Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor returned to practice yesterday and his status was upgraded to probable for Sunday's game against the Oakland Raiders, which could give a struggling pass defense a much-needed boost. Tackle Cornelius Griffin, the team's best defensive lineman, did not return and could miss his third straight game.
The Redskins' ability to rush the passer and prevent long passes has fallen off in recent weeks, and the Raiders have a potent deep attack with wide receivers Randy Moss and Jerry Porter and quarterback Kerry Collins. Generating pressure on the passer and negating downfield plays could be important, and Griffin and Taylor have a playmaking ability that has been lacking in Washington's defense much of this season.
If Griffin, who has a hip injury, does not practice today, then he most likely will not play, said Gregg Williams, assistant head coach-defense.
Taylor, the fifth overall pick of the 2004 draft, has earned a reputation as a tenacious hitter, and the Tampa Bay passing game thrived in his absence last week. Taylor had never missed a game because of injury in his pro, college or high school career, but an ankle problem has bothered him for several weeks, and he began wearing a walking cast on his right foot last week. That cast was off Wednesday, when he participated in some individual drills, and yesterday he practiced for the first time in about 10 days.
"He practiced very well today," Williams said. "He's anxious to get back out there and play. He doesn't like missing practices, but this was something we had to do to try to get him over the hill."
Last week, veteran Pierson Prioleau played in Taylor's spot, and he and cornerback Shawn Springs were deep in conversation after several key plays, including Ike Hilliard's game-tying touchdown in Tampa Bay's 36-35 win. Taylor began starting at free safety after just two games with the Redskins, and although he occasionally sacrifices position as he attempts to pound opponents, he is speedy and has the instincts to recover from his mistakes and those of others, aspects of particular importance against Oakland.
"They present a big challenge size-wise and speed-wise, especially mentally, knowing that even if you have the guy covered you still have to make a play on the ball," said starting strong safety Ryan Clark. "So it's going to be a good challenge for us, especially right now. As competitors, as men, your pride is being challenged every week. Even when someone breaks a long run, it comes down to the defensive backs, and on a long pass it's obvious. So we need to step up and make some plays, and those two guys [Moss and Porter] are not really the guys you want to be guarding against when you're trying to fix problems."
Taylor has not made as many big plays as last season -- a trend for the entire defense -- but that is also because quarterbacks are challenging him less.
"His presence, even when you do complete a ball in his area, he tries to take your head off," Williams said. "Good safeties play it in a legal, aggressive way. We hope that he's healthy now and ready to play that way again."
Griffin, who tied for the team lead with six sacks last season and helped lead the Redskins to the NFL's best run defense in terms of yards per carry, is working with trainers to get back, and was able to do more yesterday, Williams said. He is trying to overcome significant discomfort in the hip and regain full flexibility.
Griffin, who is listed as questionable for Sunday's game, has spent time with an elastic band around his waist with a trainer at the other end of the hall, walking backwards and shifting from side to side. He injured the hip in a victory Oct. 23 over San Francisco, and wanted badly to play against his former team, the New York Giants, the following week, but was forced out of the game after two plays and has not returned since, missing the last two games. His presence on the interior draws significant attention and makes others better. He excels stopping the run and getting into the backfield.
"That's a guy who can make a play at any given time, whether it's causing a fumble, getting a sack or a tackle for a loss, Griff is that kind of player," said defensive lineman Demetric Evans. "He's so disruptive, and when you have a guy like that that's not here, it kind of takes away something from your defense."
Evans, a natural end, has been filling in for Griffin quite well, although he still is getting acquainted with the position. It is a major transition, but already Evans has helped the run defense. "For him not to have played defensive tackle, he's done an excellent job," defensive end Renaldo Wynn said. "Against the run, he's been very stout in there. You could see they definitely tried to run the ball early last week, and he did a good job stopping that."
The change of position has required adjustments throughout the week for Evans.
"It's a big change from end to tackle," Evans said. "It's definitely a physical change; you're a lot more sore and it's a lot more physical, but hopefully we'll continue to get Griff healthy and do as well as we can on the field until then."