Almost everything the Redskins have done defensively during training camp -- either with practices, new personnel or position changes -- has been geared toward improving their dismal showing against the run last season.
Sunday, they must prevent Houston running back Earl Campbell from destroying eight weeks of careful work in one afternoon.
Until Cowboy Tony Dorsett heals properly, Campbell probably will be the classiest runner Washington will face all season. The Oiler second-year back combines strength and speed and can make even the best rushing defense look foolish.
The Redskins hardly can be counted among the NFL'S sturdy defenses from last season's showing, when they were 24th against the run in the NFL, allowing 158.5 yards per game.
But Coach Jack Pardee steadfastly has said almost from the first camp that opponents no longer will be able to manhandle his team on the ground. Yesterday he wasn't backing off that stand.
"I'm sure we will be better in that area," he said. "We are stronger and quicker and we have some new concepts that will help us out against the run. We had to get better so teams couldn't control it on us like they were.
"Now that isn't saying that teams won't run on us. They will, just like we are going to run on teams. You work to be able to run effectively. But I think we can shut off teams from controlling the ball on us and beating us that way."
Ironically, Houston is the one team Pardee brings up constantly when talking about the kind of run-pass offense he likes. He explains that the Oilers "lull you by run, run, run, and then, when you aren't looking, they drop back and burn you with a long pass."
This is why Pardee thinks the Redskins won't fall into a similiar trap in the season-opener against Campbell and Co.:
Unlike George Allen teams, which concentrated more on stopping the pass, these Redskins have placed new emphasis on run defense. "George didn't stress the run that much," Pardee said, "and I think it caught up with us last year. We have altered that thinking."
The new personnel brought in to replace Jake Scott (Mark Murphy), Chris Hanburger (Pete Wysocki) and Ron McDole (Joe Jones) improve the unit's tackling ability, quickness and strength. The Redskins did not feel that either Hanburger or Scott tackled well at all last season. Jones never has been noted for his success against the run, but he claims that is a label "I got stuck with early and shouldn't have now."
Middle linebacker Don Hover has more mobility and better range than the man he replaced, Harold McLinton. It was Hover's ability to play the run in the exhibition season that earned him the starting spot and led to McLinton's dismissal. "In our defense, the middle linebacker has to stop the run," Pardee said. "If he doesn't, we can get hurt."
Opponents certainly will test the newcomers.For example, Cleveland kept sending Greg and Mike Pruitt around the ends in Friday's final exhibition game, testing Jones at left end on one play and Wysocki at right linebacker on the next.
The Browns had fine early success with this strategy and wound up with 167 yards for the game. Previously, the Redskins had limited Denver to 89 yards, Atlanta to 113 and Tampa Bay to 94 in the preseason.
"But I don't think we are going to run into two better backs all year than the Pruitts," said safety Ken Houston. Pardee concurred. "They have good outside speed, both of them, and we let them get a few good runs on us. But they still didn't push the ball into the end zone just by running the ball play after play the length of the field."
And that's what teams were able to do successfully during the Redskins' long slump the second half of last season. Philadelphia began the trend by rushing for 180 yards (Wilbert Montgomery had 125). In the rest of Washington's eight losses, only Atlanta (113) gained fewer than 145 yards, with Dallas rolling up 289.
"Teams were coming to the line of scrimmage and just knocking us off physically," Pardee said. "That can't happen. I think we have built ourselves up enough this season to be able to stand there now and fight back."
So does Jones. "You haven't really seen anything yet," he said. "We've been working on concepts and fundamentals in the preseason and not experimenting that much. We all are still getting to know each other.The more we play with each other, the better things are going to get.
"I know I'm just starting to feel comfortable now, knowing what the tackle next to me is going to do and what the linebacker on my side is going to do. With all these new guys, it takes time."
There was one aspect of the Browns' game that clearly annoyed Pardee and brought up memories of the worst nightmare of last season. For the first time in preseason, the Redskins were tackling poorly.
"I thought we got that out of our system," Pardee said. "But maybe not. This week, we'll put more emphasis on tackling than we have in a while.
"With a guy like Campbell, you can't go around missing a chance at him. He breaks tackles on his own and if we help out, the result won't be good."
And the Redskins know that Campbell, the Texas bulldozer, will touch the ball a lot. He had 302 carries last year in 16 games, averaging 4.8 yards per rush en route to an NFL-HIGH 1,450 yards. Former Maryland fullback Tim Wilson was second among the Oilers in attempts -- with 126.
"You know he (Campbell) is going to come at you and you pretty well know where he will be coming," Pardee said.
"So it comes down to playing the defenses like they are designed. I think we are ready for that kind of test."
Pardee admits that the Redskins have been working gradually against Houston plays for most of preseason. . .In the exhibition games, the Redskins allowed 57 points and gave up 267 total yards a contest. . .Pardee has to have the squad reduced to 45 players by noon today. . .Houston averaged almost 155 yards per game on the ground last season.