The Washington Redskins had one of the biggest wins of Norv Turner's coaching tenure to savor when they returned to work yesterday. They had tailback Stephen Davis to praise for his 183 rushing yards in Sunday's 23-13 triumph over the New York Giants, and they could feel good about their playoff chances entering this weekend's rematch with the Philadelphia Eagles.
But of all the positives they had to sort through, none was more encouraging to the Redskins than the play of their defense. The Redskins held the Giants in check with an attacking, blitzing approach and were rewarded by climbing out of the basement in the NFL's defensive rankings.
"Sometimes it takes time, and you never know when it's going to come together," defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield said yesterday at Redskin Park.
The Redskins ended a two-game losing streak and kept their season from unraveling Sunday, and now they're alone atop the NFC East with a 6-4 record. There's little chance of complacency working its way into the mix this week, for the Redskins committed six turnovers and lost, 35-28, at Philadelphia nine days ago.
The Giants managed only 72 rushing yards Sunday and committed five turnovers, becoming just the second Redskins' opponent this season to score fewer than 20 points (the Redskins won at Arizona, 24-10, on Oct. 17). The Redskins have inched ahead of the expansion Cleveland Browns for 30th place in the league's total defense rankings. That's a modest accomplishment, for sure, but at least it's something for a defense that has been entrenched in the last spot for much of the season.
"What a disappointment," defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said when told of the team's rise in the rankings. "Guys won't play as hard now."
The club's defensive players were told by their coaches at the season's mid-point to forget about the first eight games and try to finish among the league's top 10 defenses for the second half of the season. The past two games have brought encouraging signs. The Eagles got only 60 passing yards from rookie quarterback Donovan McNabb and managed 236 total yards against the Redskins. On Sunday, the Redskins had four sacks and knocked Giants quarterback Kent Graham from the game with a concussion.
The Redskins know their improvement is part illusory, because they're facing far-from-overpowering offenses. At this point, however, they'll take it.
"We can play offenses that aren't good, but if we don't play well, we won't stop them," said defensive end Marco Coleman, who gave the Redskins a two-touchdown lead on the first play of the fourth quarter Sunday with a 42-yard return of a fumble recovery for his first NFL touchdown.
"We've still got a ways to go . . . [but] we're executing better. We're doing the things we were supposed to do all along. We're getting guys to where they're supposed to be."
The Redskins still have problems on defense. Some club officials are particularly concerned about the play of Darrell Green, and wondering whether it's a slump or the beginning of the end for the 39-year-old cornerback.
But the team at last might have found a formula that works. Nolan began training camp pledging to use an aggressive approach this season. Early on, the Redskins didn't blitz that often. And when they did, it didn't work often enough. For the past two games, however, the Redskins have used strong safety Sam Shade as a blitzer more often, and have gotten far better results.
"When they work, people notice [the blitzes] more," Nolan said. ". . . You want to get your good players involved. . . . When you start having success, it breeds a little more."
Said Stubblefield: "Sam has been able to come up and make a lot of plays. . . . When one thing works, it opens up your entire package so you can try something else."
The Redskins also benefited Sunday from the return of reserve defensive end Ndukwe Kalu from a broken foot. The pass-rush specialist caused the fumble by backup quarterback Kerry Collins that led to Coleman's touchdown.
"It really helped us to get [Kalu] back," Turner said. "He is our one true speed rusher."
On Sunday, the Redskins used Kalu and Kenard Lang on their pass-rushing defensive line, that after Lang lost his starting job at left end to Anthony Cook last week. Cook and tackle Dan Wilkinson, who had a sore back last week, played on running downs. Turner declined to say yesterday whether Cook or Lang will be the starter this week but seemed to be leaning toward Cook, saying that Cook will remain a factor on running downs.
Linebacker Shawn Barber has a sprained right shoulder and probably will be limited in practice this week, but Redskins officials said they expect him to play against the Eagles. Eddie Mason would take over if Barber cannot play.
The Redskins might have left guard Keith Sims back in the lineup this week. He has missed two games because of a sprained knee ligament, with Brad Badger replacing him as the starter. Sims is scheduled to test his knee in practice on Wednesday and Thursday, and he said yesterday he intends to play against the Eagles.
"I'll be disappointed if I have a setback and can't play," Sims said.
Davis played Sunday with a bruised thigh, and produced the highest single-game rushing total in the league this season. He leads the NFL with his 1,034 rushing yards and 15 rushing touchdowns, and he continues to be one of the league's best success stories after beginning training camp in a battle with Skip Hicks for a starting job.
"This was a good test for him," Turner said. "He did not practice much last week, and he still went out and played extremely well."