- The Washington Times - Monday, December 20, 2004

Washington Redskins coaches began spreading the word Saturday night with 16 seconds left in the third quarter. The San Francisco 49ers had just gotten the ball back. Washington had to make a defensive stand, couldn’t let the 49ers budge an inch.

Or, to be more exact, 50 yards.

With Redskins coaches providing an explicit computation of the number of yards between Washington and the No. 1 defensive ranking, held by the Pittsburgh Steelers, players rallied each other to stop San Francisco.

“We were saying, no ‘YAC,’ no yards after the catch, no yards after you hit them, no missed tackles,” linebacker Lemar Marshall recalled yesterday at Redskin Park.

Alas, a bit too many of each occurred. Although the Redskins won 26-16, the defense gave up those 50 yards, then another 36 before the final whistle. Thus evaporated perhaps Washington’s best chance to seize the top ranking, a quest that in recent weeks has become a key motivator — and a surprisingly candid topic of discussion.

Last week, in fact, the Redskins’ defense laid out its and Pittsburgh’s remaining schedules to get a sense of how the battle might play out. On Saturday, players kept an eye on the Steelers-New York Giants game during pregame stretches at Monster Park. And as the final minutes of Washington’s win ticked away, the unit knew exactly where it stood with regard to No. 1.

“We’re so close right now to Pittsburgh, it’s almost painful,” nose tackle Brandon Noble lamented. “And we had it right there [Saturday] night. Unfortunately, we let it slip away with that last touchdown drive they had. But we’re close, and we’ve got two games left, and they’ve got two games left. We’ll see how it all plays out.”

With little left to play for apart from pride and offseason momentum, the Redskins’ defense has united around the goal of being the league’s best. Already having far exceeded expectations and keeping Washington competitive each week despite a struggling offense, the unit now wants to secure a statistical keepsake.

It won’t be easy. On the year, the Redskins have given up 3,655 yards, second only to Pittsburgh (3,619). The gap is down to 36 yards, a bit better than the 60-yard spread that confronted the Redskins as Saturday dawned.

But while Washington finishes with games at archrival Dallas and at home against potent Minnesota, Pittsburgh plays host to Baltimore next week before finishing up at Buffalo, which, at 3,768 yards (149 behind the Steelers), owns the only other defense with a shot at No. 1. In other words, Pittsburgh should finish with a pair of low-scoring battles.

Of course, no one expected the Giants to perform as well as they did Saturday. With rookie Eli Manning at quarterback, New York had generated just 145 yards in a blowout loss at Washington two weeks earlier. But Manning played well Saturday in a 33-30 loss, and the Giants’ 278 yards left the door open for Washington, which four times this season has held an opponent to fewer than 218 yards.

“We were aware all game of what Pittsburgh did earlier in the day,” linebacker Antonio Pierce said. “This was a game where we thought we could have caught up on them.”

In some ways it’s a bit surprising the Redskins talk so openly about a statistical goal. In the old Crash Davis school of public relations, athletes shun stats and discuss only wins and losses. Heck, even former Redskins defensive end Bruce Smith went through the facade of caring more about winning than his coveted career sack record.

But there’s a sense around Redskin Park that it’s all right to adopt ancillary motivations with the playoffs long since having faded as a realistic possibility. A team, after all, doesn’t get many shots at a goal such as this.

“It’s motivation,” linebacker LaVar Arrington said. “Why not? Why not try to be the No. 1 defense in the midst of a not-so-stellar season? I don’t think there’s a crime in it. I mean, for me, the closest I’ve ever been to No. 1 is this year. Why not try and get it while you’re here? You never know. You might not ever make it that close to being No. 1 again.”

Over the next two weeks, the Redskins will attempt to complete their quest to take control of a ranking that seemed so close with just a quarter left to play Saturday night.

“[Assistant head coach for defense Gregg Williams] shouldn’t have told us,” Marshall said with a laugh. “But it’s one of those things where it’s not going to happen in one week. We’re going to have to do it in Dallas, and against Minnesota.”

Note — Arrington reported a little swelling in his surgically repaired right knee but no significant concern after his first game in nearly three months. Said the Pro Bowl linebacker: “I’ll take a couple days, take it light, and get back to work.”

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