There were less than four minutes to go, the New York Jets were facing second-and-1 at their own 31 and the Washington Redskins looked like they were about to surrender a game-winning drive.
LaVar Arrington and Jeremiah Trotter, though, had other ideas, and if not for them, the Redskins might not have pulled off their season-opening 16-13 win last Thursday.
Arrington ignited the defensive rally by stuffing Jets running back Curtis Martin for no gain on second-and-1. Moments later, Trotter came bursting into the backfield to drop LaMont Jordan for a 4-yard loss.
New York was forced to punt, Washington quarterback Patrick Ramsey soon was scampering 24 yards down the left sideline and, as everyone knows, John Hall took over from there.
Ramsey’s scramble and Hall’s 33-yard field goal, however, would not have been possible without Arrington and Trotter’s big defensive plays.
“That’s what you live for,” Trotter said. “Third-and-1, you make the stop and put the ball back in the offense’s hands.”
Thursday’s late-game stand was a microcosm of Washington’s overall defensive effort against the Jets. The patchwork line held its ground. The talented secondary kept the receivers covered.
The linebackers made the plays.
Arrington, Trotter and teammate Jessie Armstead collectively had perhaps their best game since the trio was assembled before last season. The three veterans combined to record 25 of the team’s 48 tackles, led by Arrington’s team-leading 10 solo takedowns.
It was the kind of performance new defensive coordinator (and former linebackers coach) George Edwards had been waiting for from the unit but one he knew would happen only once the three players had time to jell.
“I think what you’ve got are three guys who are a lot more comfortable within the scheme now,” Edwards said. “They know how to play with each other.”
Though all three players have considerable experience (Armstead is in his 11th NFL season, Trotter his sixth and Arrington his fourth), they only became teammates last year. After playing his entire career with the New York Giants, Armstead signed with the Redskins on March 1, 2002. Less than two months later, Washington lured Trotter away from the Philadelphia Eagles and paired the newcomers with holdover Arrington, who already had been to a Pro Bowl.
The individual players each had his moments last season, but rarely did the linebackers as a unit look completely in sync. The process of chemistry-building was slowed when Trotter suffered a season-ending knee injury on Thanksgiving Day.
Now that they are in their second season together, the threesome is beginning to think and act like one. The players themselves noticed it early in the Jets game.
“Without even second-guessing, I knew where Jessie was going to be,” Trotter said. “If he was going to spill, I knew I was going over top of him; if he was going to turn back, I knew to be inside of him. When you’re on the same page like that and you trust the guy beside you, that makes it easier.”
It also helps to have players like Arrington and Armstead flanking you. Arrington, in particular, had a dazzling season debut, chasing down Martin one play and swatting away one of Vinny Testaverde’s passes the next.
“LaVar was all over the place making plays,” coach Steve Spurrier said.
The Redskins’ defensive system is designed in part to give the linebackers the most opportunities to make plays. Washington’s unheralded interior linemen (Jermaine Haley, Bernard Holsey, Lional Dalton and Martin Chase) are not considered big playmakers; their job is to clog up the middle and keep offensive linemen preoccupied. That leaves the linebackers free to roam and attack the ball carrier.
“We’ve got to give credit to the D-line,” Trotter said. “When their main objective is to keep us free, we can run around and make big plays like we did. It’s a great feeling when you’ve got two guys beside you who can make plays all over the field.”
The Redskins wound up surrendering just 158 yards to the Jets in the franchise’s best defensive performance in 10 years.
And, Armstead said, this may have just been the beginning.
“We finished fifth in the league last year, and we were really coming on late in the season,” he said. “Now, we’re just picking up where we left off last year.”
Notes — The Redskins expected to receive the results of yesterday’s CAT scan on wide receiver Taylor Jacobs late last night and should decide today whether to clear him to play Sunday at Atlanta.
Jacobs, who bruised his pancreas when he landed on an opposing player’s foot in the preseason finale, underwent the CAT scan yesterday to determine whether the injury has healed properly. The second-round draft pick participated in individual drills during practice Monday, but he has yet to practice fully since suffering the injury (which required him to stay in the hospital for five days).
Jacobs is still holding out hope he can make his NFL debut this week.
“I feel fine,” he said yesterday. “I’m eating, working out, doing what everybody does. … I’m just doing what I can. They didn’t give me a sign on whether I’m going to play.” …
Thanks to their stifling, 158-yard performance against the Jets, the Redskins enter the week with the league’s second-ranked defense. Only the 49ers, who held the Bears to 127 total yards Sunday, rank higher.