Throughout training camp and a promising 3-1 preseason, the Washington Redskins' defense emerged as the team's strength. With young, aggressive playmakers such as cornerback Champ Bailey and linebacker Shawn Barber, the unit showed signs it would not only keep the Redskins in close games this year, but also contribute points of its own.
While the defense did its part through the early going of Sunday's season opener against the Dallas Cowboys, it was largely responsible for the 21-point fourth-quarter collapse and 41-35 overtime loss, sealed by a 76-yard touchdown reception to wide-open receiver Raghib Ismail.
After a day reviewing videotape, defensive coordinator Mike Nolan yesterday attributed his unit's late-game failure to several factors. Among them: the Cowboys' shift to a four-wideout package that spread out the defense; a rash of cramps that temporarily sidelined three starting defensive backs; backups who didn't perform as well as hoped; and penalties and missed opportunities down the stretch.
Coach Norv Turner said yesterday he "absolutely" retained full confidence in his defensive coaching staff despite the loss. Owner Daniel M. Snyder dispelled any notion of a shakeup when he dropped by Redskin Park late afternoon. "It's just one game," Snyder said, in a voice hoarse from screaming. "Next week's a new game!"
Said Nolan, acknowledging pressure to perform from the team's new owner: "There's pressure this year on all of us. The largest pressure to me is what I put on myself. Obviously Mr. Snyder can take our jobs away at any time, but I take a lot of pride in trying to do a good job in what I do to help this football team win. That's the most disappointing thing for me. The [pressure] is always there."
Nolan said at no time did the unit resort to a "prevent defense" -- giving up short gains in order to protect against a big gain -- although the pace of play may have been interpreted as such. Rather, according to Nolan, the defense stuck to plays that had worked in the second and third quarters.
Despite that, the Cowboys scored 21 unanswered points in the fourth quarter. Quarterback Troy Aikman forced overtime, tying the game at 35 by marching his team 90 yards in 1 minute 15 seconds with no timeouts. Aikman fired short and mid-range passes to either side of the field, stopping the clock to keep the drive alive.
"I wish we could have kept them in bounds at those times," Nolan said. "They kept working the ball on the outside. There was no `prevent' used any time of the game. It was tight, zone coverage we played. He just dinked and dunked it and kept the ball alive. It's a perception thing when the ball is moving that you're not getting quite the pressure [later] that we got at certain times [earlier]."
Turner pointed to the Cowboys' offensive talent when asked about the defense's poor showing.
"Everyone wants to jump to judgment off of one performance," Turner said. "The New York Jets were an outstanding defense last year. They gave up almost 600 yards to San Francisco in Game 1. I'm certainly not pleased with the way we played in some areas on defense, and we can play a lot better. But I'm not going to sit here and say we're not going to be a good defense. We'll be a good defensive football team."
Still, the Cowboys' comeback was swift and methodical in its execution.
Dallas opened the fourth quarter by finishing a 70-yard drive in which it gained 62 yards by running the ball on nine of 11 plays, picking up roughly seven yards per carry. The Cowboys got within 35-21 on Smith's one-yard touchdown run.
Next, Dallas recovered an onside kick. Although it failed to produce a score, Turner called it the game's turning point because it took the Redskins' offense out of its rhythm.
Wide receiver Michael Irvin next beat Darryl Pounds for a 37-yard touchdown reception to make it 35-28.
Then, Aikman engineered the 90-yard drive to tie the game at 35. Three offside penalties advanced the Cowboys 15 yards. Dallas center Mark Stepnoski coaxed the penalties, Nolan said, by pulling up his head and turning the ball at the last minute before snapping the ball. The peculiar motion tricked defensive end Marco Coleman once, but should not have tricked his linemates Kenard Lang and Ndukwe Kalu a second and third time, Nolan said.
The final mistake was the costly one.
In overtime, with the Cowboys on third and two at their 24, the Redskins expected a pass despite the insertion of larger Dallas players designed to suggest a handoff to Smith, Nolan said. Nonetheless, safety Matt Stevens apparently bit on the fake, moving to his left, while Aikman unleashed the game-winning pass to Ismail.