After showing glimmers of progress, the Washington Redskins' defense played a uniformly ineffective game yesterday, doing more than its share to deliver the team's second loss at home, 34-17 to the Buffalo Bills.
In giving up 413 total yards--including 204 yards rushing--the Redskins' defense made a mediocre running team look powerful. And in failing to contain quarterback Doug Flutie, the Redskins made the scrambling 37-year-old look like a youthful magician.
Flutie completed 16 of 22 passes for 211 yards and two touchdowns. But it was his running that drove a stake into the Redskins' hopes for a victory. Flutie gained 40 yards on five carriers--including an eight-yard pickup on fourth and five during a second-quarter drive that produced the touchdown that put the Bills ahead, 17-10. In keeping the drive alive, Flutie escaped defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield and safety Sam Shade, cutting back to the left before defensive end Marco Coleman finally brought him down.
It was just one play, but it changed the game's momentum and signaled much of what was wrong with the Redskins' defense.
Eminently aware of Flutie's potential to improvise and elude, Redskins coaches had stressed all week the importance of containing the Bills' offensive sparkplug. But with the game on the line, the defense failed to make the critical plays--even when players were in their proper position.
"It's a discipline thing," defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said. "You've got to be disciplined all the time. There's not a down you can take off. You can't say, 'This down, I get to do what I want to do, and this down, I get to do what they want me to do.' When you've got an assignment, carry it out. You'll make a lot of plays carrying out your assignment. It doesn't have to turn into sandlot football for you to make plays."
Cornerback Darrell Green, who struggled covering wide receiver Eric Moulds (five catches, 61 yards, one touchdown), agreed.
"When the ball is snapped, the players just have to make plays," Green said. "That's the final, final answer to any question about what happens on the field. Somebody has got to make a play. Somebody from somewhere on some situation has got to make a play."
Against Buffalo, the defense's failing wasn't a matter of conditioning or a fourth-quarter collapse. The Bills scored on five of their first six possessions, coming away with one field goal and four touchdowns.
According to Coach Norv Turner, the defensive shortcomings weren't a matter of strategy. If anything, Turner said, he wondered whether his staff had "over-coached" the players following a first half in which the defense looked tentative, as if waiting for Flutie to make his move before committing.
"We worked extremely hard on trying to contain him all week long," Nolan said. "We drilled in the beginning of practice, the middle of practice and end of practice as far as containing him. The focus was on trying to keep him in the pocket--not even the tight pocket, but when he gets to run, somebody needs to cut him off to keep him from getting to the sidelines. And we broke down three times in that area."
The Redskins had a hard time getting the Bills' offense off the field as the game wore on. As a result, the time of possession was as skewed as the score, with Flutie and his unit controlling the ball a total of 41 minutes, including 23 minutes 35 seconds in the second half.
The defensive line let Flutie wriggle out of the pocket far too often. Tight end Jay Riemersma made the most of his size advantage (6 feet 5, 254 pounds) over Shade (6-1, 201). Backup running back Jonathan Linton (96 yards) and Antowain Smith (68 yards) met little resistance running to the left, between and around Coleman and Stubblefield. And on several plays, defenders hit their men but those players often broke loose again.
"It's been a frustrating thing," Nolan said. "I can bring you to the party, but you have to have a good time yourself. I don't know what else to say. There were some missed tackles at the point of attack when we hit some people. When we get there, we have to do a good job of wrapping up and making the play."
The Bills drove 62 yards on their first possession, unimpeded by a pass rush.
Flutie scrambled seven yards around Coleman for a first down on the next series, which was capped by a six-yard touchdown pass to tight end Bobby Collins on a slant. Safety Matt Stevens, filling in for the injured Leomont Evans, had the coverage.
Flutie hit Riemersma for a 34-yard completion on the next series. In trouble three plays later, Flutie ran right and cut back left for the first down on fourth and five.
The defense drew boos from the crowd of 78,721, which thinned out as the game wore on, after allowing Buffalo to drive 75 yards early in the third quarter and take a 24-10 lead. The Bills got first downs on an 11-yard pass to Moulds (over Green), a 23-yard completion to Riemersma (over Shade), a two-yard cutback run by Linton, who dodged defensive end Kenard Lang, and a 14-yard scramble by Flutie past numerous Redskins.
"When you lose, you can characterize it with all kind of words," Green said. "You can say 'tentative.' We talked about 'flat.' You can throw out numbers. We just didn't get it done."