The Washington Redskins' defense is like a three-day-old doughnut, tough all around except for the big hole in the middle.
That void, caused by the loss of free agent Antonio Pierce to the New York Giants, is problematic because the middle linebacker is the quarterback of the defense in Gregg Williams' scheme.
"It will definitely be tough to replace A.P.," linebacker Marcus Washington said of Pierce, who topped the Redskins' third-ranked defense with 160 tackles last year. "He was a heck of a leader. Everyone knows that Coach Williams' defense isn't the easiest in the NFL. As the middle linebacker, not only do you have to get yourself lined up, but you have to get the defensive linemen lined up. Sometimes they don't want to cooperate, so you have to go over and slap them on the bottom. And sometimes [safety] Sean Taylor doesn't really want to get in the huddle. A.P. would have to yell at him."
Of course, as Williams likes to note, at this time last year, Pierce was a backup outside linebacker with no experience in the middle. So the Redskins may yet find a standout among the staggering eight candidates attempting to replace Pierce.
One of those eight, ex-St. Louis and Carolina weak-side backup Brian Allen, summed up the situation the best when he said, "I'm an average player looking for an opportunity to be great."
The old -- Mike Barrow has started 10 years in the middle and led his team in tackles in six seasons, including 2003. But Barrow injured a knee on the eve of training camp last year and missed the season. He didn't pass the team physical until Friday and was held out of minicamp as a precaution. Still, the 35-year-old Barrow, who a month ago seemed sure to be cut in order to save his $1.74million salary against the cap, is perhaps the leader in the scrum in the middle.
"Mike's one of the smartest football players I've ever coached," said Williams, Barrow's position coach in Houston from 1994 to 1996. "He's very athletic. If Mike can play, we'll be fine."
Barrow, who traveled to Canada and Arizona to try to solve the mystery of his ailing knee, finally found the cure last month via a diagnostic ultrasound exam, which revealed scar tissue that hadn't shown up on MRIs. Once that was cleaned up, Barrow was on the way back.
"I'm running, planting and cutting freely," Barrow said with a smile. "I feel great. I'm in the best shape I've ever been in because I changed my diet and my workout program. Before I hurt my knee, I was one of the best middle linebackers in the league, and I'm fresher because I haven't been hit for so long. Thirty-five is just a number."
The out of position -- Allen, Lemar Marshall, Warrick Holdman and Khary Campbell all have at least three years of NFL experience, but they have just one start in the middle among them. Linebackers coach Dale Lindsey considers Marshall a starter because he was one for most of 2004 in place of injured weak-side linebacker LaVar Arrington. With Arrington still sidelined, Marshall spent the entire offseason outside until moving into the middle this weekend.
"We put off moving Lemar because he was doing so well at the weak side," Lindsey said. "He did quite well [inside]. He showed good leadership. He knows the system. He fits the position pretty well."
The 232-pound Marshall worked on adding muscle and reducing his body fat this offseason in anticipation of switching inside.
"Now it's just a matter of getting a feel for it when we get the pads on in training camp," Marshall said. "And then when game time comes, things happen so much faster."
Especially in the middle of Williams' defense.
"It has been eye-opening for those guys taking snaps at middle linebacker how much of a mental burden the position is," Williams said. "In game conditions ... can you slow your heartbeat down, can you slow your mind down and still make the right decision?"
cThe inexperienced -- Although he was an All-Big East performer at Syracuse, Clifton Smith wasn't taken in the 2004 draft and had to fight just to make the practice squad as a rookie. Last summer, Smith had a shot to make the team until he tore a triceps in the last preseason game. He spent the year on injured reserve and fell behind Brandon Barnes, who got into 12 games as a rookie in 2004, mostly on special teams.
But Smith has progressed so quickly this offseason that he was one of just two players singled out by coach Joe Gibbs in yesterday's press conference that wrapped up the offseason.
"Physically, Clif's so much better than he was," Lindsey said. "And mentally, he has done extremely well. Clif was in all the meetings last year, and he was here working this offseason even when we weren't. He just has to show us that he can stay healthy."
Rookie Robert McCune, a fifth-round pick, has wowed the coaches with his sculpted physique and quick mind. However, McCune has had to learn only a couple of the 18 packages in Williams' complicated scheme and will have to earn a roster spot on special teams.