The Washington Redskins were in trouble after losing in Philadelphia on Nov. 14. Their third defeat in four weeks had dropped them to 5-4. The defense, so promising in September, was once again the NFL’s worst.
Enter defensive ends Anthony Cook and Ndukwe Kalu. After watching the Eagles run for 198 yards, defensive coordinator Mike Nolan benched 1997 first-round draft choice Kenard Lang for Cook. At the same time, Kalu was ready to return from a fractured left foot.
A month later, the impact of those changes has been stunning. Washington has won three of its past four games to remain atop the NFC East at 8-5. The defense, which had allowed 27 points a game over the first nine weeks, has given up an average of just 13 in the past four.
The Redskins, who were shredded for an average of 136 rushing yards during their 5-4 start, have surrendered an average of just 75 yards with Cook in the lineup. And after producing just seven sacks in the four weeks Kalu was out, Washington has recorded 16 in the four games since he reassumed his third-down pass-rushing role.
“Anthony and N.D. have definitely made a difference,” Nolan said. “N.D. has a tremendous amount of energy and plays with a lot of determination. He finds a way to get around the ball. Anthony has helped our run defense, no question. He’s a good run defender.”
Cook, Houston’s second choice in the 1995 draft out of South Carolina State, started 35 games for the Oilers the past four seasons. He signed with Washington on March 29 expecting to start at right end. But after he hurt a knee in the spring and struggled with the switch from the left side, the Redskins signed Marco Coleman from San Diego and put Cook, 27, behind two-year starter Lang.
“It was frustrating at the beginning because it was hard to get an opportunity,” Cook said. “[But] I work hard. I stay focused and patient. I keep the faith that everything works itself out.”
Cook got his chance because Lang, the NFC Defensive Player of the Week for his three sacks against the New York Jets on Sept. 26, went into a funk.
“Just because a guy gets in a slump for a game or two, you don’t yank him,” Nolan said. “You want to give him an opportunity to bounce back. But it went on a little long, so we made the move. I wouldn’t call Kenard a one-dimensional player, but I think he applies more energy and enthusiasm when he’s rushing the passer than when he’s playing the run.”
That’s not true of the 6-foot-3, 295-pound Cook.
“I play with leverage,” Cook said of his approach to stopping the run. “If the [blocker] is beating me outside, I’m going to cheat outside further to get outside of him to stop the play. No tight end is going to beat me. I’m stronger than him. I don’t need to make the play. When Sam [Shade, the strong safety and team-leading tackler] comes up and makes the tackle, I’m happy because I stopped [the ball-carrier] so Sam could make the tackle and knock him back a couple of yards.”
That kind of teamwork was evident with Kalu’s pass-rushing in last week’s 28-3 rout of Arizona. The 6-foot-4, 246-pound Rice graduate didn’t sack Jake Plummer, but he did hurry the Cardinals’ quarterback into three incompletions.
“You can see the difference in our pass rush when N.D.’s in the game,” coach Norv Turner said. “There were three times when Plummer is going to run around the corner and have all day to throw or run for 20 yards, but he’s got Kalu chasing him, so he’s either going to get hit or run out of bounds, so he throws the ball away.”
The 24-year-old Kalu, Philadelphia’s fifth-round pick in 1997, played little as a rookie before he was cut last August and picked up by Washington. Kalu had three sacks and 14 hurries in 1998. He has 15 hurries and three sacks this season despite the foot injury, which isn’t 100 percent healed and might require offseason surgery.
“Like Anthony said, I’m not going to take the credit for our improvement the last four weeks,” Kalu said. “Third-down rusher is an important job, but I’m not even a starter.
“I get satisfaction when I know I’ve helped on a certain play. I didn’t have a sack or a tackle last week, but I chased Jake around all day. A couple of times I chased him into my teammates’ arms. That’s just as good as a sack for me.”