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This One Belongs To the Defense

By Thomas Boswell
Monday, December 22, 2008

LaRon Landry and Jason Taylor took their bows, as they should. It was their day. Their plays were the keys to the Washington Redskins' dignity-salvaging, coach-comforting, 10-3 win over the Philadelphia Eagles yesterday.

Landry had the bone-rocking tackle on Reggie Brown, a yard or less shy of the goal line, that preserved the win on the final play. Taylor, who last week said he wasn't worth his $8 million salary, finally played as he has throughout his career, forcing a fumble and adding two sacks at FedEx Field.

Middle linebacker London Fletcher knew it was their day, even though his 12-yard return of a recovered fumble set up the only touchdown of the game and was almost as essential as Landry's and Taylor's starring moments. But, as usual, the middle linebacker who is the brains of the Redskins defense deflected the credit, never mentioned a play of his own and praised his whole unit, calling it "one of the five best defenses in the NFL."

However, as this Redskins season approaches its end, neither Fletcher nor his entire defense can truly escape its due. Not even a season in which a playoff opportunity was wasted can keep the defense in the shadows.

Throughout yesterday's game, then afterward in the swirl of players gathered at midfield, one of the most unusual things you'll ever see in pro football kept happening, over and over. The Eagles sought out Fletcher to compliment him for exploding last week, protesting that his Pro Bowl snub merely typified his entire career in which his unflamboyant, brainy and violent play has been overlooked year after year after year after year when prizes go out.

"The Eagles would come over and say, 'I believe every word you said,' and 'About time. They robbed you,' " said Fletcher, chuckling with one day of vindication that sits on top of 11 stellar seasons of being undervalued.

This win, on the day that the Redskins were officially eliminated from the playoffs, served as a showcase for the entire Redskins defense, which Fletcher symbolizes. "That was some dominating defense," he said after the Eagles had been held to 275 yards, a typically paltry total against the Redskins this season. "We showed how we felt about Coach [Jim] Zorn with the way we practiced all week and the way we played today."

So, as has been the case all year, the defense held the fort, preserved the Redskins' sanity, as Zorn's West Coast offense kept sputtering during its first year of installation.

On this raw afternoon, as the Eagles played for glory and the Redskins for pride, Landry explained how he stationed himself at the goal line, the last line of defense, then unloaded on Brown an instant after he caught the ball at the 1-yard line on the final play of the game.

"I knew what they needed. If he didn't get past me, he didn't get a touchdown," said Landry. "And he wasn't going to get it."

Or, as Landry told Zorn on the field immediately after the game, "I hit the [crud] out of him."

That final tackle was, at most, a yard from the goal line perhaps two seconds before the final gun sounded. But it held miles and miles of relief for the Redskins, who now have a chance to finish their season 9-7 and can mull their what-might-have-been frustrations all winter.

"We lost to Cincinnati and the Rams," said defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin. "But we also lost to the Steelers and Cowboys at home. You have to protect your own field against good teams. That's four games that could have been different."

That's how much optimism this victory brought to a Washington team that, if it had found a way to lose this game, would have entered its final week facing a coast-to-coast trip to play a hot San Francisco team with the fear that its year could end in utter collapse. That's how much one late-season result can swing the mood that surrounds a team and its season.

Now the Redskins, probably kidding themselves to some degree, can talk about how close they were to something special this year. "This is the first time all season that we've had everybody on the defense healthy. This is the unit that we expected to be before the season," said Taylor who, for the first time all year, played like one of the premier stars of the past decade.

The defense, now fifth in the NFL in yardage allowed and sixth in points permitted per game, as well as good work on special teams, were the reasons for this win. Once more, other units took the burden off an offense, held to a sickly 249 yards, that can barely get out of its own way in its first season of the West Coast offense.

"Once we figure out the system and our young guys come along, everything will move faster," said Clinton Portis, who rushed for 70 yards, scored on a one-yard plunge and now has 1,407 yards this season. "We needed this win. We need to finish strong so we can come back next year feeling good about ourselves."

Perhaps the Redskin who feels best about himself at the moment is Fletcher, who has unburdened himself publicly for the first time after a truly special career of crashing tackles (six in this game) as well as nose-for-ball big plays while being the signal-caller and leader of top 10 defenses.

"I don't know if it is because I wasn't a first-round draft pick, I don't do some kind of dance when I make a 10-yard tackle, I don't go out and get arrested," Fletcher said on Thursday after being named as an alternate for the Pro Bowl for the eighth time -- yet never once a Pro Bowler.

"You look at my body of work for 11 years," said Fletcher, who is the leading tackler in the NFL in this decade. "I'm not going out causing a lot of controversy, holding a private meeting with the coordinator saying this, this and this, causing a lot of strife on my team. [So] I don't garner a lot of attention."

Fletcher may have gotten a bit carried away, calling his career "Hall of Fame worthy" and facetiously comparing himself to Susan Lucci, the daytime soap star who finally got an Emmy after being bypassed 18 times.

"Everybody was glad he spoke up," said Griffin. "I should have said something and I didn't. Players like London who are respectful of the game don't get the credit."

Much of the season, Fletcher has spent much of the week with a medical boot so his foot can heal enough to allow him to play on Sundays. Last week, Fletcher finally felt frisky enough to practice. Then, he spent much of the day yesterday shadowing Eagles star Brian Westbrook, who was held to an inconsequential 45 yards rushing on 12 carries, although he added 71 yards on pass receptions, 47 of them on a play when Fletcher wasn't assigned to him.

Throughout this season, the Redskins and their fans have agonized, quite rightly, about the demons that haunted the offense and prevented the Redskins from being a January force. But, as this season winds down, it's time to focus on what the Redskins actually do have: one of the better defenses in the NFL.

Few teams have defensive backs as good as DeAngelo Hall, who has joined Landry, Shawn Springs, Fred Smoot and Carlos Rogers in coverage. Taylor has finally, in Fletcher's words, gotten healthy enough "to be used all over the place, like he was today, coming from different angles."

Now, after this win, which probably ruined the Eagles' season, the Redskins can presumably let out their breath, stop worrying about their coach's status and merely enjoy the end of a decent, though admittedly anti-climactic season.

"Well, at least today we didn't have a disaster on our third [offensive] play," said Zorn, joking about the early turnovers in the previous two games that led to disaster.

"It's our fault," said Zorn of a season with no postseason to follow. "There's a couple more games we're going to look back on and be very frustrated about for years to come. [But] we deserve what we're getting because we didn't earn the right."

When this season is remembered, however, the Redskins defense, and especially that non-Pro Bowler London Fletcher, should be remembered. No matter what the rest of the team may have been, it was one of the best units in the league. And on no day did the defense rise up and deliver a more important victory than this bludgeoning of the Eagles.

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