- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 6, 2003

On the eve of the Washington Redskins’ best defensive performance in a decade, statistically speaking, the unit got a stirring speech from its most senior member.

Defensive end Bruce Smith boiled down his 18 NFL seasons and broke from his preferred method of leading by example to deliver words that “set the tone” Wednesday night. Then on Thursday, before a national television audience in the NFL’s highly anticipated opener, the Redskins held the New York Jets to 158 yards in a 16-13 victory.

“Him getting up there, being inspirational, it set the tone for what we had to go out and do,” defensive end Renaldo Wynn said yesterday at Redskin Park. “His whole thing was, ‘Your actions speak for themselves.’ He should know. He’s been out there doing it year in and year out. ‘The talking is done. Let’s go out and do it.’”

The Jets’ yardage was the least by a Redskins opponent since Jan.2, 1993, when Washington held Minnesota to 148 yards in a playoff win. No regular-season opponent had generated that few yards since Denver had 128 the same season, Oct.12, 1992.

Few would have predicted a performance so dominant. The Redskins, after ranking fifth in total defense (299.2 yards) in 2002, lost defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis to Cincinnati and three potential starters at defensive tackle (Daryl Gardener, Dan Wilkinson and Brandon Noble) to a pair of personnel choices and a freak injury.

Instead of wilting, the unit enjoyed an effective no-frills game plan from new coordinator George Edwards, solid work from a no-name interior line and a swarming attack from its Pro Bowl linebacking corps. And rallying everyone into battle was Smith, the 40-year-old whose half-sack Thursday put him within 2 of Reggie White’s NFL career record of 198.

“They responded well to it — I even responded well to it,” Smith said with a laugh. “I was pretty pumped while I was up there because I had everybody’s undivided attention. And I’m not saying this to pat myself on the back. I’m saying this because these guys are our family. And while we’re out there on that field, I’ll do anything for them.”

Players yesterday were hopeful of even better efforts in weeks to come, but it’s hard to imagine improving statistically. In New York, Jets coach Herman Edwards conceded to reporters that he played an extremely conservative game plan, having hoped to limit the chances for errors by backup quarterback Vinny Testaverde.

That, however, was exactly what Washington figured the Jets would do — and it was part of Smith’s speech. Having played nine seasons under Jets defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell in Buffalo, Smith believed New York wasn’t taking any chances.

“‘They’re going to run the ball, dump it off all night.’” cornerback Champ Bailey recalled Smith saying. “That’s exactly what they did. They didn’t really try much downfield.”

Given the high-profile stage, the result was something Smith could compare to only one other instance in his career — the “Music City Miracle” after the 1999 season, when his Buffalo Bills held Tennessee to 194 yards in a memorable playoff loss.

Smith’s Redskins defense also closed last season with a couple performances similar to Thursday’s, limiting Houston to 166 yards and Dallas to 186 in a pair of wins. Thus, in the past three games, the Redskins have yielded 510 total yards, 61 more than Philadelphia gained in last season’s Week 2 bonanza.

The upshot of the impressive three-game string is a sign of continuity. Although Washington’s defense has its fifth coordinator in as many years, players reacted well. They championed the switch to Edwards, the 2002 linebackers coach, for his use of Lewis’ basic scheme. And he commands their respect.

“Losing Marvin, that’s big,” linebacker Jessie Armstead said. “Every team in the league would like to say it has Marvin Lewis as defensive coordinator. A lot of people don’t know George Edwards. He will make his name known in this league before he leaves.”

In addition to being stiff overall, the unit got better as Thursday’s game progressed. New York gained 101 yards after its opening drive and only 62 after halftime.

The work in the second half was critical. That’s when the Jets’ offense started in Redskins territory three times, twice by turnover and once after a long punt return by Santana Moss. But New York scored only two field goals on those possessions, and then Washington closed with a powerful three-and-out that featured big tackles by safety Matt Bowen and linebackers LaVar Arrington and Jeremiah Trotter.

Now the defense is looking ahead to next week’s game at Atlanta, where the Falcons still have weapons even with quarterback Michael Vick out. Having internalized Smith’s message, players will try to build off their opening win.

“It gives you a lot of confidence, a lot of momentum,” Bailey said. “But you can’t get satisfied with it. We’ve got to put this behind us, correct our mistakes and move on. We’ve got another big game coming up in Atlanta.”

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