Fred Smoot and Shawn Springs sat facing each other in the Washington Redskins' locker room while looking over the final statistics sheets shortly after the Redskins' 17-10 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals yesterday at FedEx Field. The cornerbacks were eager to dissect Washington's worst defensive performance of the season.
Defensive backs coach Dewayne Walker stood over them as the threesome discussed how the Bengals turned Washington's normally parsimonious defense porous for long stretches of the game.
Smoot and Springs noted that Cincinnati's pass catchers produced few big plays, averaging only nine yards per catch including wideout Chad Johnson's 34-yard reception. The Bengals rushed for an average of only 2.9 yards (tailback Rudi Johnson amassed 102 yards on 31 carries).
"They didn't really hit any big play," Springs said. "All they did was throw hitches and curls and make a few third downs. But they played well enough to win."
Walker said: "They were just nickel and diming us. They just basically took what we gave them. We thought they would take more shots on us."
The Redskins dropped to 3-6 after Cincinnati's normally unspectacular offense flourished in the first half behind second-year quarterback Carson Palmer and a patient, ball-control approach. After Washington's defense limited more imposing offenses this season despite several injuries to key players, the unit -- ranked No. 1 in the NFL entering yesterday's game -- suffered its first letdown of the year.
"Every week can't be a Cinderella week," Smoot said.
After unsuccessfully throwing some downfield passes early, Cincinnati parlayed several short passes into long drives and exploited some blown coverages to go up 17-0 in the first half. Palmer, who completed passes to seven players, unleashed the ball quickly to overcome Washington's blitzes and find open receivers. And Washington's defense was kept off balance by Johnson's rushes.
The Redskins didn't perform like the NFL's best defense on third downs as Cincinnati converted 7 of 10 in the first half.
"We came out flat the first half and they jump on us 17-0," said linebacker Antonio Pierce, "and the game was [tough] from there. So far, we're not an offense that can put points on the board that quick. So it's on the defense."
Washington's defense made adjustments at halftime to shut out Cincinnati in the second half. And Palmer finished 24 for 39 for 217 yards and a 63.7 quarterback rating. The Bengals gained 226 of their 316 yards in the first half and in the final 30 minutes resembled the offense that entered the game ranked 25th. And the Redskins finished with two interceptions.
"It was too late," Pierce said.
The Redskins lost their top defensive player, tackle Cornelius Griffin, to a hip injury late in the second quarter. But Washington's defense overcame Griffin's loss and returned to its sturdy ways in the second half with Jermaine Haley filling in.
Smoot said that he didn't even notice Griffin's absence until after the game because the Redskins constantly rotate defensive linemen. "We actually played better in the second half," Smoot said. "There's something about this defense. No matter who goes down, someone is going to come in and keep playing."
Pierce said: "We've been hurt all year. The injuries are irrelevant. You can call us unheralded players but this is the NFL. If you can't play you wouldn't be in there."
The Bengals entered the game with a young quarterback (Palmer) whose quarterback rating -- 66.3 -- was even worse than the Redskins' Mark Brunell's (67.4). And Peter Warrick's season-ending injury left Cincinnati with only one true wideout threat in Chad Johnson.
The game started off auspiciously for Washington's defense when rookie safety Sean Taylor intercepted Palmer's pass on Cincinnati's first offensive play from the Bengals 26-yard line. Taylor was stride for stride with Johnson, and leaped high to snag a ball on the Washington 36-yard line that hung too long.
However, the Bengals scored on their third drive, exploiting Redskins blitzes with several short passes that brought the ball to the Washington 1-yard line for a third and goal. Rudi Johnson fought through a hard hit by linebacker Brandon Barnes near the goal line and give Cincinnati a 7-0 lead.
The Bengals used the same approach on their next drive; no pass was longer than 12 yards. The Bengals culminated a 13-play, 63-yard drive to take a 14-0 lead after a one-yard pass to tight end Tony Stewart.
Bengals Coach Marvin Lewis, Washington's defensive coordinator in 2002, seemed to take more chances because the Bengals apparently had no fear of Washington's offense. The Bengals went to the pass several times on situations that typically called for runs, especially with a second-year quarterback who didn't play last season. Lewis's apparent gambit worked as Washington's offense finished with only one touchdown and 268 net yards.
The Bengals led 17-0 with six minutes left in the third quarter on fourth and one from the Washington 48-yard line. But the Bengals didn't hesitate to go for it: Palmer threw an incomplete pass to wideout T.J. Houshmandzadeh to give Washington the ball back in prime field position. But Washington's defense didn't make enough such stops yesterday.
"We didn't execute and we didn't use good technique," Pierce said. "That's as plain as you can put it."