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Redskins' Secondary Steps Up

By Jason Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 2, 2008

Often during Washington Redskins position group meetings, secondary coach Jerry Gray lists the accomplishments of upcoming opponents in the passing game. He goes into detail about the performance of the team's quarterback and highlights the most impressive statistics.

Then Gray sits back and watches as Washington's cornerbacks and safeties use the information as motivation. The Redskins' secondary enjoys challenges, coaches and players said, and Gray knows what buttons to push.

"We know this is a passing league, and before [other teams] get a chance to play us, we see a lot of great highlights," Gray said. "Our guys know, 'You know what? It's going to be on us this week again.' And that's fine with us."

Amused that some league observers often discount them despite their positive results, Washington's cornerbacks and safeties have been solid in the team's three-game winning streak.

Anchored by cornerback Shawn Springs, the group -- which includes three top 10 draft picks -- impressed in slowing the productive passing attacks of the New Orleans Saints and Arizona Cardinals, and stood firm in Sunday's 26-24 win over the Dallas Cowboys at Texas Stadium.

The Redskins' victory over their biggest NFC East rival -- a team widely considered to be the NFL's best -- occurred, in large part, because Cowboys star quarterback Tony Romo struggled for long stretches against an underrated secondary. That's nothing new, Washington's players said.

The Philadelphia Eagles (2-2) host the Redskins (3-1) on Sunday, and Gray has given another detailed presentation.

"Coach Gray brings it up in meetings, and we talk about it, what the other team is doing, but we also say, 'When everybody leaves here, the results don't be the same as they came in,' " cornerback Carlos Rogers said. "When you just continue to make the offense look bad and [not] be as explosive as they can be, it's not an accident.

"Obviously, we're doing something good. And we've just got to continue to do what we're doing. After a while, people will start recognizing. Other teams, they already know it. You can believe that."

In their 29-24 victory over the Saints in Week 2, the Redskins limited quarterback Drew Brees to 216 yards, and rookie strong safety Chris Horton had two interceptions (Horton also recovered a fumble in his first start and was selected as the NFC defensive player of the week). The previous week against Tampa Bay, Brees passed for 343 yards. He had 421- and 363-yard performances, respectively, in the Saints' past two games.

On Sept. 14, Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner had a perfect passer rating of 158.3 in a 31-10 victory over the Miami Dolphins. In that game, Warner completed 79.2 percent of his passes for 361 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions.

Warner completed 53.3 percent of his passes for 192 yards the following week as Arizona lost to Washington, 24-17. Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald and Warner teamed on a 62-yard touchdown pass -- the only passing play of more than 40 yards Washington has given up -- but Rogers's interception in the fourth quarter, on a ball tipped high by nickel cornerback Leigh Torrence, set up the go-ahead score.

"Some teams come in against us with some great passing attacks," Springs said, "and they get their [butts] ran out of here."

Although they are 14th overall and 23rd in pass defense, the Redskins have faced the league's fourth-, third-, fifth- and second-ranked offenses, respectively, and held each to its lowest scoring and yardage totals. Springs's superb press-man coverage against Cardinals wideout Anquan Boldin was the key to defensive coordinator Greg Blache's scheme.

Warner's top target in Arizona's blowout victory over Miami, Boldin had six receptions for 140 yards and three touchdowns the week before facing Washington. Boldin had three receptions for 25 yards and one short touchdown catch against Springs.

Springs's success against Boldin enabled Blache to provide cornerbacks Rogers and Fred Smoot with help against Fitzgerald in a zone package on the other side of the field.

With the Redskins' approach against Arizona having worked so well, Blache assigned Springs to cover Dallas wide receiver Terrell Owens, Springs's longtime friend and offseason workout partner. Owens gained 11 yards on two catches in the first half as Washington took a 17-10 lead.

"It didn't surprise me," free safety LaRon Landry said. "I'll be the first guy to say if we're not doing what we should be doing, but we've been handling our business."

Owens caught a 10-yard touchdown pass on the Cowboys' opening possession after halftime. Springs, who injured his calf in the third quarter and did not re-enter the game, is expected to play against Philadelphia.

When Springs was sidelined, Rogers drew the tough assignment and also fared well against Owens, who finished with seven receptions for 71 yards.

Torrence again contributed late when Springs and Smoot, dazed for a moment after making a tackle, were out of the game, and Horton made another big play, intercepting a pass in the third. Horton also made a mistake in pass coverage that contributed to Romo and tight end Jason Witten teaming on a 21-yard touchdown pass that helped the Cowboys take a 7-0 lead in the first period.

Slowed in the preseason because of knee problems, rookie safety Kareem Moore also could play a major role this season along with Doughty and Horton because "all those guys are pretty much interchangeable," Jackson said.

Philadelphia does not have a big receiver with skills similar to Boldin or Owens, but Eagles rookie wideout DeSean Jackson creates matchup problems because of his speed. Rogers could start on Jackson, and the Redskins probably would use a cover-2 zone scheme, especially if Brian Westbrook, among the league's top pass-catching running backs, sits out for the second straight week because of an ankle injury.

Rogers, Springs and Landry were all selected among the top nine overall picks in their draft classes, and the Redskins finished among the top 10 in defense three of the previous four seasons under then-defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. But Washington's secondary still doesn't receive the credit it deserves, players said.

"The only time it bothers me is when you turn on ESPN, and you hear them saying, 'They're going against the Redskins secondary, they should have a good day,' " Springs said. "If you're going to talk about the league, understand the league. Against this secondary, you're not going to get what you think."

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