The Washington Redskins' defense didn't necessarily play sterling football in Sunday's 27-20 victory over the New York Jets. But in many respects, the unit made a strong statement in helping the team to a 2-1 start and back-to-back road victories at Giants Stadium, one of the league's toughest venues.
The defense kept the pressure on Jets quarterback Rick Mirer, who completed 17 of 31 passes for 227 yards, including one touchdown and one interception.
In sharp contrast to its play in the season-opening loss to Dallas, the defense played better as the game went along, staying particularly hungry through the fourth quarter, in which the Redskins outscored the Jets 14-6. Most important, the defense made key plays when it mattered, including a forced fumble with less than four minutes left.
It was a well-timed statement, as the defense entered the game ranked last in the NFL: 25th against the run and 31st against the pass.
"This type of win brings a team closer together," said defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson. "Last week [the 50-21 victory over the New York Giants] was a party on the sideline. But this week, everybody wasn't clicking on full cylinders like we were last week. But given the opportunity, we made big plays. We made our share of mistakes, as well. But we kept overcoming them and kept fighting."
The Jets (0-3) entered the game lacking four starters: quarterback Vinny Testaverde and wide receiver Wayne Chrebet on offense; nose tackle Jason Ferguson and cornerback Otis Smith on defense.
Still, Mirer, who hadn't thrown a touchdown pass since December 1996, performed reasonably well for someone who just joined the Jets on Aug. 20.
Defensive end Kenard Lang sacked Mirer three times--the last time forcing a fumble that was recovered by Wilkinson on the Jets 21 with 3 minutes 19 seconds remaining. Wilkinson, defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield and defensive end Ndukwe Kalu each added a sack, for a team total of six.
Cornerback Darrell Green closed out the first half by intercepting a pass from Mirer in the end zone that was intended for wide receiver Dwight Stone, to mark 17 consecutive NFL seasons in which he has had at least one interception.
The defense was less successful against the run. Running back Curtis Martin carried 20 times for 85 yards. Bernie Parmalee also presented problems, gaining 51 yards on 10 carries. Just a few of those gains came up the middle. Most were sweeps out wide in an offensive attack designed to spread the defense.
For the most part, it worked. Of the Jets' 337 net yards, 142 came on the ground. The average gain was 4.6 yards per rushing play.
"This is a heck of a running back, and he did a heck of a job," said Coach Norv Turner of Martin. "But we can play the run better than that, and that's going to be our emphasis. I'm excited about the pressure we got on the quarterback."
The Jets' offense rattled the Redskins by mixing in screens and draw plays, and by tossing the ball outside a lot to open up the defense. Mirer wasn't asked to do too much, as they relied on the combination of Martin and Parmalee to move the ball.
According to defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, by the time the Redskins devised an effective counter to the Jets' running game, New York had fallen behind and wasn't running as much.
"They just had us outflanked," Nolan said. "They kept running that same toss play, and we had a difficult time trying to stop it. It wasn't big chunks, but five and six [yards], and that's more than you want."
The Jets' opening possession got the defense fired up. They marched 80 yards in 4:30, picking up three first downs. Parmalee got the initial first down on a draw play, scooting around the right end for a 10-yard gain. Mirer capped the drive by rolling right and firing a 35-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Dedric Ward.
"I was mad," said Lang. "We should have played better in the first quarter than we did. That first drive, that brought back memories of last year, and I couldn't stand it. And we as a team didn't want it to happen again. We started rolling from there."
While subtle coaching adjustments helped the defense, the players' own resolve was an even bigger factor, according to Lang. "It was more or less the players," Lang said. "The players took it on their shoulders.
The key defensive stand came in the fourth quarter, with the Redskins trailing 14-13.
Mirer opened the drive with a 28-yard completion to fullback Richie Anderson. Linebacker Derek Smith tipped another pass intended for Anderson on the 26. And Anderson and Martin were held to gains of two and five yards on the next plays to bring up kicker John Hall. His 37-yard field goal put New York up 17-13 with 8:10 remaining, which meant the Redskins likely needed just one more score.
After the Redskins drove 80 yards to reclaim the lead, Lang stripped the ball from Mirer to snuff out New York's next possession. The Jets were held without a first down on their final series, managing one last field goal to narrow the margin to 27-20.
"They ran that play a number of times before," Lang said. "I saw the same play. I knew he was going to try to suck up under me, so I ran up and tried to slap the ball."
Wilkinson was being double-teamed at the time. He said he was aware the ball had come loose, but he couldn't see it. He shed his blockers, saw the ball and pounced.
"Hey, give all credit to Kenard," Wilkinson said. "At a crucial point in the game, Kenard came up with a big play like that. That's big time. The whole team jumped on his back because he made it a whole lot easier for everybody else."