Redskins Backed Into a Corner

By Jason Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Usually among the Washington Redskins' most upbeat players, cornerback Fred Smoot lost his signature smile as he reviewed the state of the secondary at Redskins Park yesterday.

Smoot shook his head in disbelief about what has befallen the unit, including the loss of cornerback Carlos Rogers for the remainder of the season; the serious medical condition of cornerback Shawn Springs's father, Ron; and the knee injury that will sideline safety Sean Taylor indefinitely. Smoot didn't bother to include his own recurring hamstring problems.

"Man, I really can't" remember going through a year like this before, said Smoot, a seven-year veteran who is in the first season of his second stint with the Redskins. "Including all the injuries, and the things Shawn is going through with his dad, it's just been a lot of stuff that's added up on us. You start to think to yourself, 'Yeah, what else can happen?' But like we've been talking about all along, we've just got to find a way to persevere. We've just got to look to each other to find a way to get out of this, because we know it's not about to get any easier for us."

As the Redskins (5-4) prepare to play the Cowboys (8-1) on Sunday in Dallas, they will adjust the secondary again because of injuries, including one to Taylor, their anchor in deep coverage in the base cover-2 defense. Springs, considered Washington's best defender in man-to-man overage, has played well while his father has been hospitalized for weeks in Dallas, and the unit will lean heavily on him in an effort to curb the Cowboys' fast-paced passing attack. The secondary faltered late in the game as the Redskins squandered another second-half lead in losing to Philadelphia last Sunday, and it must rebound quickly against another NFC East rival.

"In this league, last week was a challenge, this week will be a challenge and the next week is always going to be a challenge," safety Pierson Prioleau said. "Obviously, we didn't finish the game like we wanted to, and it always hurts to lose a player like Sean, but we're just going to have to have other people step up this week. It's our job. It's what we do."

Their work became more difficult when Taylor, who leads the Redskins with five interceptions, sprained his right knee late in the third quarter of a 33-25 loss to the Eagles on Sunday at FedEx Field. Without Taylor, the secondary struggled down the stretch, contributing to the Redskins' third loss this season -- and 13th since 2004 -- in a game in which they had led at halftime. An MRI exam Monday confirmed Taylor has a Grade 2 sprain of his medial collateral ligament, and the Redskins expect him to be sidelined at least two to three weeks.

Although the Redskins are confident about their depth in the secondary, Coach Joe Gibbs acknowledged that the hard-hitting Taylor is "an unusual player," adding that opponents are reluctant to take shots downfield because of Taylor's presence deep in zone defenses. In 2006, the Redskins were last in the NFL in yards allowed per pass attempt, giving up an average of 6.91 yards. Springs missed seven games because of injuries and Prioleau hurt his knee on the opening kickoff of the first game against Minnesota and was sidelined the remainder of the season.

With Taylor playing a more disciplined style this season, Springs and Prioleau back in form, the return of Smoot, who re-signed with Washington after two seasons in Minnesota, and the addition of rookie safety LaRon Landry, the Redskins are tied for fourth this season at 6.1.

Last season, the Redskins gave up a league-worst 55 passes of 20 yards or more. Washington has given up 22 passes of more than 20 yards this season, ranking 10th.

"Obviously, we've been so used to Sean being back there, and he got off to a great start this year with a bunch of picks," Gibbs said. "And to be quite truthful, I think most football teams, when they see him back there, they pretty much rule that out. Even New England, they kind of took the approach, 'We aren't going back there.' Guys are going to have to step up and play well in his place until he gets back."

But the secondary was stretched thin even before Taylor was injured.

Rogers tore his right anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in a 52-7 loss to the Patriots on Oct. 28. He underwent season-ending surgery last week. Smoot has played at less than full health all season (he has been inactive three games) because of hamstring problems, and Springs's family situation has been a concern for the whole team. Ron Springs, a former Cowboys running back, has been in a coma since having surgery to remove a cyst from his elbow Oct. 13.

In February, Ron Springs underwent a kidney transplant, receiving a kidney from Everson Walls, a teammate of his with the Cowboys and a close friend. Ron Springs has had diabetes for 16 years, requiring dialysis three times a week, and awaited a transplant for several years. He rejected his son's offer to be tested for a possible transplant match. As Ron Springs struggled to become healthy enough for a transplant, potential matches with other family members failed to materialize, prompting Walls to volunteer to help his friend, who uses a wheelchair because of the amputation of a foot.

With Gibbs's permission, Springs left the team to be with his family in Dallas the week of an Oct. 21 game against Arizona. He returned and played well in a 21-19 victory at FedEx Field. "Football is my sanctuary," Springs said after the Jets game Nov. 4. "When I'm out on the field, I just focus on the game and what I have to do to help my team. Football . . . that's just fun for me."

Springs has been excused from team activities Monday and Tuesday of every week since his father slipped into a coma. He has traveled to Dallas in support of his family and returned in time to practice. His teammates say he has inspired them with his display of inner strength and commitment to the team.

"You can't help but be impressed with what that man is doing," Smoot said. "You know he's going through a rough time with his family, but he's taking care of his family and taking care of his business. You can't help but respect that."

Smoot has been an inspiration as well, coaches said, in that he has encouraged teammates while approaching his work with professionalism.

"Fred has been a pleasant surprise for me," Jerry Gray, secondary-cornerbacks coach, said recently. "I didn't coach Fred the first time he was here, but they always told me about what Fred did when he was here before. Fred is a guy that's always upbeat, always getting guys going in practice and in games, and what a lot of people may not know is that Fred really studies the game.

"There's a facade that he puts on, 'I'm cool,' but he also understands what he's actually doing on the football field. A lot of times, when you look at a guy like that, he's so happy-go-lucky, you don't think he's actually putting time in the meetings. But Fred, he actually is. He works hard."

Springs, Smoot and the rest of the secondary will be tested against the Cowboys.

Dallas is second to New England in total offense at 396.8 yards per game and scoring average at 32.9 points, and third behind Green Bay and the Patriots in passing yards at 2,466.

Quarterback Tony Romo has a 103.3 passer rating in his first full season as a starter -- he's ranked third in the league -- and wide receiver Terrell Owens is tied for fourth in the NFL with eight touchdown receptions.

"They have a great offense, a fast-paced offense with the way they attack you," quarterback Jason Campbell said. "With the way Romo and T.O. and those guys are playing now, it's definitely going to be a challenge, especially with Sean being out. But we have confidence in all of our guys, and we've had guys step up all season. With all the injuries we've had, guys have had a lot of opportunities to contribute."

Prioleau figures to have an expanded role in the defensive game plan that Gregg Williams, assistant head coach-defense, will unveil to players today at Redskins Park. The nine-year veteran struggled -- he and middle linebacker London Fletcher were beat on a 45-yard touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter -- while filling in for Taylor late against the Eagles, but Prioleau is considered a smart player who is often in the right spot.

"We know Dallas is a good team, but there's also a good team right here at Redskins Park," Prioleau said. "You'd rather have all your guys available, but you have no control over that, so all you can do is go out with the guys you have. We have a lot of good guys here who can play. Our job is to get prepared, and then go out and play football when you're called."

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