The Washington Redskins extended their defensive resurgence from the second half of the regular season into the first round of the NFC playoffs. That was good for the job security of defensive coordinator Mike Nolan as well as for the team's prospects for beating the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the conference semifinals on Saturday.
Nolan has done his best all season to keep the focus off him, and he and others at Redskin Park stuck to that yesterday in the aftermath of Saturday's 27-13 win over the Detroit Lions at FedEx Field. The Lions didn't score until the final 9 1/2 minutes, and their first offensive points came in the final seconds.
"All that matters is winning," Nolan said. "If we keep winning, I'm happy."
The Redskins finished the regular season with the NFL's 30th-ranked defense. But they played better in the second half of the season, and shut down Detroit's weak offense on Saturday. Linebacker Greg Jones sacked Lions quarterback Gus Frerotte on the game's first play from scrimmage, leaving Frerotte with a dislocated left pinkie. The Redskins continued to harass Frerotte all day, finishing with five sacks and two interceptions.
"You want to do that any time with any quarterback," Jones said yesterday. "Gus is not the most mobile quarterback in the world. We knew where he'd be. . . . There are a lot of teams with defenses ranked ahead of us that aren't playing right now. We're playing well. There was a lot that was said about us earlier this season. All that's in the past. We're still playing, and that's what counts."
The Buccaneers present a challenge because of the bullish running of Pro Bowl fullback Mike Alstott. But halfback Warrick Dunn had a disappointing season, averaging only 3.2 yards per carry, and Tampa Bay had to simplify its passing game a bit when it went to rookie quarterback Shaun King. The Redskins figure they will see King, not Trent Dilfer, on Saturday, but they can't be certain.
"It's a different style," Nolan said. "It's not finesse. It's a straight-ahead, smash-mouth style."
Said Coach Norv Turner: "We've got to do a great job playing the run, and then the pressure goes on the quarterback."
Entering the playoffs, team sources said Redskins officials were leaning toward retaining Nolan for next season, barring a postseason collapse by the defense. The defense helped Nolan's case Saturday. But what he and his players wanted to talk about yesterday was the unit's improved play, not Nolan's job status.
Said Jones: "I don't know if we're doing anything too different. We haven't drastically changed anything. We're not blitzing more [but] when we're blitzing, we're getting there. I think when the defense changed was after seven losses last year. That's when we emphasized running to the ball. We changed our philosophy."
Jones participated in only eight plays against Detroit after missing the regular season finale because of a sore back. But he said his inactivity resulted from the Lions using three- and four-wide-receiver formations. . . .
Tight end Stephen Alexander was poked in the eye Saturday, but trainer Bubba Tyer said Alexander should be fine for the Tampa Bay game. Reserve fullback-tight end Mike Sellers sprained the AC joint in his left shoulder, and Tyer said backup cornerback Tim Denton has a bruised shoulder. . . .
Detroit's first touchdown came on a 94-yard return by Ron Rice off a deflected field goal attempt. The blocking breakdown, Turner said, came in part because center Cory Raymer was forced to play tight end on the field goal unit due to injuries.
"Unfortunately, Cory just doesn't have the reps," Turner said. "He should have handled it better than he did, but he just didn't."