Two Virginia state troopers led the Washington Redskins' caravan through Ashburn last night, escorting three busloads of players and staff to a suburban high school for a clandestine practice. With a security presence straight out of a Tom Clancy novel surrounding the field, Coach Joe Gibbs put the team through a vigorous 80-minute workout, then met with a small group of invited media, announcing that veteran quarterback Mark Brunell and incumbent Patrick Ramsey would alternate starting each of the first four preseason games, with Brunell taking the opening snap on Monday night against Denver.

Last night's practice was the closest semblance to game conditions since training camp opened on Saturday, and Brunell and Ramsey both took snaps with the first team. The pace was intense, the players were by far the most physical they have been thus far and the sessions provided the best tuneup so far for the Hall of Fame Game, which will be played on Monday night in Canton, Ohio.

Gibbs was fond of holding closed evening practices during his first tenure with Washington from 1981 to 1992, getting his team acclimated to playing under the lights and putting them in a more distraction-free environment, and this practice at Potomac Falls High School will be followed by another night session on Friday night at an undisclosed location.

"I think it's a change of pace," Gibbs said. "I do like having a little work under the lights, which isn't bad, and I think more than anything it gives us a long break during the day for some rest."

The Redskins, who did not make players available to comment after practice, held three veterans out of training as a precaution, Gibbs said. Wide receiver Laveranues Coles, who is nursing a lingering toe problem; linebacker Mike Barrow, a key offseason signing; and guard Randy Thomas were rested.

"You do that from time to time with veteran players," director of sports medicine Bubba Tyer said. Wide receiver Taylor Jacobs (abdominal strain), defensive lineman Phillip Daniels (abdominal pull), tackle Kenyatta Jones (sprained ankle), tackle Brandon Winey (ankle sprain) and linebacker Chris Clemons (ankle sprain) were out and are considered day-to-day, while fullback Mike Sellers (ankle sprain) returned to practice.

Gibbs, known for his attention to detail, took every precaution transporting his team from their training complex to the high school. The platoon of state troopers, which included a sport-utility vehicle as well as the motorcycle officers, also led the team back to Redskins Park after practice. Security personnel were stationed around the field at Potomac Falls, looking for anyone suspicious or lacking proper credentials (team security is also vigilantly checking any fans coming to Redskins Park for the open training sessions). The various guards were in constant contact -- "Should we send someone out to check the guys in the Honda in the front parking lot?" one guard said to another over his walkie-talkie 30 minutes before practice -- and only about 13 members of the media were invited to attend (a select group of corporate VIPs also gained clearance).

A mild sense of panic tore through the Redskins organization yesterday when Comcast Sports{lt}HH{gt}Net aired the location of the secure practice during a broadcast, with those allowed to attend sworn to secrecy and a fear that a swarm of fans might show up. Gibbs takes the safety of his players and the secrecy of his playbook very seriously. He wants to surprise the rest of the league after 11 years away from coaching and is all but certain to close the final three weeks of training camp to the public and the media as he implements key aspects of the playbook. Cleaning personnel at Redskins Park do not have access to certain meeting rooms and even parts of minicamp were closed.

"Coach Gibbs has always been that way," Tyer, a fixture on Gibbs's old staff, said during a recent interview. "If practice was closed and somebody had a guest come out and watch he would go right over and ask, 'Who is that?' And you'd have to say, 'Coach, this is so and so,' and he'd say, 'Let them watch a few minutes, then I want them out of here.' That's not any different."

Gibbs was supremely focused on football last night. Washington spent much more time in 11-on-11 drills than it had up to this point and worked extensively on the red-zone offense.

There were ample big hits, a few shoves after the whistle -- safety Matt Bowen and tight end Robert Royal exchanged barbs and pushes after one play -- and things were particularly aggressive toward the end of practice when Gibbs worked his "jumbo packages" on the goal line.

Ramsey and running back Chad Morton celebrated after touchdown plays, the offense taunted the defense a bit after crossing the goal line on successive plays and the entire team crowded around the last play of practice to check the spot on a close call near the end zone, with Gibbs loudly politicking the officials to signal a touchdown.

"That was good to go there," Gibbs said of the intensity of practice. "That was the first time full go, so they were all fired up. I told them [Monday] night and they've probably been thinking about it for a little while."