With Detroit lacking any semblance of a running game, the key to victory for the Washington Redskins in yesterday's NFC first-round playoff game was dismantling the Lions' passing game.
The Redskins' defense did just that, to the delight of a raucous record crowd of 79,411 at FedEx Field yesterday, sacking quarterback Gus Frerotte five times and intercepting him twice en route to a 27-13 victory that sends them into Saturday's NFC semifinal at Tampa Bay.
The victory was nothing short of a triumph for the defense, which has been maligned all season as the Redskins' weak link. Detroit converted just 3 of 14 third downs (21 percent), managed only 45 rushing yards and committed two turnovers.
"The defensive line was absolutely fabulous," Coach Norv Turner said. "That was as quick as we've played. We got a great pass rush. We got pressure with the blitzes, and we got some sacks. When you can get pressure with a four-man rush and cover the way we did, it makes it tough on the quarterback."
The defense made no secret of its intentions, sacking Frerotte for a seven-yard loss on the first play of the game. Frerotte's left pinkie finger was dislocated on the play, though he stayed in the game. The sack belonged to linebacker Greg Jones, who flew at Frerotte unimpeded from the quarterback's right side. But as the game unfolded, a succession of defenders piled on with big plays of their own.
Rookie cornerback Champ Bailey intercepted Frerotte late in the first quarter, and the offense turned that into a 33-yard field goal that gave the Redskins a 17-0 lead.
Veteran cornerback Darrell Green, battling the lingering effects of bronchitis, defended a touchdown bomb intended for wide receiver Johnnie Morton.
But it was the defensive line that set the tone, keeping the pressure on Frerotte all afternoon. Defensive end Marco Coleman had called his linemates together before the game to issue a challenge.
Said pass-rushing specialist Ndukwe Kalu: "He said, 'If we're going to win this championship, it starts with the defensive line.' " And Kalu, who had never been in a playoff game before, said he was so pumped up he could hardly wait to take the field.
"I had trouble calming myself down," Kalu said. "I just wanted to go out there and take somebody's head off. After the first hit of the game, I kind of got settled down."
The Redskins blitzed with fury and precision, exploiting a rickety Lions offensive line and making Frerotte pay for his indecision.
"If you can hit the quarterback early, it's big," Turner said. "If we can get Gus to go from his first to his second to his third read, then the pressure takes its toll."
Turner knows Frerotte well, having groomed the seventh-round draft pick into a Pro Bowler in the 1996 season.
On one series in the third quarter, Frerotte was sacked three times--first by defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson, then Kalu and then safety Sam Shade. Frerotte threw incompletions the other two times he touched the ball on the possession, which started on the Washington 45 and ended up, six plays and two penalties later, on the Detroit 44.
The defense allowed only one touchdown--a five-yard strike to Ron Rivers as the game clock expired. Detroit's only other score came on a special teams gaffe. Redskins place kicker Brett Conway had a 31-yard field goal attempt blocked, and safety Ron Rice ran it back 94 yards for a score.
The defense's contribution was especially significant given the precarious hold that defensive coordinator Mike Nolan has on his job. Although Redskins owner Daniel M. Snyder has said Turner will be back for a seventh season, he has been silent on the status of both Nolan and special teams coach LeCharls McDaniel.
Team officials have indicated that Nolan's future with the team will be determined by how well the defense performs in the postseason. Turner declined to comment on Nolan's status after the game, calling both the question and the timing "inappropriate." But he praised the unit's steady progress since the midpoint of the season and said it was the best performance the defense had turned in all season.
Nolan said the defense's success boiled down to players making plays.
"The players did an extremely good job," Nolan said. "They got on a roll, and also Detroit had some guys nicked up on their line. That didn't help them any. That's enough--when you've got injuries on your line."
Frerotte completed 21 of 46 passes for 251 yards, with one touchdown and two interceptions. Several of the balls that weren't caught were tipped or knocked down; others were thrown behind the receiver. Frerotte got little help from his offensive line. He also proved less elusive than Redskins quarterback Brad Johnson, seeming to stall in the pocket, proving a relatively easy target for on-rushing defenders.
"The sacks were big," said Shade. "I think he was looking--and looking a little bit later in the game to get the ball out of there a little quicker."
Added Wilkinson, who, like Shade, was playing in his first playoff game: "There is no tomorrow unless we make it a tomorrow. We prepared for the game like it was our last game."