By Mike Wise
Sunday, August 19, 2007
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.
Gauging from the past two weeks, this defense is simply not going to be as bad as it was last season. Barring injury and whether it can mount a decent pass rush, the talent and experience infusion is going to help considerably.
It wouldn't be surprising if the defense began holding teams to two touchdowns or fewer and victory again depended on the offense holding up its end of the bargain, much like the 10-6 season in 2005.
Beyond the defensive line's health issues from last year, there was a pride issue as well. When many of the same players who went to the second round of the NFC playoffs were embarrassed a year later, it caused some to take stock of their careers. Were they the stingy, cohesive group that pummeled teams in 2004 and 2005, or the soft-in-the-middle crew that wasted away 2006? Already they seem to be providing an answer.
"Not just pride and self-respect, but this is our profession," Andre Carter said. "A lot of guys in this room don't want be perceived as anything else than winners. They don't want people talking constantly about last year."
Since Williams was brought in by Gibbs to run his defense, Williams has steadfastly refused to believe in any kind of star system -- which is why LaVar Arrington was essentially shipped out of town. His logic held that any semi-talented kid with desire and malice could fit into his scheme and thrive.
And as the Redskins backpedaled and got beat last season -- forcing a scant 12 turnovers all season and getting beat deep routinely -- that belief was severely challenged. But now he's got the players, too.
He couldn't help but feel good about the way his defensive backs played the run against the Steelers. Carlos Rogers came up and made huge hits. Landry came off the edge powerfully, playing a role to perfection that was once envisioned for Adam Archuleta before he failed to fit in.
Cornelius Griffin was barely used because Williams didn't want to risk any injury. Even without Griffin, though, the front four were aggressive and manhandled Pittsburgh. The only drawback was the inability to cause a turnover -- McIntosh batted down a possible interception in the second quarter.
There are myriad questions for the Redskins the next three weeks, but most of them come on one side of the ball. Unless it's picked apart or run over in the regular season, Williams's defense is getting very close to being back to its original form.