Marvin Lewis didn't rant and rave when his Washington Redskins' defense struggled early in the season. And he isn't accepting congratulations now that the unit is coming off a string of mostly solid performances, helping the Redskins to even their record at the season's halfway point. The defensive coordinator's refrain, in fact, sounds a lot now like it did then.

"We're making some strides," Lewis said, refusing to get carried away with the defense's showing in Seattle on Sunday, when the Redskins surrendered only three points in an 11-point victory that left them with two straight wins. "We're not there yet."

When the defense's performances early on ranged from ordinary to less than ordinary, the struggles weren't blamed on LaVar Arrington, Champ Bailey or Bruce Smith. They were blamed on Lewis. The players said they were having a hard time getting comfortable with Lewis's complex, exacting system and still weren't quite sure where they needed to be at all times. Lewis called such explanations "a cop-out."

He still does. But he said those comments don't matter. His players have endured similar growing pains every season, he said, and he knew that it would be the same this year.

"You can't worry about what's said," Lewis said. "The process is no different than what I expected. I said, 'You need to have adversity. Are you going to take the bull by the horns, or back off?' We're learning from it. That's the fun of it. That's the fun of Sunday afternoons. . . . You go through this process every year. You get to a point in the season when [the players] realize, 'Doing my job and being accountable to my teammates is the most important thing.' We're making some inroads, but we need to keep going."

The Redskins are 10th in the league in total defense. Since giving up 252 rushing yards in a loss at San Francisco in their third game, they have held four of their last five opponents to less than 90 rushing yards. They have limited three of those five opponents to less than 290 total yards. "We've come a long way," Arrington said.

Said defensive tackle Daryl Gardener: "When we're all playing the way we're supposed to be playing, watch out. . . . We're still coming together. When we come together, everybody is going to want to be on our bandwagon."

Arrington has seven sacks even though the linebacker was frustrated early as he tried to adjust to his new role in Lewis's defense, which includes increased pass-rushing duties. Smith had two key sacks this past Sunday after managing only one sack in the season's first seven games.

"We're getting there," Smith said, adding that he now believes former Redskins coach Marty Schottenheimer's assertion from a year ago that it takes about five games to get comfortable with a new system. "We're certainly starting to get there. We're starting to learn one another. . . . We've finished in the top 10 [in the NFL's total-defense rankings] the last two years. I think we've got the makings of possibly being better than that, but only time will tell. . . . It's been an obstacle course, there's no question about that."

Lewis didn't panic when things weren't going well. He is the Redskins' fourth defensive coordinator in four seasons, but he didn't accept the learning-curve excuse. He basically kept the same players in place and insisted that they play better. He has made only one lineup change, replacing Sam Shade as the starting strong safety with Ifeanyi Ohalete. He isn't a daily screamer, but he is demanding.

"He's got a lot of information you've got to digest," said Smith, who listed Lewis with New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinators Ray Rhodes of Denver and Ted Cottrell of the New York Jets as the league's best defensive coaches. "For those that spend their time studying that and studying their opponents, that's twice the job. . . . It's a complicated scheme. But once you learn it, it can prove to pay off big dividends."

Lewis's players must be precise, and he remains impatient about getting them to do things right.

"We did a good job in some areas in this game, but we need to get better," Lewis said. "I think we're a long ways away. We're still progressing [but] we're not progressing as quickly as I'd like. . . . You're very satisfied to win. It's tough to win games in the NFL. I'm pleased that we've won the last two football games. But we've got some areas that we've got to get better in. . . . We need to play better. I'm anxious for Sunday to come to see if we can."

The stakes always are high in the NFL, but they seem particularly high for this defense this season. Steve Spurrier isn't the only well-paid, highly scrutinized coach at Redskins Park. When the Redskins lured Lewis from the Baltimore Ravens last offseason and made him the league's highest-paid assistant coach, then signed a string of free agent players to bolster his defense, they expected him and his unit to do the heavy lifting while Spurrier and his offense felt their way through his NFL adjustment.

Lewis nearly was hired as Tampa Bay's head coach last offseason, and could be a top head-coaching candidate in Atlanta or somewhere else next offseason. Cornerback Darrell Green is in his final NFL season, and Smith plans to retire after next season at the latest. Linebacker Jessie Armstead is in his 10th NFL season.

"We've collected a group of guys cast off from other places for various reasons, and we're saying they're going to lead the NFL in defense," Lewis said. "The standard is high. . . . The window of opportunity for us is now. We have guys coming to the ends of their careers, and we have to do it this year."

Can this group become a championship-caliber defense this season?

"We have to," Lewis said. "We have no choice. We're going to push toward that."

The Redskins' 10th-ranked defense can get a lot better, say defensive tackle Daryl Gardener, rear, and defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis.