- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 15, 2000

The Washington Redskins' much-improved defense is one game away from being considered the NFL's finest unit.

But what a game it is.

The season's third and final appearance on "Monday Night Football" pits the Redskins' second-ranked defense up an astounding 28 places from last year against perhaps the finest offense in league history, that of the defending Super Bowl champion St. Louis Rams.

Under first-year defensive coordinator Ray Rhodes, Washington has yielded more than 275 yards just twice (332 to Dallas, 385 to Jacksonville) and more than 200 passing yards once (239 to Jacksonville). Opponents have scored more than 17 points twice (both Dallas and Tennessee), and much of the fault in those games rested with the offense and special teams.

But Redskins defenders realize that stuffing the ragged likes of Philadelphia, Arizona, Tampa Bay and the New York Giants means little as Washington (6-4) braces to visit mighty St. Louis (8-2).

"We have played some offenses that are definitely not at the level of this offense, by far," Redskins free safety Mark Carrier said this week. "This is one of the best offenses maybe ever."

Demonstrating a way not to stop St. Louis were the Giants, who suffered a 38-24 home loss Sunday. New York failed to disrupt St. Louis' offensive rhythm while often handing the Rams generous field position, mistakes that combined to be critical.

To throw off the Rams' timing, the Redskins must improve their recently unspectacular pass rush. Washington's starting defensive line averages 31 years of age, and ends Marco Coleman and Bruce Smith have just one sack in the past four games (after 13 in first six).

Coach Norv Turner yesterday acknowledged that Coleman and Smith have slowed a bit after a terrorizing start, but he expects them to gain some energy from last week's open date. In addition, Washington boasts a deep line rotation that brings Kenard Lang (three sacks), Nolan Harrison and speedy N.D. Kalu off the bench.

Also, the Rams' rhythm can be further jarred with some physical "bump" coverage from the Redskins' defensive backs, according to strong safety Sam Shade. However, the defense knows its best tactic, if possible, will be a dominant pass rush.

"[In the Rams-Giants game] you saw exactly: If you don't have a pass rush, I don't care how good cover guys you've got, someone's going to get open," Carrier said. "You just can't cover guys for that long."

In terms of field position, Washington must overcome the mistakes of its past two games. Turnovers and poor special teams coverage led to virtually all of its opponents' points in losses to Tennessee, 27-21, and Arizona, 16-15. New York, meanwhile, gave the Rams first-quarter field position at its 1 and 27 thanks to a fumble and a long punt return, respectively.

"[The Rams] are going to score a lot of points, and if you give them the ball on the 1-yard-line and the [27]-yard-line, they're really going to score a lot of points," Turner said. "Obviously the key to playing them is making them drive the long field."

Meanwhile, sound positional defense and solid tackling will play a big role, as St. Louis gains much of its yardage through short passes for long gains.

"They're going to catch the ball; they're too good not to," Carrier said. "[The important thing] is tackling them where they catch the ball and minimizing the yards after the catch. If we can contain that, it's going to give us a chance to stay in the game."

Strategy aside, much of the challenge simply falls to the Redskins' cornerbacks. All eyes will be on Deion Sanders, who came to Washington in the offseason on a seven-year, $56 million contract. Sanders, 33, has been victimized with greater regularity this season than at any point in his Hall of Fame career.

Also key will be the possible return of 40-year-old cornerback Darrell Green, another future Hall of Famer. The Redskins' third corner has sat the past three weeks with a strained calf, and he still feels a twinge. Considering the Rams' use of three- and four-wide-receiver sets, the third corner (currently Tyronne Drakeford, backed up by David Terrell) will get plenty of action.

"They have more depth at the wide receiver position, so it's going to be important to get [Green] back," weakside linebacker Shawn Barber said. "But I don't think anybody's going to fold, or think any differently during the game if he is or is not in there."

Indeed, regardless of who plays, the Redskins' defense simply is eager to face the test that could make or break its reputation.

"It's the kind of game you look forward to play," Carrier said. "It can be a scary sight you look up at the scoreboard, and they have scored 50 points and your head's spinning. [But] you could be in a dogfight. That's what's exciting about playing football. You want challenges like this."

Notes The Redskins signed guard Derrick Fletcher back to the active roster after releasing him last week and placing him on the practice squad Monday. Wide receiver Derrius Thompson was released, and is likely to be put back on the practice squad provided he clears waivers… .

The Rams replaced injured running back Trung Canidate on the active roster with former Redskin Chad Dukes. Dukes, 29, spent part of 1998 and all of 1999 on Washington's practice squad, and was a Redskin until Week 2 this season. He actually was released twice: first in the preseason when the Redskins were not clear about the roster status of suspended Tre Johnson, then for good after playing on the suspect kickoff coverage in the opener against Carolina… .

Rams kicker Jeff Wilkins is unlikely to play Monday because of a strained quadriceps that refuses to heal. In his place is former Washington draft pick Jeff Hall, who was taken in the sixth round of the 1999 draft, and who worked out for the Redskins in October when they signed Kris Heppner. Last week Hall made a 50-yard field goal and missed a 47-yard attempt in his first appearance.

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