There were several occasions on crucial drives last Sunday in St. Louis when even the most ardent Redskins fan may not have recognized the defensive line. At times, Washington used only one starter, yet a trio of younger players were able to maintain a solid level of play while some veterans enjoyed a break and worked back to full health.
The coaches anticipate they will have to rely on more of the same tomorrow in Arizona, with Ryan Boschetti, Demetric Evans and Aki Jones -- last weekend's backup defensive linemen -- getting more assistance from other reserves.
Washington has been without at least one of its top defensive linemen for much of the season. While starting tackle Joe Salave'a has not been ruled out, he is likely to miss a second straight game with a foot condition. Cornelius Griffin, the other starting tackle, is still recovering after missing four games with an injured hip flexor.
Despite the injuries, the Redskins have restored some of their defensive luster in recent weeks. The pass rush has been effective again since Griffin returned, registering six sacks the last two games. Washington's run defense -- the envy of the NFL last season -- has approached last season's standard over the last five games.
"We had some young guys out there playing on Sunday, mostly out of necessity and partially out of it's that time of the year where they have to stand up and be accountable, and they have to help us get through ballgames," said defensive coordinator Greg Blache. "They have to help us in the rotation, and I think it will be a big factor again this week in Arizona."
Blache, who oversees the defensive line, is a proponent of rotating reserves, and during some drives Sunday he used Boschetti, 24, in his second season, Evans, 26, in his fourth season, and Jones, 23, a rookie, together, with end Renaldo Wynn the only regular lineman on the field with them. Third-year tackle Cedric Killings, 27, was ready to replace Salave'a before suffering a groin injury in practice last week; he did not play Sunday and is questionable for this game. End Nic Clemons, 24, dressed in St, Louis and, although he did not play, Blache expects he could be more involved this weekend.
The Cardinals have one of the NFL's most dangerous passing attacks, and their two dynamic wide receivers, combined with the league's weakest rushing game, has Washington's defense bracing for an onslaught of downfield passing attempts. Blache said getting to quarterback Kurt Warner and disrupting his rhythm will be imperative for all of the linemen.
"Nic is going to have to step up and help us some in the pass rush because this is the number one passing team in the league, and we have to put some pressure on this guy," Blache said.
Blache is rarely satisfied with his players, but even he cannot nitpick much with the rushing defense. The Redskins have allowed just 3.3 yards per carry over the last five games -- last season they led the NFL by allowing 3.1 yards -- and held four of those opponents to 61 yards or less. "Physically, we're stouter at the point of attack then we were at any time last year," said Gregg Williams, assistant head coach-defense. "We've just had a few runs that popped."
The only blemishes were two long, late touchdown runs by San Diego running back LaDainian Tomlinson two weeks ago, which resulted in a 23-17 overtime defeat. On the other 122 rushes against Washington in the last five games, opponents are averaging 2.7 yards per carry, a remarkable figure, especially with Griffin out for much of that stretch.
"I missed those three or four weeks and watched the other guys play and I enjoyed it," Griffin said. "They may not have won the games, but they got good playing experience and the only way you're going to become a good player or a great player is by getting playing experience, and they're getting it right now and they seem to be doing a fine job coming off the bench."
Griffin believes he is getting close to being fully back. His presence creates problems for offenses, and he has been by far the most effective player in Washington's front seven since signing with the team before the 2004 season.
"We know we don't have to cover long in the backfield with him out there," rookie cornerback Carlos Rogers said. Griffin is striving to get more penetration this Sunday against the Cardinals.
"The power part and fighting a blocker off, that's what I'm working on," Griffin said. "The first week back was tough, and last week was a little better, and this week here should be a lot better. I think this week here will get me over the top."
Others are just hoping to prove their worth in the NFL. Boschetti performed well Sunday in his second NFL start -- and first in a year -- and he could play a lot tomorrow as well with Salave'a unable to practice because of his foot. The competition among the reserves such as Jones, Boschetti, and Clemons is intense during practice, and they know they must gain Blache's confidence there first before entertaining any thoughts of doing so against opposing teams.
"I think I did a good job of doing my job," Boschetti said. "Hopefully, it's enough to keep me in there, or at least let him know, 'Hey, if you need somebody coming off the bench -- you know, if Joe comes back -- I'm ready. If Griff goes out, I'm ready.' Last year I played a little end when guys went down, too. It's just wherever coach needs me, he let's me know where I'm going to be, and I do my job."