After Last Year's Regression, the Defense Resets
After the season seemed siphoned from Jason Campbell and the Washington Redskins -- after a devastating low tackle was diagnosed as a bruised left knee -- there were two trains of thought encircling FedEx Field:
First, thank goodness the kid is going to be all right. And second, major concerns on offense and all, defensive boss Gregg Williams might have regained his Midas touch.
The damage estimates from this punishing preseason game against Pittsburgh were not yet totaled, but they included the starting quarterback's knee on ice and Marcus Washington's dislocated right elbow.
With Clinton Portis, Chris Samuels and Todd Wade unable to play because of injuries, Coach Joe Gibbs can't afford for another starter to go down.
Yet those worries -- and the questions on offense swirling about today -- have to be balanced against the continued progression of a defense that resembles some of the blitzing, swarming units that characterized Williams's first two years in Washington.
Rocky McIntosh was relentless, in on six tackles in the first half, two pass deflections and hovering around anyone with the ball for the Steelers. The guy who didn't know any of Williams's schemes a year ago -- and, hence, didn't receive much playing time -- looked as comfortable from his linebacker position as he's been in his career here.
LaRon Landry and Sean Taylor played well together. London Fletcher got to Ben Roethlisberger near the goal line, forcing an incompletion. And there seemed to be this real concerted effort not to give up a touchdown in the first half, which ended with Washington on top, 7-3.
This wasn't quite the real thing, but this was one of the more competitive NFL games in mid-August you'll ever see. It resulted in two riveting quarters that, health-wise, proved costly for the Redskins.
It also proved, halfway through the preseason, that the real questions about this team's viability have less to do with a defense that ranked 31st in the league a year ago and much more to do with whether the offensive line can protect Campbell enough for him to put the ball in the end zone at least twice per game.
Gibbs, asked to differentiate between the unit he has seen the past two weeks and the one from last season, said: "Overall team speed. I'm not saying we've arrived, but we're playing much better run defense, which is the cornerstone of what we do."
Gibbs added that more skill players in the secondary -- including the return of Fred Smoot -- has added to the defense beginning to rebuild its reputation. He said Landry's development for a rookie is as great as he could have possibly hoped when the LSU safety signed in training camp, and he heaped praise on McIntosh's performance the past two weeks.
Most important, he made a clear distinction between what he believed his team's concerns are. The inept running game was 1A. As for the defense, Gibbs said he's impressed.