Redskins coach Mike Shanahan didn't exactly break into a full-fledged grin when quarterback Sam Bradford picked himself up off the turf for the seventh time in Washington's 17-10 win at St. Louis on Sunday. But it's exactly the kind of performance he's been waiting for.
"Defensively, I think we played our best football game since I've been here," Shanahan said. "I thought our run support was excellent, and the pass defense was excellent. We kept them off-balance with our third down situations, and we got after the quarterback."
When Shanahan became the coach last season, he implemented a 3-4 defense despite having personnel that was better suited to the 4-3 scheme that the team had been running before his arrival. But with a few offseason personnel changes and the arrival of defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, Shanahan's vision is finally taking shape.
"I think we helped ourselves in free agency. We helped ourselves in the draft," Shanahan said. "Going into your second year, you get better as a staff, you get better as a team. You know the type of guys that fit into your system."
The defensive improvements are a welcome change to 14-year veteran linebacker London Fletcher.
"If you don't have the right people to play a certain scheme, it doesn't matter," Fletcher said. "You're not going to be successful playing that scheme. They've gone out and added pieces to the puzzle that are a better fit, and you can see the results on the football field."
The addition of rookie Ryan Kerrigan along with Brian Orakpo, Fletcher believes, puts the Redskins in great position for the future.
"It's definitely exciting to have two young bookend defensive ends, outside linebackers," Fletcher said. "They both are relentless at rushing the passer, and they are just scratching the surface as far as potential goes. They're going to play even better.
"You have guys who buy into what you're doing. You have guys who are professionals, who go out and work hard on the practice field, who go out and play hard on Sunday and who enjoy coming to work. It makes a difference."
Orakpo believes the team is already exceeding expectations.
"You can see a significant difference. The guys are doing a good job," said Orakpo, who was drafted in 2009. "I don't feel as much pressure with Kerrigan on the other side. It's so much easier to let loose and get after the quarterback when I have a guy like Kerrigan."
With a 3-1 record heading into the bye week, Orakpo is glad the defense is getting it right early on.
"It's good we're doing it early. We're doing it in Week 3, Week 4, so we can only get better," Orakpo said. "Our plan has been to go for the ball, and not worry about the sack."
Orapko's performance against the Rams earned him NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors. Orakpo had five tackles, 2 1/2 sacks, and a forced fumble.
"We were able to get a lot of pressure on the quarterback," Kerrigan said. "I think what we did was stop the run early and force them to pass the ball more. That just allowed us to pin our ears back and rush the passer."
Kerrigan is off to a blazing start in his NFL career, earning Defensive Rookie of the Month honors in September.
He has 12 solo tackles, six assists, and 2 1/2 sacks in the first four games.
"I think we've been doing a real good job," said nose tackle Chris Neild. "We're really trying to collapse the pocket, whether that means our regular base defense or nickel, it's something I think we've been doing a pretty good job of."
Defensive end Stephen Bowen believes the team's success will continue, as long as they can keep the opposing quarterback off-balance.
"We were just able to confuse them with some of our stunts and they weren't passing things off, so we were able to get penetration," Bowen said. "It worked."
NOTES: The Redskins on Wednesday released defensive back Brandyn Thompson to open a roster spot for the reinstatement of cornerback Phillip Buchanon, whose four-game suspension ended.
• Rookie Niles Paul said on Twitter he was fined $20,000 by the NFL for his helmet-to-helmet hit on Rams punt returner Austin Pettis.
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