A year ago, Dana Stubblefield and Dan Wilkinson arrived in Washington heralded as the saviors of the Redskins' defense and, really, of the franchise. The two burly defensive tackles were supposed to stuff running backs and harass quarterbacks, and they were supposed to help the Redskins to their first playoff appearance since the Joe Gibbs era.
Things didn't exactly go as scripted. The Redskins didn't win a single game last season with both Stubblefield and Wilkinson in the lineup. The Redskins' defense was ranked 28th in the league against the run, and the team stumbled to a 6-10 record.
Now the Redskins are about to enter another season with high hopes. This time, Stubblefield and Wilkinson are just pieces of the puzzle. But as the Redskins saw in the first half of Friday night's 20-19 preseason victory over the Buffalo Bills, they can be some important pieces.
The Redskins' offense had its problems, but the starting defense played superbly. In the first half, with the starters in the game, the Redskins held the Bills to only three points. Buffalo had only 24 rushing yards on 10 attempts and 102 yards of total offense. It's precisely what Redskins defensive coordinator Mike Nolan had in mind when he pledged at the outset of training camp that his unit would use a more aggressive, attacking approach.
Wilkinson applauds the team's new defensive strategy.
"I think it's great," he said. "I think it benefits everybody on defense. . . . The way our defense is set up now, our whole front seven is attacking. Once you get that happening, holes will open up. With so many guys being aggressive going to the ball, holes are naturally going to open up for people to get in there and make tackles, make plays and make things happen."
Wilkinson, who missed the preseason opener at New England with a sprained ankle, and Stubblefield totaled only three tackles Friday in their first game together this season. But that, again, reinforced some of the points the Redskins are trying to make about the differences in their defense from last season.
A year ago, the Redskins had a major weakness at defensive end and didn't get good results from their outside linebackers or safeties. Even when Wilkinson and Stubblefield occupied opposing blockers and created openings for teammates to make plays, the tackles didn't get made.
Now the Redskins have newcomers Marco Coleman and Anthony Cook to help Kenard Lang at defensive end. They have a new, young set of starting linebackers, with Derek Smith moving to the middle and Greg Jones and Shawn Barber emerging as starters on the outside. Hard-hitting safety Sam Shade was signed as a free agent. The Redskins like the mix, especially when Darrell Green and Champ Bailey give them a pair of cornerbacks potentially capable of covering wide receivers without double-team help.
"Without a doubt, it's going to be better," Wilkinson said. "It's not just me and Dana up front. It's the whole front seven. I think all of us will play together a lot better. All of us will be on the same page, and we'll all be attacking. That's the key thing. It won't be just two or three of us attacking. It'll be the whole front seven."
Not only were Wilkinson and Stubblefield short on help last season, but they felt handcuffed by a defensive scheme that often required them to play a read-and-react style. They struggled to adjust in the seven games they played together before a knee injury ended Stubblefield's season. The Redskins went 0-7 in those games.
"It was getting used to the defense and all that stuff, getting used to the calls and the coaches," Stubblefield said. "It was a rough time for us."
Stubblefield managed only 1 1/2 sacks last season after getting 15 for the San Francisco 49ers in 1997, when he was the NFL's defensive player of the year. After aggravating a knee injury on a flight of stairs at his home during the Redskins' bye week, he had surgery and didn't play another game last season, generating whispers among some of his teammates about his commitment and desire.
"I'd never even lost three games in a row in my life before that," Stubblefield said last week. "It was a very tough time for me, a hard time."
No one can question Stubblefield's offseason work ethic. He spent long hours at Redskin Park and arrived at training camp in shape. And the new defensive approach will permit him and Wilkinson to pursue ball carriers more recklessly and play the style they want to play.
"It's just me and Dan are comfortable with the system, and now it's working," Stubblefield said. ". . . We're just ready to go into the season. It was a great offseason for me."
Wilkinson played his best last season after Stubblefield left the lineup -- and after he decided to start playing the way he wanted, the way he had played during his first four NFL seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals. Wilkinson provided a string of big plays down the stretch as the Redskins won six of their final nine games, and he ended up leading the team in sacks with 7 1/2. He had a career-best 60 tackles and played more snaps -- 1,037 -- than any other defensive tackle in the league.
"I felt the technique and the things I was doing weren't best suited for myself," Wilkinson said last week. "I felt I could make a lot more plays and contribute to the team if I played my aggressive style of defense. You can't do it all the time. But for the most part, I'm going to make more plays than I'm going to give up."
Even with his furious finish, Wilkinson doesn't call last season a success for him personally.
"Things got better, but that 0-7 start was so disappointing," he said. "I didn't feel good about that. Our season wasn't what it should have been. . . . I could have played better. I feel like I can go out there and play more wide open."
He says he hopes his play in the second half of last season helped to convince the team's coaches of the value of a high-octane approach.
"They made some changes," Wilkinson said. "We're all here to win. We're all on the same page. I hope the things I did may have convinced them. I don't know. But we have a different style now."