- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 1, 2004

The wheels started churning in Gregg Williams’ head as he contemplated more than a month of training camp workouts and four preseason games to come up with the answer for the following question:

Have the Washington Redskins had their entire starting defense on the field at the same time this year?

“No, we haven’t,” Williams finally said after much consideration. “There have been times in practice where we’ve had it exactly the way we wanted it. But, no, not in a game.”

They didn’t play together in the Hall of Fame Game. Nor the following week against Carolina or in subsequent games against Miami and St. Louis.

And don’t expect to see the full starting 11 Friday night in Washington’s exhibition finale against the Atlanta Falcons. Linebackers LaVar Arrington and Mike Barrow both are questionable with knee injuries, as is right end Phillip Daniels, who has missed the entire preseason with an abdominal strain.

Under normal circumstances, Williams might be vexed by the prospect of entering an NFL season without seeing his entire starting defense in action. The Redskins assistant head coach for defense, though, insisted this all has been part of the greater plan, one he said will be to his unit’s advantage when the Sept.12 opener against the Buccaneers rolls around.

“What we’ve been trying to do is give everybody the opportunity to play,” Williams said. “We’ve wanted to see a lot of different combinations. And we also want to keep Tampa Bay wondering.”

The Buccaneers may have no idea what to expect from Washington’s defense. But then again, neither do the Redskins.

As much as Williams and Co. have touted this group as significantly improved over last year’s 25th-ranked bunch, they have yet to see all the pieces of their complex puzzle put together.

If Williams’ players are concerned, they aren’t showing it outwardly.

“I think we’ll be OK,” said Arrington, who has been back in practice this week after missing the last two games with a sprained knee. “I believe with everything that the coaching staff has put in front of us, once we run everything and game plan and focus on the team we’re playing, I think this team will be fine.”

Arrington has had plenty of time to observe his teammates from the sideline. He has had plenty of company in recent weeks, too, with a host of starting defenders battling injuries.

Barrow, the starting middle linebacker, has yet to play this preseason because of his nagging knee injury. Daniels is hoping to make his preseason debut Friday night but likely won’t get more than a few snaps while he recovers from his abdominal strain. Tackles Cornelius Griffin (hip) and Brandon Noble (knee, hand) also missed time early on but have returned to the field.

“We’ve been without a couple of key people, LaVar, Phillip,” said cornerback Fred Smoot, one of the few starters to remain injury-free throughout camp. “But LaVar’s going to pick up quick, and hopefully Phil will, too. The core has been there. That’s the good part about it.”

The coaching staff hasn’t felt a pressing need to rush players like Daniels and Barrow back onto the field because of their significant experience. The way Williams sees it, Daniels (an eight-year veteran) and Barrow (a 10-year vet who used to play for Williams in Houston) don’t need preseason action to get in shape.

“I’m not really concerned, because of the way we practice,” Williams said. “We practice at such a tempo and such a pace that it’s almost full contact. If they were really young guys, that would be worrisome to me. They’ve played enough and gotten enough contact in practice that they’ll be fine in the opener.”

The perpetual absences from the starting defense have given Williams an opportunity to see some of his younger, less-experienced players. Among those who have received significant playing time this preseason are defensive end Ron Warner, linebackers Antonio Pierce and Lemar Marshall and defensive backs Andre Lott and Rufus Brown.

All figure to play important roles this season in a defensive scheme that regularly utilizes 16 or 17 different personnel packages. Because of that, Williams tends not to focus so much on his 11 true starters as much as his full squad of rotating players.

“It’s going to be tough for you guys — you can’t clue in and say these are the four starting down linemen or these are the three starting linebackers,” Williams said. “You’ll be hard-pressed to figure out all season long who our starters are. You’re a starter on defense if you make this football team.”

Perhaps no reserve player will benefit more from that philosophy than Pierce, who has been tabbed the Redskins’ No.4 linebacker behind Arrington, Barrow and Marcus Washington. Pierce, a fourth-year veteran who previously only had been used as a starter when another player went down, is being counted upon to play all three linebacker positions.

In some ways, the Redskins are looking at Pierce as if he’s the 12th member of the starting defense.

“I don’t want to say I feel like a starter,” Pierce said, “but I know I’m going to be playing a lot this season.”

Still, two weeks before the season kicks off, Washington’s defense has had precious little time to come together as a unit.

Williams believes his squad has done everything it can to make sure it happens sometime, whether it be in two weeks or 16.

“They’ve done as much or more than any other team I’ve coached in the offseason and training camp,” Williams said. “Their attitude and willingness to work is as good as I’ve ever been around. The coming together part, it’s an evolution over lots of time. We still have to do it in ballgames that are meaningful.”

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