-- The Washington Redskins' defense prides itself on being interchangeable, even if an obscure player is replacing a star. In the preseason opener Saturday night, Washington's defense had another chance to live up to that reputation as injuries -- particularly to cornerbacks -- forced almost half the unit to be filled by reserves or players trying to make the team.
Against the Carolina Panthers, the defense did not appear the resilient bunch that ranked third in the league last season and No. 1 in the NFC.
What's worse, former Redskins wide receiver Rod Gardner flourished in a short stint, helping the Panthers to a 28-10 victory at Bank of America Stadium. Carolina's quarterbacks also repeatedly completed passes after scrambling to exploit Washington's undermanned secondary.
"It's the first game, but there's no excuses," said safety Ryan Clark, who last season emerged from obscurity after replacing the injured Matt Bowen to be among the team's leaders in tackles. "We've got to go out there and make plays, and we just didn't. We didn't tackle well, and tackling is the lifeblood of any defense.
"Coach [Gregg] Williams always tells us. 'I can tell if you all are ready if you tackle. But we didn't tackle well.' "
Gardner's touchdown midway through the first quarter summed up the defense's performance. The Panthers had a third and two from the Washington 21-yard line. Safety Omar Stoutmire blitzed and seemed to have quarterback Jake Delhomme within reach for a sack. But at the last moment, Delhomme unleashed a pass into the end zone that Gardner snagged after brushing against cornerback Ade Jimoh. The Redskins were hoping for an offensive interference penalty, but officials flagged Jimoh.
"That's why they call it the preseason," said cornerbacks coach DeWayne Walker. "These guys didn't get a chance to play a whole lot last year. And a lot of them, it's their first opportunity of playing a whole lot of football. I don't look at it as a negative. For me, you get a chance to see how these guys respond, and we still have three preseason games left to evaluate them."
After the Panthers led 14-3 at halftime, the Redskins tightened their defensive screws behind second- and third-stringers after switching to more of a cover 2 alignment. The adjustment helped to contain Carolina until the fourth quarter when a one-yard pass to Drew Carter pushed the lead to 21-10.
"We just missed some opportunities to make plays," said cornerback Rufus Brown, who was beaten on the play. "It's a learning experience. Next week, hopefully we'll make those plays."
Cornerbacks are critical in Williams's blitz-heavy defense because they are forced to cover top wide receivers one-on-one as extra players are sent to pressure the quarterback. But no position has been as banged up as Washington's cornerbacks. Shawn Springs missed the game as a precautionary measure because of a sore hamstring. And the Redskins put Jimoh on the first unit across Walt Harris, a nickel back last season. Harris strained his calf Saturday night to join the list of injured defensive backs.
Four of eight cornerbacks were available for practice most of the week. Rookie Carlos Rogers hasn't participated in his first training camp practice because of foot and ankle injuries. Veteran Artrell Hawkins (hamstring) and Garnell Wilds (thigh) also didn't play last night. Washington's defense had late scratches to defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin (shoulder) and defensive end Phillip Daniels (wrist). Ryan Boschetti spelled Griffin while Demetric Evans filled in for Daniels.
"You're putting guys in situations like you would put your starters," Walker said. "You would like to see the young guys respond."