- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 15, 2002

CARLISLE, Pa. The freakish phrase came so casually from Washington Redskins linebacker Jeremiah Trotter that one reporter asked for clarification.

Trotter was talking about whether he and linebacker Jessie Armstead discuss their common history bitterly leaving NFC East clubs (the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants, respectively) this spring to join the Redskins.

"All the time," Trotter said. "When we play the Giants I'm going to split all their wigs for Jessie, and it's going to be vice versa for me."

Say what?

"Split their wigs, bust their head open, however you want to name it," Trotter said with a hearty laugh. "Put them to sleep. Knock them out."

Only Trotter, it seems, could make such a violent term sound so matter of fact. But hyperbole often becomes routine around this linebacking corps of Trotter, Armstead and LaVar Arrington the Pro Bowl players are meeting lofty expectations with such apparent ease that it's easy to forget how uniquely gifted they are.

In practices and games, the trio is swarming to the ball, making big hits and executing their assignments with regularity. As defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis continues to experiment with different packages to feature the three linebackers, they are poised to be the cornerstone of the defense and perhaps the team in coach Steve Spurrier's first season.

"We knew going into minicamp we were going to have to carry this team. We're ready for it," Trotter said. "We're ready for the challenge. We expect nothing less than greatness on this defense."

The sharp play of Washington's linebackers is particularly significant as the club prepares for Sunday's preseason game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Pittsburgh consistently has boasted some of the NFL's top linebackers over the past 10 years, including from 1992 to 1995 when Lewis was the team's linebackers coach.

Linebackers like Levon Kirkland, Greg Lloyd, Kevin Greene and Chad Brown defined themselves as Steelers, and this year the club has another group (Jason Gildon, Joey Porter, Kendrell Bell and John Fiala) that stands between Trotter, Armstead and Arrington and the title of NFL's best corps.

Pittsburgh's current quartet (the club plays a 3-4 scheme) is so good, in fact, that free agent pickup James Farrior, a former Jets first-round pick and starter, is a reserve.

"They do some great things down there," Arrington said. "They seem to find players where nobody else finds them and turn them into superstars. I've grown up a Pittsburgh fan, being from there. I've watched them over the years. They seem to be pretty consistent with it."

The Redskins' linebackers point out that they aren't measuring themselves against the Steelers' corps, but one Washington defender acknowledged that great players can't help but be aware of their great counterparts.

"When I was in Jacksonville and we had a top-five defense in '98, every time we'd play Baltimore and coach Lewis' defense (Lewis was Ravens coordinator), we'd try to beat out those guys," defensive end Renaldo Wynn said. "Not saying [great defenders are] not concerned about the offense, but a lot of times they try to beat out the other defense, outdo whatever they did."

Wynn has been amazed at how the Steelers plugged in a star defender whenever one left and many did leave, able to find big contracts outside Pittsburgh's small market. Lewis attributes the run of success to scouting with a focus on scheme.

"I think they've tried to find people who fit a certain mold and have certain abilities," Lewis said. "When you play the 3-4, you've got to have a couple guys on the outside who can rush the quarterback. And hopefully you gain guys on the interior who are good athletes outside and you slide them in. That's kind of the progression that we made there."

Trotter, Armstead and Arrington immediately garnered consideration as the NFL's top corps when Trotter signed a seven-year, $35.5million contract in April. So far they've done nothing to discourage further talk both inside and outside the team.

"These three guys come to play," Wynn said. "All of them are trying to make a big play. They're pushing us in the front. Shoot, you see what kind of players they are, what they've done in the past, and they're still trying to get better now."

Their personalities have meshed well, too, generating a bond beyond their on-field trademarks Trotter's leadership, Armstead's fierce dedication and Arrington's unparalleled athletic ability.

"I think our friendship has developed big-time," said Arrington, who has made no secret that he relished starting last season with Shawn Barber and Kevin Mitchell. "The communication lines are getting better and better every day. That's something that is key to our success. We came together a long time ago, but every day we're together I think we grow closer and closer."

The linebackers' play is allowing Lewis to tailor the scheme, similar to how he constructed the Ravens' set around the linebacking trio of Ray Lewis, Peter Boulware and Jamie Sharper. Arrington, for example, moves to defensive end in passing situations, while all three are used interchangeably to blitz, cover and stop the run.

The full scope of Lewis' scheme won't be apparent until the regular season and even then he'll use only certain elements in certain games.

Regardless, each week these linebackers expect to, ahem, split some wigs.

"We're definitely going to intimidate some people, mess up some blocking schemes," Trotter said. "Especially when you've got guys like [Dan Wilkinson and Daryl] Gardener in front of you somebody's going to get free. And when you've got guys running free, that causes big hits."

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