The Washington Redskins had a perfect formula for losing games last season. They didn't run the ball well enough, and they didn't stop the run. They ranked 18th in the NFL in rushing yards offensively, and 28th in stopping the run defensively.
As they wrapped up a promising preseason with a last-minute loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last night, the Redskins demonstrated that they could be better in both areas this season. In the first half, when the players who will survive the final cuts still were on the field, the Redskins got a combined 90 yards on only 11 carries from running backs Stephen Davis and Skip Hicks. Meanwhile, their defense limited the Buccaneers to 54 rushing yards on 19 carries -- only 2.8 yards per attempt.
The Redskins will open the regular season as the only team in the league with four former first-round draft picks starting on the defensive line. Defensive end Kenard Lang missed last night's game because of a sprained ankle, but the Redskins expect him to be ready to join defensive end Marco Coleman and tackles Dan Wilkinson and Dana Stubblefield in the lineup for the regular season opener against the Dallas Cowboys in eight days.
"I have a real good feeling about our defense and about our team," Wilkinson said late last night. "I'm very excited. I can't wait for Dallas. Guys are eager. We have a lot of positives going into the season."
Coleman and Stubblefield, in particular, were active last night, ranging wide to make tackles along the line of scrimmage and harassing Buccaneers quarterback Trent Dilfer. Coleman was one of the best players the Redskins had during training camp after being signed as a free agent late in the offseason, and Stubblefield has left club officials optimistic that he'll rebound from his bitterly disappointing 1998 season.
"Our front is playing awfully well," Coach Norv Turner said. "We have a chance to be a real good defense."
Turner has said he thinks Stubblefield closely resembles the player who had 15 sacks for the San Francisco 49ers in 1997, when he was the NFL's defensive player of the year. Team officials were intent upon acquiring a pass rusher after veteran linebacker Ken Harvey retired early in training camp. The Redskins tried to coax defensive end Chris Doleman out of retirement but found his asking price to be too high.
The play of the starting defensive line -- plus reserve defensive end Ndukwe Kalu -- during the preseason has changed the thinking of the club's decision-makers, however. The Redskins believe their pass rush will be good enough without Doleman, and the team can spend that money elsewhere -- perhaps on wide receiver Joey Galloway, if the Seattle Seahawks opt to trade him.
It was a sometimes frustrating preseason for Wilkinson, who suffered a strained left shoulder last night. Wilkinson and Redskins officials said they didn't consider the injury serious. But it was the latest in a series of nagging injuries suffered by Wilkinson since the beginning of training camp -- first was a sprained ankle, then a dislocated finger -- and it seemed to leave him in a foul mood.
He slammed his helmet after leaving the field, and a steady procession of Redskins coaches and players -- ending with Turner -- came by to talk to him as he sat on the bench. Turner stopped by Wilkinson's locker after the game to speak to him again. Wilkinson was on the field after the other starters had exited, but he said that wasn't the cause of his anger.
"I was upset because I banged my shoulder up," Wilkinson said.
The Redskins' rushing offense suffered last season because they were trailing so often. They averaged 4.2 yards per rushing attempt, better than the NFL average of 4.0. But they faced so many deficits that they had to abandon the run regularly. If this year's defense is anywhere near as good as it looked during the preseason, when the starters yielded only six points in seven quarters, Davis and Hicks could continue to get their chances late into games this season.
Neither is proven as a featured runner, and it came as a surprise when Davis emerged during the preseason as the starter. But quarterback Brad Johnson will keep opposing defenses from keying on the Redskins' running backs. And, if last night was any indication, Davis and Hicks could be enough for the Redskins to get by with this season. They did their first-half damage against a Tampa Bay defense that was ranked second in the league overall last season.
The team's coaches like Davis because he, like the departed Terry Allen, is willing to lower his head and plow forward for the tough yards up the middle. But Davis also showed a bit of flash last night, bouncing a first-quarter run to the outside for a 40-yard gain. His longest regular season run in the NFL is 39 yards.
Hicks lost the starting job because he isn't the grinder that Davis is. But he provides a dangerous change of pace, and he certainly can find the end zone. He had eight rushing touchdowns last season as a rookie, and he sent the Redskins into the locker room last night with a 10-6 lead by providing a four-yard touchdown run 14 seconds before the intermission.
"They're both going to play," Turner said. "How it's split up, that will be determined by how the games go. . . . The thing I like about our offense is, we're going to be balanced. We're going to be able to run the ball [and] we're going to be able to throw the ball."