The priorities of the Washington Redskins' defense are spelled out clearly on coordinator Mike Nolan's goal board. No. 1 is to win. No. 2 is to limit rushing yards. And No. 3 is to stop opponents on third downs.
With a 7-5 record, the Redskins have won more than they've lost. But their struggles against the run and their inability to stop teams on third down have been chronic concerns and pivotal in most of their losses. Allowing teams to convert third downs, in particular, cuts like a double-edged sword. Not only does it sustain opponents' drives, but it also keeps the Redskins' offense off the field.
"As far as contributing to the win, I think that's every bit as important as run defense," Nolan said of third-down defense. "At times when we've lost games, we had opportunities on third downs and didn't execute. If they get a good third-down attack, that's the way they stay on the field."
So far this season, the Redskins' defense has allowed opponents to convert 39.7 percent of third downs. That ranks 12th among 15 NFC teams, better than only Chicago, Carolina and San Francisco. Still, there are signs of improvement.
Last week against Detroit, the defense allowed just one third-down conversion in 12 attempts (8 percent), close to perfection. But Detroit quarterback Gus Frerotte hit the throws that mattered to lead his team to the 33-17 win.
Sunday at FedEx Field, the Redskins face the type of quarterback who has frustrated them all year: a scrambler who throws on the run with accuracy and abandon. Erratic on one hand, Arizona's Jake Plummer has a knack for late-game heroics. Last week against Philadelphia, he engineered two fourth-quarter touchdowns for a 21-17 victory. He was 5 for 5 on third-down conversions during those drives.
Defending on third downs is a delicate dance that requires sure-footed collaboration between the defensive line, which rushes the passer, and the defensive backs, charged with shutting down the receivers. The problem the Redskins have had is getting both units in sync.
"Sometimes we allow the quarterback to have too much time to throw the ball, and that allows the wideouts to get open," defensive end Marco Coleman said. "Sometimes the defensive backs might not have tight enough coverage. We have to coordinate it between all 11 of the guys out there for us to get them off the field."
The pass rush was especially ineffective in Games 6-9, when defensive end Ndukwe Kalu was out because of a broken foot. In that stretch, the Redskins allowed Dallas and Buffalo to convert 60 percent of their third downs--losing, 38-20, to the Cowboys and 34-17 to the Bills.
"That's really poor," Nolan said. "That's as bad as a good day, like last week, where they're 8 percent."
Kalu's return has helped.
"We're not near as good without him," Nolan said of Kalu, who enters the game on third down. "He applies a lot of pressure on the quarterback and takes some of the pressure away from the tackles."
At cornerback, starters Darrell Green and Champ Bailey have struggled sporadically with the opposing demons of age and inexperience, respectively. Green, 39, turned heads by running down 23-year-old wideout Germane Crowell on a breakaway play last Sunday. But the more pressing matter was that Crowell got past him in the first place, gaining 66 yards before being brought down. The drive yielded a field goal that extended Detroit's lead to 23-17.
Bailey, 21, is tied for a team-high four interceptions but often has been outfoxed by cagey veterans.
"Champ is having the kind of season young guys have," Coach Norv Turner said. "You're seeing a little bit of everything: He's made great plays, he's made good plays, he's had tough times. But when you're a rookie and you're playing corner and you're out there by yourself, that's to be expected."
Critics of the Redskins' defense, currently ranked 30th (26th against the pass), fault it as overly conservative--reluctant to blitz and, even then, sending only five men after the quarterback.
Nolan dismisses that analysis. "The misconception is the perception that the quick fix is a blitz," Nolan said. "Some of the best defenses I've been on don't come at all; some of the best defenses I've been on come a lot. Again, if you want to blitz, then you better be certain that you're going to cover."
That certitude has waned as games wear on, and the defense tires. Fourth-quarter burnout has been a problem for the offense, too, and special teams.
In many respects, the Redskins' season-opening loss to Dallas was prophetic of their vulnerability on defense. The unit played well before wilting in the fourth quarter, when several defensive backs left the game because of muscle cramps. After building a 21-point lead, the Redskins lost in overtime on a 76-yard pass to Raghib Ismail on third and two, against backup safety Matt Stevens.
The Cardinals' offense is statistically less imposing, ranked 29th among 31 NFL teams. The fear-factor comes from Plummer. His broken finger, suffered in Game 5 against the Redskins, has reknitted. And his team is riding a four-game wining streak.
"The thing that you have to realize," former teammate Larry Centers said, "is that when he has late-game heroics like he's had, he energizes his team. Not only does he energize them, when he does it a couple different games, it forces his team to believe in themselves throughout the ballgame. They believe that they're never out of a ballgame."
In hopes of containing Plummer, the Redskins' defensive front will stake out a triangle in front of him and try to keep him inside it. Defensive ends will pursue him from the outside, while a defensive tackle shoots up the middle. But Coleman believes that it's up to players--not defensive schemes--to win the game.
"You can draw up as many X's and O's as you can, but when you draw them up, those X's and O's don't move," Coleman said. "You try to call defenses on what you think might happen. But you don't know what the next man is going to do. It's a matter of players making plays."
Redskins Notes: Guard Keith Sims didn't practice yesterday and is among the early inactives for Sunday, joining wide receiver Derrius Thompson, defensive tackle Barron Tanner and offensive tackle Jamie Brown. . . . The Redskins Wives Association will collect cash donations for Points for Charity on Sunday at FedEx Field. All proceeds go to programs that help feed the hungry in the Washington area.
CAPTION: Ndukwe Kalu has helped the defense better stop opponents on third down.