As the Washington Redskins look for ways to improve the NFL's last-ranked defense, tackle Dan Wilkinson said yesterday he hopes the team's coaches give the defensive linemen more freedom to try to bull their way into the offensive backfield in pursuit of quarterbacks and ball carriers.
"If they let the defensive line go and get up field and try to make some things happen, that may fix some of our problems," Wilkinson said. ". . . We can't continue on the path that we're on."
Meanwhile, assistant coach Bill Arnsparger said yesterday he's not interested in being the team's defensive coordinator. On Monday, Redskins officials apparently discussed the possibility of dismissing defensive coordinator Mike Nolan and offering the job to Arnsparger for the remainder of the season, but decided against it.
"I don't know anything about it," said Arnsparger, a longtime NFL defensive guru and a friend of Nolan who was hired by the Redskins last month to assist Nolan. "I'm here as an additional set of eyes. That's all I'm interested in. I've been there and done that. I came here to help. I hope I'm doing that."
The Redskins' defense has tried different approaches this season, from aggressive to more conservative, without finding a formula that has worked consistently. Wilkinson and fellow defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield have been frustrated at times during their 1 1/2 seasons with the club when they've been told by their coaches to play a more passive read-and-react style, rather than trying to push forward with abandon. Wilkinson said yesterday he will do whatever he's told, but believes an aggressive approach has a better chance of being successful.
"We're searching for a lot of different things, whether we're going to be attacking or be conservative," said Wilkinson, who has a team-leading five sacks. "Sometimes we attack. Sometimes we lay back. I think we just need to execute the defense and make this thing work. If we're not in an attacking mode, guys still have to attack, especially on the defensive front. The best thing I do is go up field. I can't go side to side. I've told the defensive line if we penetrate and go up field and make things happen, maybe that can make a difference for us. [But] right now, we've been preached at not to do that."
Last year, Wilkinson played his best football late in the season, after Stubblefield was sidelined by an injury and Wilkinson decided to return to his favored style of play. He said yesterday he won't return to his attacking approach this season unless he's given the go-ahead by the coaching staff.
"I can't do that because I have to play within the scheme," he said. "When I do that, it opens up lanes because other people don't do it. I have to be somewhat restrained in my approach to my attack, because I don't want to open up lanes."
Wilkinson declined to comment on any conversations he has had on the subject with the team's coaches. Nolan said he will permit Wilkinson and the club's other defensive linemen to take that approach at times, but not on every play.
"There are some times that's a good thing," Nolan said. "There are some times that doesn't fit what's going on, and it exposes the people around him. If you wanted to, you could probably sack the quarterback 10 times a game, but you'd get beat that way."
Wilkinson and other Redskins players said yesterday they remain confident in Nolan, and still are hopeful that the team can improve its defense significantly this season.
"I'm very confident," defensive end Marco Coleman said. "We're fortunate that, even though we haven't been playing good defense at all, we're still 5-3 as a team. We have eight weeks left. We know that in order for us to get where we want to be, the defense has got to play a lot better."
Said Wilkinson: "We're definitely going to work toward [improving the defense]. Will we be able to accomplish everything in eight games? It would take a bit of a miracle and a whole lot of luck. But, definitely, we can be a lot more competitive and make more of an impact. . . . I hope we do something or make some changes that get this on track."
The Redskins' defense is ranked 26th in the league against the run and 31st against the pass. Still, veteran cornerback Darrell Green said on Tuesday that upgrading the defense must begin with stopping opponents' running games. Members of the Redskins' defensive line, which has four former first-round draft choices as starters, acknowledged yesterday that their play--like everyone else's on the defense--could improve.
"We're not where we should be," defensive end Kenard Lang said. "We're barely scratching the surface of our talent. We're not playing consistent, and we have to get better."
Coleman said: "We have to be a lot more disciplined and be a lot more responsible."
On Monday, Coach Norv Turner saved Nolan's job after several of owner Daniel M. Snyder's top advisers recommended to him that Nolan be fired, sources familiar with the deliberations said. Snyder left the decision to Turner, according to sources. Nolan's long-term job security remains tenuous, but Coleman said that hasn't been a distraction to the players.
"The biggest distraction is that our defense has a lot of good players and we're not playing well," Coleman said. ". . . We can't say the coach hasn't put us in good positions, because we as players haven't executed. The time for moral victories and us saying we played hard is over. We have to execute. We have to make tackles, and we have to be where we're supposed to be. If that happens and it doesn't work, then we can say maybe we need to change some things schematically. Until we do that on a consistent basis, I don't think there's any basis to say what we're doing schematically is not sound."
Lang said: "We're just killing ourselves with mistakes. The scheme is fine. We're just not playing up to par."
Nolan met with Snyder and director of player personnel Vinny Cerrato yesterday at Redskin Park, but declined to discuss the specifics of the meeting.
"I have a job to do, and I'm trying to do it," Nolan said. "I'm trying everything I know. I'd like to think it's all about Mike Nolan, but I'm quickly being shown it's not about any one individual. It's a team concept. You have to pull together and get it done."
The Redskins have played relatively well this season against opponents with less-than-imposing offenses, and they won't face an overpowering offense during their upcoming three-game stretch in which they will face the Philadelphia Eagles twice and the New York Giants once.
"This is a new half," Lang said. "It's playoff time. It's down the stretch. How we do over the next four or five games will determine our future. It's put up or shut up. If we want to be in the playoffs, it's time to play better."