By Howard Bryant
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 19, 2006
Limping across the field on his way to the team bus following Sunday's 16-10 win over the New Orleans Saints, Washington Redskins linebacker Marcus Washington was at once soaring at having played an excellent game but also lamenting how the Redskins found themselves playing for nothing but moral victories.
Washington played his best game of the season Sunday, notching three tackles, a sack, a quarterback hurry and a pass defensed. On the Saints' first series, quarterback Drew Brees looked for Reggie Bush in the right flat only to have Washington bat the pass away. In celebration, safety Sean Taylor knocked Washington to the turf.
Later, Taylor made one of the big plays of the game, separating Marques Colston from what might have been a devastating 41-yard touchdown reception.
"Everybody knows Sean hits hard," Washington said. "He's a hitter no matter what, celebrating, playing, whatever."
Washington was energized. For the 13 games before Sunday's, the Saints averaged 417 yards of offense but the Redskins held a star-studded offense to 270. Brees, who had thrown for an NFL-best 4,033 yards, was limited to 207. Too late, the Redskins had found themselves.
The Redskins for the past month have begun to assert themselves. Beginning with a 27-3 loss at Philadelphia on Nov. 12, the Redskins have averaged 150.2 yards rushing per game, or 4.6 yards per carry, while the only major struggle for the defense during that span was a 24-14 loss to Atlanta.
But it was this recently discovered success that left linebacker Washington subdued. The Saints had lost, but they had qualified for the postseason. The Redskins were elated, without a big picture to consider.
Instead, the Redskins will think about the stretch of seven games that ruined their season. After fighting back from an 0-2 start to even their record at 2-2 by beating Jacksonville, 36-30, in overtime, the Redskins went 1-5, wiping out any chance for the playoffs.
Last season, the Redskins started the season 3-0, only to lose six of their next eight games. Only a five-game winning streak to end the regular season saved them. It's a luxury the Redskins won't have this year. "It's disappointing for us to get into a bind like that in the middle of the year," Coach Joe Gibbs said. "I mentioned that we went back four weeks ago and looked at what we were, and we didn't like it. If you're going to play really good football, I'd sure like to finish this off playing this way. In the three years, we've played our best football late."
After the Jacksonville win, the Redskins' run defense was third-best in football. Teams had rushed 98 times for just 318 yards, a paltry 3.2 yards per carry. At the same time, the Redskins rushed 127 times for 582, or 4.6 yards per carry. In the Houston and Jacksonville wins the Redskins held the ball for 38 minutes 27 seconds and 36:32, respectively. "If we run and stop the run, that's Redskins football," Gibbs said yesterday.
But then things collapsed. Tiki Barber rushed for 123 yards in a 19-3 loss to the New York Giants. A week later, Travis Henry rushed for 178 in a 25-22 loss to Tennessee. The following week, Indianapolis -- at that time the worst rushing offense in football -- ran for 110 yards, just enough to buttress 342 passing yards from Peyton Manning. Tampa Bay's Cadillac Williams and Philadelphia's Brian Westbrook both would hit the Redskins with 100-yard games.
During that stretch, the Redskins would lose five of six games, giving up an average of 149.3 yards on the ground, after yielding just 79.5 yards per game over the first four.
In going 2-2 against Carolina, Atlanta, Philadelphia and New Orleans, the Redskins' rush defense has returned to its early-season form. Atlanta, the best rushing team in football, ran over them for 256 yards, including small runs on third down and big runs, such as Jerious Norwood's 69-yard touchdown run that broke open the game.
But in the other three games, in which the Redskins have won two, the rush defense has allowed just 90.3 yards per game. Reggie Bush, the sensational Saints rookie, rushed for just 14 yards. Veteran Deuce McAllister rushed 15 times for 48 yards.
"This shows you what we can be," Washington said. "When we do the things we do, when we play like this, we're very tough to beat."
In the rematch with the Eagles, a 21-19 loss in which a dominant defense was undermined by turnovers and the inability to create them, Westbrook rushed for 88 yards.
But now, capped by Sunday's defense-led win, the Redskins seem to have found themselves defensively, though certainly too late.
"I don't like being in a mess in the middle of the year," Gibbs said. "It certainly has gotten us in a bind this year."