With their defense struggling for reasons few could explain, the Washington Redskins brought in the veteran eyes of defensive specialist Bill Arnsparger last week.
And while Arnsparger refused to take credit for the Redskins' 24-10 victory over the Arizona Cardinals Sunday night, the fundamentals he has preached for decades certainly played a role.
On a night when quarterback Brad Johnson threw his first two interceptions of the season, the defense held the Cardinals to 274 total yards, contributed a touchdown, saw rookie cornerback Champ Bailey snag three interceptions and ended the night for Arizona quarterback Jake Plummer, who broke a finger on a sack by linebacker Shawn Barber.
It was a welcome and well-timed turnabout for a defense that entered the game ranked as the worst in the NFL.
Arnsparger's approach wasn't complicated--he has ordered no wholesale changes, instead stressing the basics, such as following assignments and making tackles. It worked. Bailey's heroics were also huge, signaling a shift in the game's momentum after the Cardinals had taken a 3-0 lead. Bailey snagged two Plummer throws on back-to-back Cardinals series, returning the first 59 yards for a touchdown that made it 10-3.
"That's a huge play by Champ," said defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson. "That was an uplift for everybody."
Then, as the third quarter wound down, Barber got a clear, brutal shot at Plummer. He sacked him and sent him off the field with a broken right ring finger, after his throwing hand was caught in Barber's face mask.
While it wasn't the toughest test the Redskins defense will face this season, the game gave coaches and players something to build on as they prepare for next week's meeting with the Dallas Cowboys.
The Cardinals entered the game with the NFL's 28th ranked offense--poor through the air (26th) and woeful on the ground (29th). Through five games, Arizona was averaging a paltry 2.4 rushing yards per carry (and just 69 yards per game).
Sunday night against the Redskins, the Cardinals gained 67 rushing yards on 20 plays (a 3.4 average).
"One of the biggest things we did was shut down their running game and make them one-dimensional," said Wilkinson, who had four tackles and a sack.
Plummer had an already poor quarterback rating suffer even more, completing 12 of 23 passes for 99 yards, with no touchdowns and two interceptions. Dave Brown, taking over after Plummer went down, hit eight of his 20 throws and had one touchdown and one interception.
"We got back to basics today," Arnsparger said. "I think we did that, and that's what makes the difference. . . . The defensive line got good pressure at times; other times, we need to have better pressure."
Afterward Coach Norv Turner echoed Arnsparger's analysis, that the defense improved because it of increased attention to detail--not strategic retooling.
Arnsparger was brought on board earlier this month after owner Daniel M. Snyder insisted the team make a change following its 38-36 victory over the Carolina Panthers, who scored 21 straight points in the first quarter. Conversations among Turner, player personnel director Vinny Cerrato and defensive coordinator Mike Nolan led to the selection of Arnsparger, 72, who had coached five Super Bowl teams.
Arnsparger joined his first Redskins practice Wednesday and had kept a relatively low profile, watching, for the most part, rather than prescribing.
Sunday night, he watched his first game as a Redskins official from the coaches box, along with assistant linebackers coach Jeff FitzGerald, and was connected to Nolan by headset. Arnsparger said he didn't make any calls; that is Nolan's job, he insisted. But afterward in the locker room, Arnsparger said he found the victory gratifying just the same.
And Barber was among those who said Arnsparger's arrival helped his play. Barber also credited the signing of veteran linebacker Kurt Gouveia and the presence of retired veteran Ken Harvey on the sidelines.
"He wants me to keep my eyes on the receiver one second longer," Barber said, asked what he had gleaned from Arnsparger to date. "I'm trying to learn the basics with film study, and these guys are helping me with specifics."
The Cardinals' first drive fizzled, going three and out on marginal gains by running back Adrian Murrell and an incompletion.
By on their second series, they drove 52 yards on 12 plays, finishing with a 44-yard field goal. Defensive end Marco Coleman was called for roughing the passer, which helped the Cardinals to one first down. Bailey was beaten by Mac Cody, a third-string receiver, on another play for a first down.
Bailey's first interception was intended for wide receiver David Boston. He stepped in its path, grabbed it and ran 59 yards straight downfield for the score.
On the Cardinals' next drive, Plummer threw an ill-advised pass across his body at Rob Moore. Bailey put himself in the ball's path again, though Washington's offense couldn't convert for a score.
The defense shone in a third quarter. The Cardinals had no first downs, went three and out on consecutive possessions and gained just 11 yards on 10 plays.
With the Redskins leading, 17-3, as the third quarter expired, Bailey got his third interception--this one, a Brown pass meant for Moore.
The Cardinals threatened to come back late in the fourth quarter, trailing 17-10. This time, strong play by Wilkinson and defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield made the difference. Wilkinson tackled Murrell on successive carries, and Stubblefield batted down a pass to snuff out the drive.