The Redskins' offense was in a lose-lose situation entering Sunday's season-opener against the Giants. Rex Grossman & Co. could have shined against the injury-depleted New York defense and elicited a huge so-what?
The Giants' starting middle linebacker was third string a few days ago. Two of their best defensive linemen spent the day in street clothes. Their top defensive back went down with a season-ending knee injury in the preseason.
Under those circumstances, you'd expect Washington to crank out some yards and put up some points. If so, big deal. Conversely, failing to produce against an injury-ravaged unit wouldn't bode well for the new-look 'O' and their much-maligned QB. And they would have heard about their ineptitude all week long.
But the Redskins' defense wasn't going to be graded on a curve for Sunday's effort. There would be no points deducted for holding down an undermanned foe. Instead, coordinator Jim Haslett's troops had an unadulterated chance to make a positive impression and begin their road to redemption after last season's horrific performance.
Statement delivered. First step taken.
They pitched a shutout in the second half of Washington's 28-14 victory, yielding just one drive longer than 15 yards. Rookie Ryan Kerrigan returned an interception for a touchdown, and fellow Chris Neild contributed two sacks. Linebacker London Fletcher and cornerback Josh Wilson stuffed halfback Ahmad Bradshaw on fourth-and-1 with the Redskins clinging to a seven-point lead.
Everywhere you looked, the Redskins were making plays on defense. Some were drafted last April, like Kerrigan and Neild. Others were holdovers, like Fletcher and safety Reed Doughty, who led the team with eight tackles. Still others were free agent acquisitions, like Wilson and defensive end Stephen Bowen, who was credited with a sack and two quarterback hits.
When we last saw the Redskins' defense, it was finishing a season in which it ranked 31st out of 32 NFL teams, a sharp decline from its top-10 ranking the previous three seasons.
"We went from a 4-3 defense — and a very successful 4-3 defense — and making the transition takes awhile," Fletcher said. "Last year, some of the plays the Giants ran today would've been big plays. But this year, having the scheme under our belts and the addition of the new guys makes a big difference."
Maybe it's just that simple, where a little more familiarity, a little more talent and a little more youthful energy equals a whole lot more improvement. Maybe coach Mike Shanahan's vision of an active, ball-hawking, havoc-wreaking defense is en route to becoming a reality. One game is too early to tell for sure, but Redskins nose tackle Barry Cofield isn't waiting for additional evidence. His verdict is in.
"We're convinced of that," Cofield said, asked if his unit can rank among the best. "That's what we believe and that's what Haslett preaches. We compare ourselves to the great 3-4 defenses across the league, compare ourselves man-to-man at every position, and we don't sell ourselves short."
They certainly came up short early in the game, yielding touchdown drives of 70 and 85 yards through the Giants' first five possessions. Doughty and cornerback Kevin Barnes were burnt on a 68-yard pass from Manning to Hakeem Nicks, setting up the Giants' first score. And Manning went 4-for-4 for 58 yards on New York's other scoring drive, late in the first half.
But that pretty much concluded the Giants' highlight reel. Washington gave up just two first downs after intermission before linebacker Brian Orakpo blocked a field goal attempt with 5:04 remaining. On the previous play, Doughty tackled Bradshaw for a 2-yard loss on third-and-1.
Orakpo said aside from the newcomers, the defense is pretty much the same with "a few tweaks here and there," and they're just focused on themselves — not outsiders' impressions. He said his unit wasn't fazed when Grossman took a sack and fumbled, setting up a short field for the Giants' would-be game-tying touchdown drive.
"We were laughing when the 'O' turned the ball over," he said. "We were ready to go."
They proved it by holding the Giants to three-and-out, forcing them into the blocked field goal attempt. There would be no letdown against the team that has dominated the rivalry recently. It was a great day for the defense, but beating the Giants was the most important outcome, by any means necessary.
"It was a good test for us because they've had our number," Orakpo said.
The defense passed its test and has begun posting some (good) numbers of its own.
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