams said. "I know Shawn has to be exhausted running all over the field and then being physical with him, because it was like a fistfight in a phone booth."
For the first time, Springs was healthy enough for such an encounter. Slowed by abdominal surgery since the first exhibition game, Springs sat out the first five weeks of the season. In the meantime, wide receivers around the league have had their way with the Redskins' secondary.
"What I get more ticked off about is when during the week people keep saying 'What about Steve Smith?' like I'm chopped liver. Then, when we do something well, like it's a shock. As a competitive player, that's what we do."
Each won individual battles, but the war went to Springs. Smith, who entered the game with 870 yards in eight games, caught five passes for 34 yards.
"He's very physical and for us to be able to hold him down, he's ruined some people in this league," Coach Joe Gibbs said. "Our defensive guys did a great job there . . . against him."
On the Panthers' first series, Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme threw deep to Smith with Springs covering him, and was intercepted by safety Vernon Fox.
"I'm one of those guys who is grateful to be where I am. I've taken a crazy and winding path to get where I am and just the opportunity is what it's all about," said Fox, signed as a free agent in August. "Fortunately, I was the guy that was out there."
On another third down, Delhomme hit Smith short of the first-down marker. Usually a play Smith could break into a big gain, Springs stopped him cold.
"He's an explosive guy. Gregg kept telling us he was the most explosive guy we played against so far," he said. "We had a simple game plan, simple in theory, difficult in execution."
While Springs and Smith battled on each side of the field and both slot positions, the Redskins' front four finally had some success. Phillip Daniels recorded a sack.
"We had a phenomenal game plan. It kind of looked at times like they had no answers," Fox said. "They kind of went back to the same stuff, and weren't really able to adjust. It's one thing to go out and have a good game plan, another to go out and execute it.
Meantime, Carlos Rogers, who was often lined up against Keyshawn Johnson, played his best game, deflecting a potential touchdown pass in the fourth quarter and containing Johnson, who finished with six catches for 38 yards.
"I really thought what we asked Carlos to do he did a good job of. I was very proud of Shawn Springs. We don't do that a lot, where we match people up and move them around and play both sides," Williams said, adding that Springs finally looks healthy. "You can see his legs are back underneath him. I didn't want to put him out on the autobahn, out on the highway until I wasn't afraid he'd pull something else. In the last eight to 10 days you can tell he's gained his legs because he was physical."
With the Panthers trailing 17-13 with 2 minutes 16 seconds remaining, Delhomme was pummeled on a key fourth-and-six play from the Redskins 33.
"We hit him. We were hitting him all day," defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin said, adding that he could see Delhomme was uncomfortable in the pocket, trying to throw the ball faster. "I know I got him on that one."
Delhomme threw for 168 yards and two interceptions for a passer rating of 57.8 -- the lowest production of any opposing quarterback all season. Opposing quarterbacks entered Sunday's game with a 103 rating against the Redskins.
"When you put pressure on the way they were pressuring Jake, that makes my job real easy," Springs said. "All I know is that he was just throwing the ball up."
Smith's one moment did come on third and seven from the Redskins 8 with 8:02 left in the game and the Redskins leading 10-6. Delhomme faced pressure and threw to his right, seemingly out of the end zone, but the 5-foot-9 Smith made a leaping catch in the back of the end zone with Springs draped over him.
"That was a great play. That's Steve Smith," Springs said. "I think he made a heck of a play because I was all over him and he was in the back of the end zone. And then he started talking noise, and I love that. That just got me more fired up since I was shadowing him all day."