By Dan Steinberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 6, 2008
PHILADELPHIA, Oct. 5 -- As they prepared to face the NFL's sixth-ranked offense, the Washington Redskins had nearly as many substitutes as starters in their practice-field defensive group last week. Jason Taylor, the star offseason acquisition, was out with a calf injury. Andre Carter, the other starter at defensive end, was in California handling a family matter. Linebacker Marcus Washington was out with a recurring hamstring problem, and cornerback Shawn Springs was sidelined with a calf issue.
"Our defense is built like an old automobile," defensive coordinator Greg Blache explained, after his makeshift lineup stymied the Philadelphia Eagles for most of a 23-17 win. "You can buy another water belt or fuel pump or whatever; we don't have all the computer chips."
That thought is ubiquitous in the NFL -- that when one player exits with an injury, the next must slide into his spot without any hiccups or backfires -- but this was a particularly persuasive repair job. Demetric Evans got the start in Taylor's place, and the defensive line helped keep Philadelphia to one rushing first down in the final three quarters. H.B. Blades started for Washington at linebacker, and made two tackles on Philadelphia's final drive. Fred Smoot took Springs's place in the secondary, which didn't allow a passing touchdown for the second time this season. And after returning to the East Coast, Carter had his best performance of the year, with a team-high six tackles and several big plays.
All this was even stranger when considering Philadelphia's game-opening drive, a smooth-as-satin 12-play, 80-yard march. The Eagles converted three third downs and gained at least eight yards on half their plays, temporarily making the Redskins look as short-handed as they were.
After Washington's offense faltered and the Eagles scored on a punt return, that defense faced a two-touchdown deficit the next time it took the field. But defensive veterans said the unit remained calm and didn't make major changes, having been taught that Eagles Coach Andy Reid often deploys his most dangerous and surprising plays on the opening drive.
"We go down 14-zero, and I didn't see nobody over there shake, quiver or move," Smoot said. "Everybody was just really focused in on the task at hand."
The Eagles moved the ball again on their next possession but missed a field goal shortly after a hard tackle from middle linebacker London Fletcher, which Coach Jim Zorn called the turning point.
"London Fletcher stuck his head in there and it sounded off throughout the stadium," Zorn said. "And guys on the sideline were like, 'Oooh, you heard that!' And all of a sudden the defense comes out and make stops."
Beginning in the second quarter, the Eagles ran 17 consecutive offensive plays without gaining a first down, a stretch lasting about 28 minutes. They averaged 1.9 yards per play during three third-quarter drives. And they managed just three points in the fourth quarter. In five games, the Redskins' defense has yielded 10 fourth-quarter points.
"I'll tell them all the time," Blache said: "Football and life, it's not how you start, it's how you finish."
No player was more important in that stingy finish than Carter, who had flown to California on owner Daniel Snyder's plane Wednesday afternoon and returned about 24 hours later, "mentally drained and physically drained," as he put it. It didn't show. He made a tackle for a loss in the first quarter, swatted down a pass in the second, and made the key penetration when the Eagles had a third and one at the Washington 2-yard line late in the game. As Brian Westbrook picked his way left, Carter stormed into the backfield and knocked over the Eagles fullback, allowing his teammates to gang tackle Westbrook, forcing a field goal attempt and eliciting boos from the crowd.
"Andre is probably the best conditioned athlete in the league at defensive line, seriously," Evans said. "That's one guy you never have to worry about."
"He was a man on a mission today," added tackle Kedric Golston.
Carter acknowledged that this was his best game of the season, but preferred to talk of the group accomplishment.
"One thing about the defense itself, when somebody's nicked, the next guy stands up and plays harder than he's ever played before," Carter said. "Underdog or no underdog, we know that we have a job and a task, and that's to win."