- The Washington Times - Friday, October 20, 2000

Washington Redskins defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson has a confession: playing at home is harder than traveling. It seems that boisterous Redskins fans at FedEx Field not only stymie opposing offenses but prevent defensive linemen from communicating.

Keep those Dogs quiet sshh, sshh … sshh, sshh, sshh.

"The biggest thing is our communication," Wilkinson said. "When we play at home, the checks that are made at the line we don't hear because of the crowd, so a lot of stuff gets missed. It's easier to play on the road because you can hear. We don't miss a call and leave someone on an island or have a gap change because we don't hear it."

The No. 2 overall defense after six years of barely stopping anyone, Redskins linemen are simply polishing their schemes after ranking 30th last season. Ends Bruce Smith and Marco Coleman could be headed for the Pro Bowl, and tackles Wilkinson and Dana Stubblefield are finally justifying the 1998 blockbuster deals that brought the pair to Washington.

After 30 games together, the tandem has proven critical to stopping the run after sometimes getting shredded over the past two seasons. They're handling double-team blockers to free up the ends for an improved pass rush.

"It starts right in the middle," Coleman said. "If you're weak in the middle, the rest goes real sour."

The tackles were supposed to be the final pieces to restoring a defense when the Redskins traded first- and third-round picks to Cincinnati for Wilkinson just three days after signing Stubblefield in February 1998. The combined $56 million salaries were considered mammoth deals at the time after Stubblefield had earned the 1997 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award with San Francisco.

But 1998 was a bust. The Redskins started 0-7, and Stubblefield sustained a season-ending knee injury while falling on the stairs at home. Wilkinson's team-leading 7.5 sacks were respectable but not enough to match expectations for the pair.

Coaches said the tandem played well last year although the Redskins were 28th against the run. Stubblefield claimed defensive coordinator Mike Nolan restricted the tackles by forcing a gap-control system that was too passive. Wilkinson gained eight sacks, and Stubblefield had only three after making 16 in 1997 with the 49ers.

New defensive coordinator Ray Rhodes unleashed the linemen this season, and the results have been dramatic. Adding Smith to provide a solid four-across line and rotating three reserves to keep players fresh has invigorated Wilkinson and Stubblefield into becoming an inside force. They shared a sack of Baltimore quarterback Tony Banks on Sunday when the Redskins held an opposing offense to fewer than 100 yards rushing for the fourth straight game and fifth overall.

"We just needed to let the Dogs go," Wilkinson said. "We're dictating to the offense what they can do. We're not waiting for them to do whatever they want against us."

Their numbers aren't sexy. Wilkinson has 18 tackles and Stubblefield 27, but teammates and coaches realize the tackles' worth.

"Ends usually end up making more plays because of the scheme, but the tackles are very important to us," said defensive line coach Mike Trgovac. "Both end up getting back there so fast they tie guys up and let other people make plays."

Smith credited his play to Stubblefield taking many of the double-teams.

"Dana has been a dominant player for a long time," Smith said. "Knowing I have a solid foundation next to me gives me peace of mind."

Baltimore used four blockers to stop Wilkinson and Coleman during a stunt.

"They had everybody. Teams are going to account for us," Wilkinson said. "They may slow us down, but they will limit what they can do. Backs and ends won't be going out on routes."

Said Coleman, jokingly: "We were stuck trying to battle through half their team."

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