- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 13, 2003

The running joke around Redskin Park this week — literally — is that Stephen Davis didn’t miss last Sunday’s game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers because of a mysterious ankle injury but rather because the Carolina Panthers’ tailback wanted to make sure he was fully ready to face his old team this Sunday.

“I really don’t think he was hurt,” Washington Redskins linebacker Jeremiah Trotter said of his former teammate, who has not revealed which ankle is injured. “I think he was just resting up for us.”

The theory, of course, is preposterous. Carolina’s game against division rival Tampa Bay was much more significant for the Panthers than this week’s. But it’s easy to see how the Redskins might interpret Davis’ situation that way, because rarely does a player have so much incentive to show up his old team.

“He’s going to come out gunning for us,” Washington safety Ifeanyi Ohalete said. “I think he has something that he wants to prove to our players, coaches and management. We’re going to try not to let him do that.”

If the Redskins can shut down Davis, it will be perhaps their best defensive performance of the season. Plenty of scrutiny was given to Washington’s struggling offense during the team’s recent four-game losing streak, but the club’s run defense has been just as suspect.

Since holding the New York Jets and Atlanta Falcons under 100 yards rushing in their first two victories, the Redskins have surrendered at least 106 yards on the ground each week. And the numbers are only getting worse: In the last four games, opponents have rushed for 640 yards and averaged 4.8 a play. The last thing Washington’s 26th-ranked run defense needs is a date with Davis and his 992 rushing yards (third most in the NFL).

Defensive coordinator George Edwards wasn’t revealing any secrets yesterday, but he said he and his staff are making some adjustments to stop the Panthers’ rushing attack.

Trotter doesn’t need any complex game plan. He already knows the best way to stop Davis.

“Tackle him at the line of scrimmage,” Trotter said. “Stephen breaks a lot of tackles, so you’ve definitely got to wrap him up and continue to hit him.”

There are several theories to the Redskins’ struggles stopping the run — poor play by the defensive line and misreads by the linebackers, to cite two — but nearly everyone agrees that poor tackling has been a major issue.

“We’ve been aware of being out of position in the past, and we’ve gotten better at [correcting] it,” cornerback Champ Bailey said. “Now we just need to make the tackles. That’s the biggest key, just getting people on the ground.”

Davis, though, is the master of breaking tackles. For seven seasons, the 6-foot, 230-pound back did it in a Redskins uniform. He hasn’t missed a beat since joining the Panthers, and Washington’s defenders are well aware of it.

“He doesn’t go down easy,” cornerback Fred Smoot said. “If you think one person is going to get him down, you’re wrong. You’ve got to gang-tackle him for four quarters.”

Davis excels at picking up extra yards after getting hit; players unofficially refer to it as YAC (yards after contact), and the Redskins know they can’t let Davis pile up yards that way.

“We’ve got to have everybody running to the ball just to finish him off,” Trotter said.

Washington’s run defense problems aren’t limited to poor tackling. There has been plenty of concern about the gaping holes the front four has given up and the inability of the linebackers to fill those gaps.

Seattle tailback Shaun Alexander exposed that problem area last week, picking up 94 yards on 22 carries. The Redskins’ top four tacklers in the game (Ohalete, David Terrell, Matt Bowen and Bailey) are all defensive backs, meaning Alexander was regularly breaking through Washington’s front seven.

“Missed assignments, as far as where guys need to be, I think is the biggest thing,” Edwards said. “Hopefully, we’ll continue to work on those things and continue to get better.”

The Redskins realize they had better work their problems out this week or suffer the wrath of an old friend whose game hasn’t changed since his days in Washington.

“Stephen, you know what you’re going to get every down from him,” Bailey said. “You know he’s going to run right through the hole and run somebody over every play.”

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