The Washington Redskins' 27-14 preseason victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers Saturday night was owed in large part to a stingy, effective defense that kept the Steelers' starting offense on its heels.
The Redskins' starters shut out the Steelers 13-0 in the first half. That brings their total points surrendered through three halves of preseason play to just three.
The defense's early dominance suggests that all the Redskins' scouting, drafting, signing and scheming of the offseason just might succeed in turning around what was one of the NFL's most disappointing defenses last season.
The resurgent unit seen so far in the preseason is partly a result of a shift in philosophy. The Redskins have discarded last year's read-and-react strategy, which new owner Daniel M. Snyder recently criticized as "vanilla," in favor of a more aggressive, attacking approach.
It's also a result of getting better players to do the job, from veteran free agent Marco Coleman at right end to rookie cornerback Champ Bailey, who has shown a veteran's instincts.
In the first half, Washington held Pittsburgh's starters to just 93 yards of total offense. For stretches, quarterback Kordell Stewart's scrambling ability seemed to be the Steelers' only offensive weapon. But it wasn't enough to score points or the favor of Steeler fans, who booed as Stewart bowed out after completing seven of his 18 throws for 36 yards in the first half. Stewart was also sacked twice, losing 14 yards.
Defensive end Ndukwe Kalu snuffed out the Steelers' first series by tipping a Stewart pass at the line of scrimmage. The Steelers were held to three-and-out on their next two possessions. Pressure from left end Kenard Lang forced one incompletion. Safety Leomont Evans disrupted one reception. And Bailey showed his talents on special teams, too, ending one Steeler's return by wrapping himself around his opponent's ankles.
Last year the Redskins didn't hesitate to spend money on the defense. But it yielded little in the way of results, as the defense finished the season ranked 28th against the run, fifth against the pass and 24th in the NFL.
That was hardly the expectation after team president John Kent Cooke committed nearly $60 million to sign free agent tackles Dana Stubblefield and Dan Wilkinson. The Redskins were 0-7 with both tackles in the game. Neither started strong, and they never seemed to jell. The line's play was also stymied by the fact that the ends weren't up to the task, and opponents had no trouble running up one side or the other.
"There were times during the year last year we played real good defense," said Coach Norv Turner. "Nobody noticed it because we turned the ball over so many times. We'd play good for three quarters and then not finish."
To right this listing ship, a second defensive line coach was brought in to help Earl Leggett, and players have responded to fact that Leggett is not far removed from playing the game himself. Also Stubblefield returned more fit, eager and active after knee surgery ended his season prematurely. Lang has also improved.
The line's cohesion, in turn, is helping the play of the young linebackers: Shawn Barber, Derek Smith and Greg Jones. Barber continues to show a flair for big plays, though Smith is finding the move to middle linebacker a bit tougher.
Said Barber: "There's plenty of room for improvement. But guys play well off one another. It all starts with the guys up front. When they play well together, it's easier for us."
Turner said the speed of the linebackers also helps relieve pressure on the line.
"Our guys are getting up into the action quicker, so they're helping the defensive line," Turner said. "I think if you ask our defensive line, they're noticing a difference in the way our linebackers are hitting the run getting up in the holes quick."
Then, at cornerback, the Redskins once again have balance, with Darrell Green on one hand and Bailey, the instinctive, eager pupil, on the other.
"You don't have a guy that you're going to go out and get big plays on," Turner said. "We didn't have that last year because Cris [Dishman] got off to such a slow start."
Both starting safeties, Sam Shade and Evans, are also effective tacklers. That enabled Turner to use both in run defense.
If there's a lingering question, it's whether the Redskins can mount an effective pass rush, particularly since Ken Harvey's retirement. For now, Kalu is playing a role, as is Coleman.
"He's outstanding against the run, and he's very good as a pass rusher," Turner said. "So people have someone to contend with. And he makes a lot of plays around him, so it's harder for people to concentrate on Dana."
For a unit that struggled much of last year, the defense seems to have gelled remarkably quickly.
"That's what the preseason is for: To build some continuity," Coleman said. "We feel real good about ourselves. Maybe because of last season, the guys that were here are making more of a conscious effort to do things a little bit better. Each week we progress, and that's what we want to do."