When the Washington Redskins play at Indianapolis on Sunday, much of the responsibility for keeping the Colts' running game in check will fall on the shoulders of defensive end Anthony Cook, who slipped into the starting lineup in Week 10.
Since taking over for Kenard Lang, Cook has been a driving force behind the unit's improved defense against the run, now ranked 24th. The defensive line will be tested, no doubt, by Colts rookie Edgerrin James, whose 1,311 rushing yards are second only to the 1,335 of Washington's Stephen Davis.
What makes Cook effective are a few essential traits. His low center of gravity, for one, gives him better leverage against opponents. He's also disciplined, consistently playing within the defensive scheme rather than freelancing, which had been an issue on defense earlier.
"Sometimes you want to make the play so bad, but yet you're doing what you want to do to make the play, instead of what the coaches want," Cook said. "I mean, I don't need to make the play. If [safety] Sam [Shade] comes up and makes the tackles, I'm happy because I stopped him right here so Sam can make the tackle. I didn't open the gap up so big that he got on an island now. And if he gets a big hit on him, he can knock him back a couple yards."
Cook attributes his level-headed approach to the game to his defensive line coach at South Carolina State, George Wheeler.
"He took everything from you, mentally," Cook said. "You thought you were on top of the world, and he made you feel like you were on the bottom of the world. It was a humbling thing. He just drove me. He was the drive to my success."
Houston made Cook a second-round pick (35th overall) in 1995 and he started with a splash, notching two sacks in the season-opener against Jacksonville. He played two seasons for the Oilers and two for Tennessee before the Redskins picked him up as a free agent in March.
"The biggest thing with Anthony for us was getting him comfortable with what we're doing," said Coach Norv Turner. "He's very physical, has got good leverage, plays low and has got a mental toughness about him. He doesn't let people knock him around."
TRIPLETS II: The Indianapolis Colts have built their offensive success on a formula that is familiar to Turner: teaming an outstanding quarterback with a similarly outstanding running back and wide receiver. Some, in fact, are calling the Colts' mighty triumvirate -- composed of Peyton Manning, James and wide receiver Marvin Harrision -- the modern-day equivalent of the Cowboys' "triplets" -- Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin -- that Turner nurtured through the early 1990s.
In terms of statistics, the Colts' vaunted offenses also mirrors that of the 1999 Redskins.
The Redskins' offense is ranked second in the NFL, having scored 375 points. Quarterback Brad Johnson has thrown 21 touchdowns and 12 interceptions for a quarterback rating of 88.3. And wide receiver Michael Westbrook has 54 receptions for 1,026 yards and eight touchdowns.
The Colts' fourth-ranked offense has put up 364 points. Manning has thrown 24 touchdowns and 14 interceptions for a 92.3 rating. And Harrison has 88 receptions for 1,357 yards, including 12 touchdowns.
"I always look at production," Turner said, "and we've got three guys that are awful productive in Brad and Stephen and Westbrook. They've got three guys who are awful productive in their quarterback and running back and receiver. If you can get that, you've got a chance to be a good offense. The strength of their team is in the balance of the run and pass. They're not one-dimensional, by any manner."
RAISING QBs: Parents who dream of grooming the next NFL superstar quarterback should lend an ear to the Colts' Manning, who started out with an undeniable advantage in having a pro quarterback, Archie Manning, for a father. But what's striking about Manning's description of his development as an athlete is the lack of pressure he felt from his parents. Redskins' quarterback Brad Johnson has spoken of his sports-crazed childhood in similar terms, thanking his parents, both physical education majors, for making sports fun.
Said Manning, of his childhood: "Once we got into sports, kind of our policy was we had to go to [Dad] if we wanted help. It was never a pressure or a push situation. He and my mother made sports fun for us. I had a positive experience growing up as a kid, playing pickup football in the backyard. . . . He sat me down and said, `Peyton, whatever you do -- whether it's play in the band or sing in choir -- we're going to support you, no matter what. If you want to play football, play quarterback, then you do it and I'll help you, if you want. But just go at your own pace."