- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 14, 1999

This was supposed to be the year the Washington Redskins finally had a playoff-worthy defense.

Champ Bailey had been drafted in the first round to fill a hole at left cornerback. Marco Coleman had been signed from San Diego and Sam Shade from Cincinnati to shore up the right end and strong safety spots, respectively. Young outside linebackers Greg Jones and Shawn Barber had been promoted to make the defense faster while Derek Smith and Leomont Evans had been moved to their respective “natural” positions of middle linebacker and free safety.

The plan worked wonderfully in preseason as the first-string defense allowed just six points in seven quarters. And more than three quarters into the season opener against Dallas, the defense had allowed just 14 points. But when the roof caved in the Cowboys scored 27 points during the final 13 minutes to pull out the overtime victory the house remained flooded for two months.

Through nine weeks, Washington’s defense gave up an average of 27 points. The Redskins were 5-4 and on the verge of a third collapse in the past four years after a hot start.

“It was a sickening feeling the way we were playing defense, especially with the amount of talent we have,” said left tackle Dan Wilkinson, one of five first-round picks who start on the defense.

But in the past four games, the defense has cut its average points allowed in half to just 13. Not coincidentally, Washington won three of those four games and regained control of the NFC East lead at 8-5, following Sunday’s 28-3 pounding of Arizona.

“We’re getting into a little bit of a groove which we felt we might have been getting close to in preseason,” said defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, who has been under fire since the opener. “But obviously once the season started it got blown out of the water pretty quickly. It takes time to get that confidence level back. Guys are hustling to the ball better. Our tackling the last two weeks has been good. Success breeds success. You feel more at ease with what you’re doing because you know it works.”

While the offenses of Arizona, Philadelphia and the New York Giants wouldn’t scare some junior college defenses, Washington also held Detroit to just 19 points two games ago. After being torched for 384 yards per game during the first nine weeks, the Redskins have limited their past four foes to an average of 266. The Cardinals’ 173 yards were the fewest the Redskins had allowed in 64 games dating to Dec. 10, 1995 and second-fewest in 121 games dating to Oct. 12, 1992. Arizona also was the first Washington opponent not to score a touchdown in 19 games dating to Nov. 15, 1998.

“We’re being a lot more aggressive with our defensive play-calling and we’re playing more aggressive,” Wilkinson said.

“There have been some efforts in the blitz area,” Nolan agreed. “Any time you blitz, you’ve already made the offense think about the possibility of it. When you don’t, they can kind of sit and watch and not worry too much. When they know that you might blitz, they sit back on their heels somewhat and think, Is this the time they’re coming?’ It even helps pass coverage sometimes because they’ll keep everybody in [to block] thinking that you were going to blitz.”

The defense, which still ranks just 28th, held Detroit and Arizona to a combined 84 rushing yards while recording 10 of its 36 sacks. The insertion of the steadier Anthony Cook for the flashier Kenard Lang at left end four games ago has bolstered the run defense while the return of speedy end Ndukwe Kalu from a foot injury at the same time has been a big plus for the pass rush.

The Cardinals had just two plays of more than 14 yards and didn’t gain a first down on seven of their 12 possessions, three of which started inside Washington territory. The Lions and Cardinals converted just five of 25 third downs.

Nolan said the young linebackers have improved in part because he’s spending less time with them and assistant Jeff FitzGerald is spending more. Nolan had opted not to replace Dale Lindsey when the former linebackers coach left for Chicago in February.

“Jeff’s a very good coach,” Nolan said. “He’s got a lot of energy. He’s a great fit for those guys. They needed more attention. [And it was affecting] the whole group because I was spending [too much] time in one room.”

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