The Washington Redskins firmly believed their defense was too talented to be getting the results that it got in the first quarter of the season, and they thought the day would come when defense would carry the team to victory. That happened tonight, as the Redskins used a workmanlike effort to beat the Arizona Cardinals, 24-10, at Sun Devil Stadium.
The Redskins (4-1) returned from their bye week to win their fourth straight game and moved into sole possession of first place in the NFC East, at least for a day. The 3-1 Dallas Cowboys will play the New York Giants Monday night. The Redskins play at Dallas next Sunday, and thanks to tonight's win they are guaranteed to be playing for sole possession of first place.
A defense that began the day ranked last in the NFL got three interceptions from rookie cornerback Champ Bailey and bottled up the Cardinals' offense all evening, leaving quarterback Jake Plummer with a broken finger. Arizona managed only 274 yards total offense against a defense that had been surrendering 29.5 points and 433.5 yards per game.
"We pointed the finger at ourselves," defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson said. "We needed to play the way we were capable. I hoped it would start coming together for us sooner rather than later."
Bailey returned the first of his interceptions 59 yards for a second-quarter touchdown. He became the first Redskins player to have a three-interception performance since Brad Edwards on Nov. 29, 1992. At 21, he also became the youngest player in NFL history to have a three-interception game.
In all, it was quite a debut for Bill Arnsparger, who was added to the Redskins' coaching staff during the bye week to assist defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. The longtime defensive guru spent the evening in the press box, connected to Nolan via a headset. The Redskins hadn't yielded fewer than 20 points in any of their first four games.
"We can't always count on our offense to score 50 points," said linebacker Shawn Barber, who had a game-high 10 tackles. "It was a pride thing for us."
Redskins Coach Norv Turner said: "We had a couple wrinkles because of the bye [but] we didn't do a lot different. We just played better. . . . To win consistently in this league, you have to play defense like we did tonight and run the ball like we did tonight."
Quarterback Brad Johnson wasn't sharp and threw his first two interceptions of the season, but he provided a third-quarter touchdown pass to tight end Stephen Alexander that gave the Redskins a 17-3 cushion. The Cardinals (2-4) drew to 17-10 on a fourth-quarter touchdown pass from Plummer's replacement, Dave Brown, to wide receiver Rob Moore. But the Redskins survived, getting a 14-yard touchdown run by Skip Hicks--subbing at tailback for Stephen Davis after Davis suffered a sprained left ankle--with just over two minutes to play.
Turner said he was concerned about Davis's injury, but Davis, who rushed for 91 yards on 18 carries, indicated he expects to play next Sunday.
The Redskins moved the ball on their first possession, with a 20-yard completion from Johnson to wide receiver Albert Connell getting them to the Cardinals 30-yard line. On the next play, though, Johnson and Connell were on different wavelengths. Connell ran his pattern toward the middle of the field and into the end zone, while Johnson threw the ball shorter and to the sideline--directly into the arms of cornerback J.J. McCleskey, who made the grab for Johnson's first interception of the season on throw number 127.
"Sometimes they [his receivers] were covered," said Johnson, who completed 24 of 40 passes for 248 yards. "Sometimes I threw the ball away, and sometimes I missed them. You're going to have nights like that. I'm just happy we won. This was a big, big win on the road for us."
Arizona used a 12-play drive to get on the scoreboard with Chris Jacke's 44-yard field goal.
The Redskins again failed to move the ball, but Jacke sent a 42-yard field goal try wide right. The Redskins finally got going on offense, moving 49 yards to Brett Conway's tying field goal. Connell beat McCleskey for a 23-yard gain, and outmaneuvered cornerback Tom Knight for a 10-yard reception that gave the Redskins a first down at the Arizona 10.
But after Davis ran for two yards on first down, Johnson missed an open Irving Fryar in the end zone on second down and had to throw away the ball on a third-down blitz. Conway's 26-yard field goal was nullified by a holding penalty on James Jenkins, but Conway connected again from 36 yards for 3-3.
The Arizona offense went three plays and out, but Johnson threw his second interception. He tried to go down the field to tight end Mike Sellers, but the ball was underthrown and landed in the chest of linebacker Ronald McKinnon. No matter, for Bailey struck soon thereafter.
Plummer got a 15-yard completion to rookie wide receiver David Boston to give the Cardinals a first down at the Redskins 49, then threw two straight incompletions to set up a third-and-10 play. Plummer tried to go to Boston, who was working against Bailey. But Bailey stepped in front of the pass, made the interception and coasted down the sideline into the end zone.
"I saw him make an out cut," Bailey said. "I was right there with him. I was surprised he threw the ball because I had good coverage."
Bailey got another interception on the Cardinals' next possession, when Plummer tried to throw the ball deep as he scrambled to his left. The Redskins went nowhere but got the ball back, only to have Conway miss a 52-yard field goal try--his first missed field goal attempt of the season after going 7 for 7--as time expired in the half.
It went from bad to worse for the Cardinals in the early moments of the second half. Barber got a free shot at Plummer as he came in unblocked on a blitz, and delivered a hard shot to the quarterback. Plummer got his right ring finger stuck in Barber's face mask, and walked to the sideline in pain after remaining on the ground for a few moments. He went to the Cardinals' locker room soon thereafter, and X-rays revealed the break.
Arizona Coach Vince Tobin said Plummer would be out four to six weeks.
"You know, you lose football games in this league, but when you start losing your football players, it certainly makes it more difficult to bounce back," Tobin said, "and Jake is a big part of our football game, as everybody knows. It's going to be a big loss."
The Redskins drove 90 yards on a dozen plays to increase their lead to 17-3. The drive began with six straight runs by Davis. Johnson hit Sellers for a 17-yard gain to the Arizona 18, and connected with fullback Larry Centers for 12 yards--ending with Centers trying to hurdle defenders and get into the end zone--to the 2.
Davis ran the ball on the next two plays but couldn't get into the end zone. So Johnson went to the pass, and found Alexander along the back edge of the end zone for the one-yard touchdown.
Bailey's third interception came on a deep throw by Brown intended for Moore late in the third quarter, but Brown and Moore got their revenge midway through the fourth quarter. Bailey was beaten as the Cardinals capped a 91-yard drive with a 10-yard touchdown pass from Brown to Moore, pulling Arizona to 17-10 with 6 minutes 59 seconds to play.
Johnson got leveled by defensive end Andre Wadsworth on a third-down sack on the Redskins' next possession. The Redskins had to punt but their defense rose to the occasion once more, holding the Cardinals without a first down. The Redskins moved calmly down the field, with Hicks covering the final 14 yards for the touchdown that sealed the verdict.