- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 16, 2002

The Washington Redskins quietly have become one of the NFL's premier pass-rushing teams thanks to the improvement of LaVar Arrington, the health of Daryl Gardener, the increasing chemistry of the defense and a few twists from coordinator Marvin Lewis.
After getting one sack in the first two games, the Redskins have recorded 19 in the past seven. The team now ranks 11th in the NFL in sacks per pass play entering tomorrow's game against the New York Giants, when a determined rush will be crucial to shutting down the No.7 passing offense.
Undoubtedly, pressure has been one of the biggest reasons Washington has improved to ninth in total defense.
"The quarterbacks in this league, it's not about them messing up, it's about us making them mess up, making them make the wrong decision," cornerback Fred Smoot said. "The only way to make them make the wrong decision is pressure make them throw earlier than they want, make them throw off their back foot."
Arrington's individual development might be the biggest factor in the rush's evolution. He was frustrated early on by his roles, especially his occasional use as a down lineman, and he initially tried to do things his own way.
He began focusing on improving within the scheme several weeks into the season, and the results have been impressive. Arrington ranks second in the NFL with eight sacks, including six in the past five games. Last weekend at Jacksonville, he raced around tackle Todd Fordham from the end position to collar quarterback Mark Brunell.
As Lewis listed reasons for the improved rush, he pointed to "the development of LaVar, not worrying about what people were saying, what he couldn't do. He realized what he could do."
Said Arrington, who might be back in the running for NFL Defensive Player of the Year: "My confidence is back."
Lewis also discussed the fact that Washington now can count on Gardener, who signed during training camp and then missed much of the preseason and the second week of the regular season with back spasms.
Gardener has two sacks (for 1 yard) this year, but he is a penetrating force who can flush passers to the outside where others can pick up sacks. Like Arrington, he has the dynamic physical ability to get into the backfield and then chase, or even catch, opponents.
Teammates have figured that out and utilized it. Gardener and end Bruce Smith, for example, now play off each other to get past blockers. Similarly, the linebackers have figured out how to mesh with the people up front and have grown more assured of their duties.
"It's going to be a constant progression of this defense, guys getting more comfortable and guys learning more," defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson said. "It's a constant gradual learning experience, and guys are buying into it."
And recently Lewis has been building off of it, as well. One example is blitzing safeties from linebacker positions; in the past two weeks, Sam Shade and Ifeanyi Ohalete each recorded a sack. Another example is utilizing a variety of blitzes from one front.
"There's a certain play. It's like a base play," Arrington explained. "It always looks like that base play. You just don't know where the people are coming out of that base play. If you're trying to call an audible at the line, you have no idea what to audible. You might be calling an audible into the blitz."
Also aiding Lewis in broadening the defensive package is the talent of cornerbacks Smoot, Champ Bailey and Darrell Green, whose one-on-one coverage skills let Lewis be more aggressive.
"The way they cover, it allows us to do a whole lot more things," Arrington said. "You can bring a safety because you don't need them back there helping. It gives us a luxury."
Players believe the most interesting part of their pass rush at this point is that it is still developing. Early on, there were questions whether the defensive line had enough speed to generate pressure. Now the question is how many more sacks Washington can pick up in the last seven games.
"[The defensive line is] playing real good football," linebacker Jeremiah Trotter said. "And the good thing about it, they've got a long way to go. We all have a long way to go, and we can get that much better."
Notes Running back Stephen Davis (knee) called himself "about 90" percent after practicing for a third straight day and expressed no doubt that he will play tomorrow. Shade said doctors were more upbeat Thursday after re-evaluating the bulging disc in his neck. He could return to the field next week.


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