- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 30, 2002

The Tennessee Titans' last two first-half possessions on Oct.6 looked like business as usual for the Washington Redskins' defense.

The drives went 58 and 71 yards for touchdowns, turning a 3-0 Redskins lead into a 14-6 halftime deficit. An open date, it seemed, had done little to help a defense that was giving up an average of 358 yards a game.

But since then, the unit has been playoff-caliber. The Redskins yielded 85 yards in the second half that day in a 31-14 win, and overall they have given up an average of 275.3 yards since the open date. Their defense now ranks eighth in the NFL, and is the biggest reason why Washington (3-4) has hopes of making a run at the postseason.

"We just started to play together, but we've still got a long way to go," linebacker Jeremiah Trotter said yesterday. "We've got to cut down on the big plays. If you look at [last weekends] Indianapolis game, they had some big plays. If we can eliminate those, or keep them to a minimum, we'll be a lot better than where we are today."

Squelching the big play is one of the defense's final goals. The Redskins have made dramatic improvements in areas like stopping the run and pressuring the quarterback, but they remain susceptible here and there to a big gain.

Washington limited the Colts' big plays but left room for improvement. Indianapolis converted six of 11 third downs (55 percent), and in their 14-point second half they had three passes of 20 or more yards, including a wide-open 20-yard touchdown to running back Ricky Williams.

The Redskins' worst day in terms of the big play probably came Oct.13, in a loss to New Orleans. Washington held one of the league's better offenses to 311 yards, but that total included a 58-yard toss to Michael Lewis, a 41-yarder to Joe Horn, a 31-yard touchdown to Jake Reed and a 46-yard run by Deuce McAllister.

"When you see a good defensive team, they don't let explosive plays out, whether it's [in the] run or pass," defensive backs coach George Catavolos said. "In each ballgame [we played], there was basically three or four negative, explosive plays. And unless you eliminate them, you'll never be in the top 10."

The Redskins do rank among the elite for now, thanks to consecutive strong efforts against Green Bay and Indianapolis, two offenses that have pre-eminent players at the skills positions.

Green Bay gained 243 yards in an Oct.20 win over Washington. Linebacker LaVar Arrington knocked quarterback Brett Favre from the game with a sprained knee, and the Redskins had momentum and a chance to win in the second half but their offense sputtered.

Indianapolis picked up only 258 yards, mostly because James was held to 33 yards rushing. The Colts rallied in the second half but two young Redskins in the secondary made crucial plays safety Ifeanyi Ohalete had an interception and cornerback Fred Smoot broke up a two-point conversion try.

"We came through when we needed to," Arrington said of Sunday's win. "I think we had a really, really great outing, but we've got to finish guys off. When we've got them in the coffin and we're lowering them, we can't say, 'No, we don't want to bury them.' We've got to go ahead and put the dirt on top of them."

Much of the early struggles can be attributed to unfamiliarity and a bit of discomfort with Marvin Lewis' scheme. Pro Bowl players like Arrington and Trotter were used to running all over the field to make plays, but Lewis asked them to hold their positions and trust teammates to complete tackles.

Arrington, in particular, was frustrated by his role near the line of scrimmage, especially as a defensive end on third downs. But now he has seven sacks, including five in the past three games. He recently said he stopped focusing on personal feelings and committed himself to improving within the system.

Other areas are adjusting, too. The back spasms of defensive tackle Daryl Gardener seemingly are gone. Defensive end Renaldo Wynn is more comfortable as a third-down tackle. Ohalete has played consistently enough to supplant veteran Sam Shade in the base defensive package. And Smoot has settled down after a hot-and-cold start.

Those factors have led to improvement in a variety of areas, none more significant, in Trotter's mind, than how Washington defends the run.

"In this league, you've got to stop the running game," Trotter said. "Guys are getting more comfortable with where they're supposed to be, and you're getting the linebackers playing with each other and off the defensive linemen. That's the biggest deal right there, because when you make teams one-dimensional, you've won half the battle."

How much did the open date contribute? It certainly gave the Redskins more time to study the scheme. But Catavolos believes the players really needed more game time.

"We've been working on the system since March," Catavolos said. "The players, I believe, understood it. They just needed the repetition, seeing the pace and the different offenses."

Also, they needed the "attitude," as Arrington calls it, that comes from growing confidence.

"We started to get an attitude," Arrington said. "If we can get it spread a little more throughout the team, I think this team will be fine."

Indeed, with the current defensive mindset, business as usual just might give the Redskins a shot at the playoffs.

Notes Running back Stephen Davis remains concerned about his right knee. He called himself "day-to-day" for practice and Sunday's game at Seattle. An MRI Monday showed no serious damage, only a strain or sprain where the hamstring muscle meets the knee. It's a painful injury but those familiar with the MRI said Davis should be able to play. Left tackle Chris Samuels (ankle) said he's "pretty sure" he'll be able to play at Seattle, but he doesn't know about practice today. The Redskins appear interested in signing wide receiver Willie Jackson, a former Florida star who was cut Monday by Atlanta, if he clears waivers today. But NFL sources said there's a good chance Jackson will be claimed off waivers, where a team would get him for his scheduled minimum salary but wouldn't get the veterans' rebate against the salary cap.

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