After turning over the ball six times, it was remarkable the Washington Redskins were even in position to win their game against the Philadelphia Eagles at Veterans Stadium two weeks ago.
Too remarkable, in fact, to happen, as the Redskins lost, 35-28, after allowing Philadelphia to run the ball on four consecutive plays for the game-winning touchdown.
In dissecting the dreadful loss, however, there was some good news for Washington's defense, which took a major step forward, holding rookie quarterback Donovan McNabb to 60 yards passing. For most of the game, the Redskins' defense also clamped down the Eagles' rushing game.
But when the final statistics were tallied, it was the failure to stop the run down the stretch that proved costly. The Redskins allowed 198 rushing yards (a 4.7 yards-per-carry average), including 122 by Duce Staley and 49 by the freelancing McNabb.
As the Redskins prepare for Sunday's rematch with the Eagles, players know they must do better at the most elemental level of defense: tackling.
For all of the Eagles' offensive struggles (their offense is ranked 30th overall), they have a dogged running game, paced by Staley (the NFC's second leading rusher, with 942 yards) and spiced, of late, by McNabb.
"You can't assume that either one of those two players is down until they're actually on the ground--especially with Duce Staley, because he can go into a pileup there and all of a sudden he's spinning out of there and he's to the outside," said Rubin Carter, a Redskins defensive line coach.
Through the second and third quarters, the Redskins held Philadelphia's running backs to gains of fewer than six yards 13 times out of their 20 carries. Seven of those rushes were for no gain or a loss.
The game's momentum swung radically late in the fourth quarter, when the Redskins gave up consecutive running plays of 13, 12, 7 and 11 yards. Eric Bieniemy scored on the final carry by lowering his head and plowing forward, eluding tackles by cornerback Darrell Green and linebacker Derek Smith.
"You've got to stop them every chance you get," Coach Norv Turner said. "But the biggest thing on that last drive, if you give anybody that many chances--we gave them so many chances because of the turnovers and some of the third-down plays--eventually they're going to make some plays."
What makes Staley and McNabb so difficult to stop are their powerful lower bodies. "You have to make sure you secure them, and wrap them up and get them on the ground," Carter said.
A longtime nose tackle with the Denver Broncos, Carter believes that tackling is mainly a matter of mind-set and attitude. But there are specifics he has stressed this week: bending your knees to lower your center of gravity for better leverage; wrapping up the runners' legs; and getting more than one player involved in the tackle.
Defensive end Ndukwe Kalu, sidelined at the time with a broken foot, watched the Philadelphia loss and had a similar diagnosis of the Eagles' game-winning drive. "We had a good game, but for some reason we just broke down, missed assignments and had poor tackling," Kalu said.
Asked what makes Staley so elusive, Kalu said: "I feel like I can't comment on that because I feel like I can't do any better than the guys out there. . . . We do this little tackling drill before practice, but by the time you get to the NFL, you're supposed to know how to tackle. You don't do tackling drills like you did in high school or college because you're going to get somebody hurt. . . . It's just a matter of us taking care of our responsibilities. When you've got Staley in your grasp, you've got to keep him. You can't let him get loose."
In the game two weeks ago, the Eagles' first big running play came on a safety blitz. McNabb cut up the middle of the field for a 27-yard gain, and the drive yielded a 49-yard field goal.
"If you're coming in and trying to get press on the quarterback, everyone has to be conscious that this guy can run," Turner said. "You've got to stay in your lanes. And when he takes off, you've got to come off blocks and do as good a job as you can of keeping him from breaking the line of scrimmage. Once he does that, if you're in a man blitz, he's going to get probably a pretty big chunk."
The Eagles took the lead late in the third quarter on a drive that turned on a freakish play. Staley ran around the right end then turned up-field for a 20-yard touchdown run as linebackers Smith and Shawn Barber ran into each other.
"We tried to tackle him high," Turner said. "Two guys actually got hands on him and did not get him down."
Sunday at FedEx Field, the Eagles will face a slightly different defensive line.
Lang has been replaced at left end by Anthony Cook, who entered the Nov. 14 game against the Eagles after Marco Coleman suffered a neck injury in the first quarter. While Lang has played well in spots, he has lacked the consistency Turner wants. But Turner insists the switch wasn't made simply to get Lang's attention.
"It is based on what gives us the best chance," Turner said. "If you get a plus out of it--some motivation--that is a bonus. But we're doing it because Anthony was very physical against the offensive tackle he played against, and we think he's going to do the same thing this week."
Lang likely will enter the game on third-down passing plays, filling in for defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson. Meantime, Kalu will slip in at Cook's spot. Lang is faster than Wilkinson, and Kalu is faster than Lang. The net effect is more speed and a more effective pass rush.
"We're much faster with that group," Turner said. "And that helps you if you're playing [against] a quarterback that can run."
CAPTION: Eagles' Eric Bieniemy eluded several tackles by Redskins on game-winning score on Nov. 14.