Although the Redskins officially have not ruled out cornerback Joe Lavender of Sunday's game at Tampa Bay, rookie Vernon Dean continues to receive a full workload this week as a starter at the position.
Considering the importance of the position and Dean's progress the last few weeks, the Redskins won't use Lavender Sunday unless they are convinced his pulled hamstring has healed significantly.
Dean is in a pressure situation, facing the possibility of starting his first professional game in a secondary that is experiencing uncharacteristic problems.
Usually among the league's elite defensive backfields, the Redskins struggled during the exhibition season, then gave up 371 yards (second worst in the NFC) against Philadelphia last Sunday.
"There really wasn't much progress last week and that's disappointing," Richie Petitbon, the defensive coordinator, said. "The personnel is there to have decent coverage, but we just aren't executing . . . Really, the best thing that is happening right now is our pass rush. We keep getting that kind of pressure and it will help everything come around."
The Redskins have used as much man-on-man coverage as any NFL team. Although they used it slightly less than usual last week, Petitbon still has not decided to curtail it drastically.
"Right now," he said, "I don't think our problem is whether we are playing 'man' or zone. We just have to play either of them the way we should."
One of the reasons the Redskins drafted Dean was his familiarity with man-to-man coverages at San Diego State. But they would prefer not to start him so soon. The plan had him breaking in gradually as a nickel back in long yardage pass defenses while Lavender and Jeris White handled regular cornerback duties. How much progress Dean, a projected future starter, has made since the start of training camp could be determined Sunday.
"Vernon has come on real fast the last few weeks," Petitbon said. "He had his best effort in the Philadephia game. He's getting some more confidence and his understanding is increasing."
Safety Tony Peters: "Vernon has started to play very well. He's starting to get to the play. He still may be a fraction late at times but his instincts are really impressive. I think he's going to turn out to be an excellent corner."
No one, especially Dean, is saying the Redskins have another all-pro on their hands. Dean isn't as quick as Lemar Parrish, for example, but is potentially a solid cornerback.
"I'm starting to adjust better to the people out there," Dean said. "It's becoming a little more comfortable to me. I'm learning, that's the important thing. This is a new experience to me and I had to get a taste of it (during preseason).
"It's a matter of me striving to get better and better. That's why I keep volunteering during practices to take extra turns. We have a lot of real good receivers and working against them as much as I can has to help me in the long run."
For the Redskins to improve, steady cornerback play is essential. Peters says that any problems stem from adjusting to new personnel and the NFL's liberalized passing rules.
"More and more, offenses are taking what the defenses are giving them," Peters said. "At Philadelphia, we thought they would throw an up (long pattern) but they didn't try one. They kept throwing short all day. We're trying to be aggressive and we aren't geared to stop a lot of short-type balls. We are going to let that pass happen much more than getting burned deep.
"Besides, we never got them in a real pressing situation where they were forced to gamble. That's when we function best. We're a big play defense. You take away two or three passes from the Eagle game and our stats are reasonable. That's why I don't feel we are that far away."
Yet Peters admits he is bothered by one statistic: in five games, including four exhibitions, the secondary has had only one interception.
"That's where we have to improve the most," he said. "That's not like us. We cause turnovers. I just like to think that the offense has to carry us some weeks and that some weeks we'll carry the offense. Least I hope it works that way."
The irony is that the secondary long has held up despite a lackluster pass rush, a difficult achievement. But last week, when that pass rush woke up, the secondary didn't benefit.
"I can't see that happening again," Murphy said. "We keep getting that kind of pressure on the quarterback and the coverage will pick up. Quarterbacks throw differently when they are pressed. It's just a shame we couldn't have taken more advantage of the rush Sunday."
Receiver Art Monk sat out yesterday's practice with a sore hamstring, but will play Sunday . . . Coach Joe Gibbs said Lavender's status will be decided later in the week . . . Newcomer Clarence Williams is receiving a crash course on the Redskins offense. "We already have put him in the script (game plan) but we'll have to see how he comes the last few workouts," said Gibbs . . . Both starting guards, Russ Grimm and Mark May, are practicing full time after being hurt against the Eagles.