The Washington Redskins were just 10 minutes from absorbing their sixth straight defeat to open the 2001 season when linebacker LaVar Arrington intervened. Carolina led 14-0 at FedEx Field that October Sunday and was 28 yards from the end zone, facing third and seven, when quarterback Chris Weinke's errant pass bounced off the hands of fullback Chris Hetherington and was intercepted by Arrington, who raced 67 yards for a touchdown.
For the first time all season, the Redskins had life; they went on to win, 17-14, in overtime and finished that season with victories in eight of the final 11 contests.
The Redskins enter Sunday night's game against Baltimore at FedEx Field in a similar predicament, having suffered three straight losses and in dire need of a big play from their defense. Washington's offense is sputtering, averaging just 15 points a game -- the 2001 team amassed just 32 points during its 0-5 start -- and while the defense has kept the team in every game, it has not forced turnovers consistently or reversed the course of games with a jarring play.
Washington is 29th of 32 NFL teams in turnover differential -- it is minus-six, meaning the Redskins have turned over the ball six more times than their opponents -- and the defense has caused only one interception and two fumble recoveries. H-back Chris Cooley produced the other take-away by forcing and recovering a fumble on a kickoff against the New York Giants in Week 2.
"Three years ago, we were 0-5 at this point," linebacker Antonio Pierce said, "and there was a turnover LaVar made against Carolina that turned the whole season around. That's the type of play we're going to need to probably spark a new run for us."
The defense likely will be without three of its top playmakers again Sunday -- with Arrington, linebacker Mike Barrow and defensive end Phillip Daniels all recovering from injuries -- and is striving for better execution of the aggressive scheme employed by assistant head coach Gregg Williams. Williams, who was unavailable to comment yesterday, calls frequent blitzes and implores his players to attack the offense, rattle the quarterback, try to force fumbles and seek interceptions. While the defense is ranked No. 1 in the NFL against the run, it has failed to produce game-altering turnovers.
Only six teams have fewer take-aways than the Redskins, and three of those teams have already had their bye and thus played one fewer game. The Redskins have not produced a defensive touchdown since Arrington recovered a fumble in the end zone against Dallas in the final game of the 2002 season, a span of 20 games. There have been 99 defensive touchdowns scored in the NFL since then, and Seattle and Jacksonville are the only other teams without a defensive touchdown in that span. Six defenses scored touchdowns in Week 4, and those teams went 6-0.
"We need to create some turnovers, whatever it takes," linebacker Marcus Washington said. "Whatever we have to do to push this team to victory, we've got to do it. If that means knocking balls out and stripping every time we tackle, there's a lot of little things we can do to create some turnovers. And when we cause that fumble, we've got to recover it and get it back to our offense."
Williams has been speaking to his defense about causing turnovers since coming to Washington over the winter -- he was head coach of the Buffalo Bills the previous three seasons -- and the players work on those techniques repeatedly at practice. There are tip drills, with passes knocked in the air and caught by the defense, drills where defenders run behind a ball carrier and try to poke the ball out, exercises aimed at prying the ball loose from a tackling dummy and organized scrums where players dive and scramble for loose balls to improve their ability to recover fumbles.
But the lack of turnovers is not entirely new for Williams. Last season, the Bills had 18 take-aways, the fewest in the NFL, and the season before managed 19, again the lowest total in the NFL.
Williams's system is designed to put a team in better position to make such plays, and his players believe that will be the case in time. The approach was effective in the preseason, when rookie safety Sean Taylor, for one, was routinely picking off passes and causing fumbles, and against Tampa Bay in Week 1, the Redskins' defensive pressure resulted in two key turnovers. Safety Matt Bowen sacked quarterback Brad Johnson and caused a fumble, and tackle Jermaine Haley hit Johnson as he threw, resulting in an interception by Pierce.
"Our system puts us in a great position to make plays," Washington said. "That's not the problem at all. It's all mental. Gregg is always emphasizing turnovers during the week. We've got to keep concentrating on it and focusing on it."
"The calls are no different from what we were doing in the preseason, and against Tampa Bay," Pierce said. "It comes down to guys making plays."
The Redskins have not had a defensive back register an interception this season, despite favorable opponents. Giants quarterback Kurt Warner had thrown 12 interceptions in his nine appearances in 2002 and 2003, Dallas quarterback Vinny Testaverde threw 14 in his last full season as a starter and Cleveland passer Jeff Garcia had thrown four interceptions in three games this year before facing Washington. Yet opposing quarterbacks have attempted 85 straight passes without being picked off by the Redskins.
"We need to work on some things in the secondary," Bowen said, "and be more on the same page and play within the framework of the defense. Obviously, we need to put ourselves in better position to make plays on the ball back there and bat it up in the air -- that's when good things happen. We've had a couple of strips this season, but what we really need is the interceptions."
One turnover could be the difference between winning and losing at this point. The Redskins' three losses came by a total of 13 points, despite committing seven more turnovers than their opponents in those games, and the offense would receive a much needed boost if the defense could come up with the ball in good field position.
"Everything goes hand in hand," Arrington said. "We've got to get better at getting turnovers and we've got to get better at not giving turnovers. When you don't turn the ball over and you're in control of the game, that's usually when your defense is able to make plays that cause turnovers. When the [opposing] quarterback is pressing to make a play, he may hold the ball a little longer; when the running back is pressing a little harder to make a play, he might stay up a little longer. The positive of the whole thing is these are all areas we can get better in, and we have the capability of doing it."