- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 29, 2001

Two stars are out. Two first-time starters are in. And the Washington Redskins' defense somehow must sustain its solid play tomorrow against the Kansas City Chiefs.

Defensive tackle Jerry DeLoach is the first new starter, joining the lineup while Kenard Lang moves to left end for team captain and Pro Bowl pick Marco Coleman (dislocated elbow). Linebacker Antonio Pierce is the other, replacing talented strongside starter LaVar Arrington (sprained knee).

The defense has held so far in losses at San Diego (30-3) and Green Bay (37-0) while the offense has been the league's worst at 149 yards per game. Tomorrow the defense must perform again as quarterback Tony Banks makes his first start following Wednesday's release of Jeff George.

Defensive veterans are confident in DeLoach because of his size (6-foot-2, 315 pounds) and strength, and because he showed such dedication this offseason. An undrafted rookie and Redskins practice squad player in 2000, DeLoach was one of a handful of players to attend every offseason workout.

"This is the opportunity that Jerry's been waiting for," defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson said this week. "We're going to need him to perform, and he knows that. He's ready for it… . Once he gets over the initial game jitters, the butterflies, I think he's going to settle down and be just fine."

Lang has no problem moving back to his natural end position to accommodate DeLoach. The 6-4, 281-pound Lang succeeded at tackle after the club released Dana Stubblefield in March, but he views his return to the edge as a "homecoming."

DeLoach had a chance to be drafted perhaps even in the early rounds as a senior at California, having been ranked by the Sporting News as the nation's fifth-best defensive tackle. But a neck injury in the 1999 season's third week basically ended his year and left him undrafted.

DeLoach, 24, believes that time on Washington's practice squad allowed him to recover from the injury and adjust to the NFL at his own pace. Now he's ready to start, confident that the offseason of work has prepared him for tomorrow.

"This year I've learned a new dedication to the game," he said. "I stayed here in the offseason, worked hard, and I've seen the benefits of working hard. I think that helped out a lot."

Pierce, 22, also went undrafted, not because of injury but because he believes he didn't get enough attention at Arizona. He's been impressive since the start at Redskins training camp and has shown a maturity at which coach Marty Schottenheimer still marvels.

"Notwithstanding the fact that he's a rookie, he's one of the brightest, if not the brightest, linebacker that I've ever been around," Schottenheimer said. "In the ballgame the other day I think he had [only] one or two mental errors."

Pierce played almost three quarters in place of Arrington during the loss at Green Bay. He left Wisconsin with a better understanding of NFL-caliber talent and particular admiration for Packers running back Ahman Green.

"I just never faced a running back who kept his feet alive like that," Pierce said. "He wasn't that much more powerful than anybody I've ever faced, but his feet were moving. Even when you tackled him, he was still going [while he was] on the ground, it seemed like."

The Packers game reinforced Pierce's confidence that he can play in the NFL.

"Every week I prepare to play, and now it's just my time to get four quarters," Pierce said. "I expect to go in and do what LaVar does."

Middle linebacker Kevin Mitchell doesn't try to compare Pierce to Arrington in terms of overall impact, but Mitchell believes that Pierce "runs" with the same determination and similar swiftness. Likewise, strong safety Sam Shade is impressed with Pierce.

"The first thing I asked him after about a week and a half of training camp was, 'Man, how come you didn't get drafted?' " Shade said. "He's smart guy. For a rookie, he does a lot of good things. He's tough, intelligent. He almost seems like a second- or third-year player."

Pierce's big test will come from Chiefs tight end Tony Gonzalez. The game's top tight end won't be solely Pierce's responsibility, but the rookie will share duties with Shade and perhaps Mitchell or weakside linebacker Shawn Barber. The Redskins plan to mix man-to-man and zone coverage against Gonzalez, who has 10 catches for 124 yards this season after setting a Chiefs record with 93 receptions last season.

Shade, for his part, is coming off a game in which he was victimized several times in zone coverage. He knows he needs to improve his reads, and that overall the Redskins' defense must strengthen after two solid but incomplete performances. And he thinks that can happen despite two first-time starters.

"It's going to be tough," Shade said. "You lose a guy like Marco, a Pro Bowler. He's definitely one of our leaders… . [And] we miss that explosiveness that LaVar brings to the table. We definitely miss those guys. But it's like I told the guys on Monday night: 'The next guy has to step up and keep fighting.' "

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