- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 6, 2003

Game tape of last year’s victory at Seattle provided some wistful moments for one Washington Redskins defensive player this week.

Abundantly evident, the player said in a private conversation yesterday, was the talent of Washington’s interior defensive line. With Daryl Gardener blowing up the inside, the Redskins sacked Seahawks passer Matt Hasselbeck four times en route to a 14-3 win that lifted them to .500 at the midpoint of the season.

A year later, Washington is riding four straight losses into Sunday’s home game against the Seahawks. The defense has fallen from No.5 last season to No.25, and only three NFL teams have fewer than the unit’s 11 sacks. A big reason for the fall — in addition to blown assignments and the learning curve of first-year coordinator George Edwards — has been the absence of difference-making defensive tackles like Gardener and Dan Wilkinson.

Washington’s defensive slide is among many touchy subjects around Redskin Park this week, and players were hesitant to lay blame with too much candor. But the most mentioned factor — on and off the record — was not having Gardener and Wilkinson.

“I think not enough emphasis has been put on the fact that when you lose two dominant players like that, that’s part of the result that goes along with it,” defensive end Bruce Smith said.

Said cornerback Champ Bailey: “We still have weapons there, but they’re not Big Daddy and Daryl Gardener.”

Losing Gardener and Wilkinson led Washington on an acquisition binge on the interior defensive line. The club has signed or traded for six veteran defensive tackles since last season — Brandon Noble (now injured), Jermaine Haley, Bernard Holsey, Martin Chase, Lional Dalton and last week Darrell Russell.

“We saw somebody out there that we thought was better than what we had, that could upgrade us,” vice president of football operations Vinny Cerrato said. “And when you lose two — when you lose basically everybody you had last year — you’ve got to replace them.”

Gardener departed when Washington declined to meet his contract expectations. The Redskins’ rationale was his history of attitude problems; they felt he was too risky for a major investment. Gardener ended up signing a six-year, $33million contract with Denver, and he has played four games after injuring himself in an offseason fight outside a restaurant.

Wilkinson was cut on the second day of training camp when he refused to restructure his contract. The Redskins contended that his performance last season — 17 tackles and no sacks in 12 games — didn’t merit the $3.5million salary he was scheduled to make. But several players argued yesterday that Wilkinson’s contributions were legitimate, if not always noticeable on the stat sheet, and even if he took a play off here and there.

Asked if he has any regrets about cutting Wilkinson, Cerrato replied, “Not at all. None.”

Is that because the current players have been adequate?

“Yeah,” Cerrato said. “Plus, we want guys who love the game, want to play hard.”

The Redskins’ pickups at defensive tackle have made erratic contributions. Holsey, the most unheralded, is the only one who has started every game. Playing the three-technique spot on the outside edge of the guard, Holsey leads Redskins defensive linemen with 20 tackles and is tied with Smith for the sack lead at 1.

The other pickups have been more dubious. Noble blew out his knee in the preseason. Haley was expected to provide some pass rush but has been limited by a thumb injury that makes it difficult to fight through blockers. Chase has been fair at nose tackle. Dalton is the current starting nose tackle after being inactive four straight weeks.

The Redskins gave up two 2003 draft picks for Chase and Dalton. Each was a seventh-rounder that turns into a higher pick at 40 percent playing time (a sixth for Chase, a fifth for Dalton). It’s possible neither player will hit the threshold, but the Redskins would have to surrender a sixth and seventh anyway (giving up their next lowest pick for the extra seventh they don’t have).

Asked about Dalton, who earned his $900,000 salary even while inactive in Weeks 3 to 6, Cerrato replied, “You can’t get everybody dressed. The coaches choose which direction they want to go.”

Obtaining Russell — for the prorated portion of a $1.5million salary — is one factor that makes the Redskins confident their defense will improve in the second half of the season. Other factors include players being more diligent to avoid mistakes and blown assignments, and Edwards becoming more experienced at the coordinator’s post.

Russell began working into the lineup in Sunday’s loss at Dallas. In limited snaps, he forced a fumble and flashed some of the interior rush that has been missing.

“I saw him penetrate a couple times,” Smith said. “He pretty much took two people with him. You could see the disruption take place in the backfield. That’s something Daryl Gardener brought last year.”

Edwards still hadn’t decided yesterday whether Russell would start ahead of Holsey against the Seahawks. But it is only a matter of time before the 1997 second overall pick overtakes the overachieving journeyman in an attempt to replicate an important missing element from the 2002 defense.

“We lost some big guys last year, big Daryl Gardener and Big Daddy,” linebacker Jeremiah Trotter said. “We’re fortunate to get big Darrell Russell in here. It was a big difference last week with him in the game. Hopefully, we can get him out there and get him more reps. He’s still learning the defense, but he can be a big help to us.”

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