Each time star St. Louis wideout Torry Holt turned Washington Redskins cornerback Fred Smoot into a pretzel during last week's 28-3 road drubbing by the Rams, the absence of former Redskins cornerback Champ Bailey loomed. Every possession that Washington's defensive backs appeared to be moving in slow motion against St. Louis's receivers, the question lingered about whether cornerback Shawn Springs, acquired in the offseason to replace Bailey, can help make up for his predecessor.
The Rams' high-powered offense, with its fast and skilled players, is a challenge for even the sturdiest defense, especially on the artificial turf at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis. But in its first true challenge of the preseason, Washington's secondary, anchored by Smoot and Springs, looked like Swiss cheese as the Rams carved out 289 passing yards.
With one final tuneup -- tomorrow against the Atlanta Falcons at FedEx Field -- before the Sept. 12 regular season opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Redskins contend that last week's debacle isn't a true gauge of life after Bailey.
"That's just BS if you really want to know. Excuse my French," Smoot said, adding that the Redskins played only a basic defense without any of the wrinkles that will be employed during the regular season. "We were real vanilla while they were real uptight about the butt whipping they had taken the week before that and didn't put up a point. They were bringing out their midseason plays. I can't wait to see them in the playoffs."
Defensive backs coach DeWayne Walker said: "I think it was a game that we needed to experience."
The Rams, coming off a Monday night trouncing by the Kansas City Chiefs, opened up much of their playbook against Washington's conservative schemes, which were mostly zones. Gregg Williams, the Redskins assistant head coach-defense, inserted several untested defensive backs on the first unit to help evaluate them before final cuts. The defensive line, playing mostly with reserves, didn't generate a pass rush, leaving the cornerbacks especially vulnerable. An underlying issue the secondary faces this season is how Washington's cornerbacks adjust to the NFL's enforcement of the rule barring cornerbacks from making contact with a wide receiver five yards past the line of scrimmage. Cornerbacks such as Springs, known for his aggressiveness, seem to be at more of a disadvantage, but the Redskins coaches don't want their players to overreact to the change.
"These guys have to be aware of it and understand it," Walker said, "but you still have to allow those guys to play. You don't want them to start getting timid and start backing off and not playing their style."
During the offseason, Bailey was traded to the Denver Broncos for all-pro running back Clinton Portis . Bailey, a perennial Pro Bowler, was regularly assigned the top wide receiver during his years in Washington and was considered perhaps the NFL's premier cornerback because of his ability to shut down his man.
On the first day of free agency, March 3, Springs, a Silver Spring native, was signed to a six-year, $30 million contract that included a $10 million bonus.
Smoot and Springs have been solid but unspectacular during training camp, although Smoot in particular struggled against the Rams. Smoot said he has used training camp to improve his technique and learn to play with Springs, his new partner.
"We're just left and a right shoe," Smoot said. "To take steps, you need the left and the right. One foot can't do it. We're learning what each other likes to do."
Springs said: "I think people are going to be surprised. We're going to be much better than people think."
Williams, who is known for using multiple cornerbacks in his defensive schemes, doesn't believe in designating a top cornerback. Instead, Williams will generally place Smoot on the left side and Springs on the right side while occasionally basing their matchups against opposing receivers on physical attributes. In third-down passing situations, Springs switches to nickel back and Walt Harris plays right cornerback.
Williams believes that a defense can have an advantage if the offense doesn't know ahead of time which cornerback will face its top wide receiver. "I don't want you to know when we're going to play matchups," Williams said.
Smoot and Springs echoed Williams that Washington's secondary doesn't distinguish between which cornerback is number one and which is number two. But when pressed, each player indicated that he considers himself the top dog.
"You know Fred Smoot is going to tell you me," Smoot responded, smiling. "I've waited out my time. I've put the time in and the work in."
Smoot had played in Bailey's shadows since being selected in the second round of the 2001 draft. Smoot, who has taken more of a leadership role this year, must adjust to playing more zone defenses instead of the one-on-one coverage he is used to.
"During the course of the season if one of those guys emerge as being a shut-down type guy," Walker said, "then maybe we'll consider that."
Early in his career, Springs earned a status in Seattle similar to that of Bailey in Washington. The former Seahawks defender made the Pro Bowl in his second NFL season after a career-high seven interceptions. Over the past three seasons, however, Springs has missed nine games because of injuries, including four early last season.
"The only knock people can say on me," Springs said, "is he's been hurt for missing games."
Since missing Gibbs's first minicamp in March with a bone bruise, Springs has been one of the sturdiest Redskins on an injury-filled team. Springs notes that that he started every game for the Seahawks from 1998 to 2000.
Regardless of Williams's outlook on cornerbacks, Springs said that defenses will determine the No. 1 cornerback, by staying away from that player.
"It's not a touchy subject: You'll find out who the number one cornerback is when you see how many balls you get thrown at you," said Springs, laughing heartily. "I can't come out and say I'm the number one cornerback. The teams will let you know who the number one cornerback is."