The Washington Redskins had spent a week fretting about a defense that had been chopped up by injuries and the Atlanta Falcons in a single week. One coach had joked about "maybe winning with mirrors" and Coach Joe Gibbs had given his we're-not-panicking speech earlier than usual.
All that defense did last night was hold the Pittsburgh Steelers to 238 yards, score a pair of third-quarter touchdowns and lead the Redskins to a 27-24 preseason victory before 50,557 at RFK Stadium.
A pair of Mark Rypien interceptions had turned a 10-0 lead into a 10-10 tie, and just when it looked as if a second straight lead might slide into the loss column, the Redskins' defense stung the Steelers twice in a 30-second span of the third quarter.
The first sting came when Redskins defensive end Pat Swoopes tipped a Randy Wright pass into the hands of linebacker Monte Coleman, who returned it 50 yards for a 17-10 lead.
Thirty seconds later defensive end Alonzo Mitz knocked the ball out of rookie running back Barry Foster's hands, and safety Clarence Vaughn fell on it in the end zone for 24-10.
And those plays tell only some of the story. That defense controlled the Steelers both on the line and in the secondary until the fourth quarter when the Pittsburgh reserves scored twice off the Washington subs.
Quarterback Bubby Brister had a Redskin in his face all night, completing five of 11. When this muggy evening had ended, the Redskins (1-1) looked like a team with one thing less to worry about.
"The defense played tremendous," Gibbs said. "Those guys took it on themselves and played great. As beat up as we are, that's a tribute to our defensive coaches and the guys we had out there."
That kind of performance might have been the last thing the Redskins expected from a defense that was missing three of its four starting linemen and a pair of cornerbacks.
Defense saved them on a night when the offense again had some problems. Rypien made a couple of costly mistakes and had an overall awful night, completing 11 of 20 for 162 yards. He hit Ricky Sanders with a seven-yard touchdown pass, but it was the interceptions that drew the most attention -- by him and others.
"I'm a little disturbed," Rypien said. "I felt good at the start of the game. But I come out the second half and don't even show up."
Gibbs said his quarterback "was way off and he knows that. Sometimes you get into a game and you just can't get it going."
He wasn't helped by a running attack that again never got going. The Redskins finished with 81 yards, 45 of those on eight carries by rookie Brian Mitchell, who had a second good game in a row.
Mitchell's fourth quarter fumble also set up a Pittsburgh touchdown and coming off the field he told Gibbs: "I'll never do that again."
Still, he was a bright spot. With Earnest Byner taking the night off with a sore hip and Gerald Riggs (23 yards on seven carries) and James Wilder (seven yards on four carries) barely making a dent, Mitchell at least opened a few more eyes just as he did with that 92-yard kickoff return last week.
The Steelers also got some big defensive plays, especially from defensive end A.J. Jenkins, who scored a touchdown after picking up a fumble and set up another score by intercepting a Rypien pass and returning it 35 yards.
"We weren't very good," Steelers Coach Chuck Noll said. "We made a ton of mistakes and self-destructed."
Rypien did have a couple of moments. He led the Redskins on a 48-yard drive that ended with Chip Lohmiller's 36-yard field goal at the end of the first quarter.
Then he had his best moment on the Redskins' first possession of the second quarter, leading an eight-play 88-yard drive that ended with a seven-yard touchdown pass to Ricky Sanders. Rypien was five for five for 74 yards on the drive. The big pass was to Gary Clark pass for 51 yards.
The Steelers might have gone to the locker room without a point had Rypien not made a mistake. With 3:24 left in the half, Jenkins stepped in front of Kelvin Bryant at the 33 and sprinted 35 yards down the right side to set up the first Pittsburgh touchdown.
"I just made a mistake," Rypien said. "I read the play right, but physically, I didn't get the ball there. That was bad."
Bryant saved the touchdown with a tackle at the 32. Derek Bell lost three yards on the first play, but Brister hit Foster, who split the coverage and sprinted 32 yards to the 3. Bell gained two and Foster scored from a yard with 1:34 left. That got the Steelers within 10-7 at the half.
Rypien was 10 of 18 for 157 yards, but on the first play of the second half made another bad decision. He stepped up in the pocket and forced a pass into double coverage that sailed over Terry Orr and into Darryl Holmes's hands.
He returned it 12 yards to the Washington 29 and three players later Gary Anderson's 51-yard field goal tied it.
"That's a cardinal sin for a quarterback," Rypien said. "I saw Orr flash in there, but again I didn't get him the ball. The thing is, I started out throwing pretty well, but I started to press and get something when there was nothing there."
It didn't cost the Redskins the game because the defense made big plays. Wright relieved Brister at the start of the second half and, on his second pass attempt, was pressured by rookie Thomas Rayam and the pass was tipped by Swoopes. The pass, intended for tight end Mike Mularkey, landed squarely in Coleman's hands at midfield. He returned it untouched for a touchdown and a 17-10 lead.
"I looked up and it was right there in my hands," Coleman said. "This is a big game. Our defense didn't play well and we had some guys step up and do it this week. That was a pretty good team we were playing."
Then when the Redskins kicked off, Pittsburgh's Dwight Stone bobbled the ball and had to fall on it at the 1. Mitz slapped the ball from Foster on the next play and Vaughn jumped on it in the end zone for a touchdown and a 24-10 lead.
"I saw it pop out and said, 'This one's mine,' " Vaughn said. "I'd forgotten how it felt. I was a running back in high school and used to score anytime I wanted to. This is great. It turned out to be a big play. There'll be times the offense picks us up. This was our week."
The Redskins made it hold up, but just barely. Jenkins picked up Mitchell's fumble and ran it in and third-strike quarterback Rick Strom led the Steelers on a 13-play, 71-yard drive late in the fourth quarter. Between those scores, Stan Humphries -- four of 10 for 62 yards -- threw a couple of big passes to Stephen Hobbs and Joe Howard and got Lohmiller in position for a 37-yard field goal.
"We've turned the ball over the last two weeks and that concerns you," Gibbs said. "We have a long way to go. When you turn the ball over, you make yourself look really bad. But a win feels better than a loss."