- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 14, 2004

The Washington Redskins awoke yesterday to find themselves in a couple of unusual places: Tied for first in the NFC East and atop the entire NFL in total defense.

Neither fans nor experts are likely to read too much into the Redskins’ lofty division standing on the first Monday of the regular season. But there was plenty of buzz around town and around the league about Washington’s stifling defensive performance in Sunday’s 16-10 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

If Joe Gibbs was the center of attention at FedEx Field, Gregg Williams was a close second. The Redskins’ assistant head coach for defense finally unveiled his complex, pressure-first scheme and received accolades after his unit held the Bucs to 169 total yards.

That number was far and away tops in the league through Sunday’s games, besting Buffalo’s second-ranked performance by 56 yards. Even more impressive were Washington’s 30 rushing yards surrendered, less than twice the amount given up by the next-best defense (Pittsburgh, 61 yards).

“It’s a good start, and we can do a whole lot better,” said linebacker LaVar Arrington, who played for the league’s 25th-ranked defense a year ago. “It’s real encouraging.”

Facing an aging Bucs offense that looked out of sync with Brad Johnson at quarterback, Charlie Garner at tailback and Joey Galloway and Tim Brown at receiver, the Redskins began attacking from the first snap. Defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin stopped Garner in the backfield for a 1-yard loss, setting the tone for the afternoon.

Tampa Bay didn’t record a first down until the middle of the second quarter and never solved Williams’ scheme. (The Bucs’ lone touchdown came on Ronde Barber’s 9-yard fumble return, and their lone field goal came after a long kickoff return.)

Williams couldn’t have drawn it up any better in his first game with the Redskins. Of course, he had nearly five months to draw up a gameplan.

“[The coaching staff] had been preparing for this game since the schedule came out,” Williams said. “Joe Gibbs had us working on [the Bucs] in June, and he had us working on them in July. We were working on it some practices, and the players didn’t even know they were working on Tampa.”

Williams came to Washington after a three-year stint as Buffalo’s head coach with a reputation for running an aggressive system that featured more than a dozen different packages.

He lived up to the billing Sunday. The Redskins blitzed a linebacker, safety or cornerback on 70 percent of the Bucs’ plays from scrimmage from a variety of angles.

“We’re going to take some chances and make the offense make quick decisions,” said safety Matt Bowen, who recorded the first two sacks of his six-year professional career. “We’ve just got to keep making the plays when [Williams] gives us the opportunity to because that tide can turn quick when you’re a pressure team. If you’re not focused on your assignment, it can turn into a big play.”

Williams also made good on his promise to use a host of players on defense. He boasted throughout training camp that it would be difficult for reporters to figure out which of his 11 players were actually starters because of the constant substitutions. He wasn’t joking.

No fewer than 18 players saw significant action on defense, as evidenced by the number of big plays made by some lesser-known names.

Antonio Pierce, starting in place of injured middle linebacker Mike Barrow, had seven tackles, a pass defense and the victory-sealing interception. Bowen, in addition to his two sacks, led the team with eight tackles and forced a fumble. Unheralded defensive ends Renaldo Wynn and Ron Warner combined on a key fourth-quarter sack. And backup tackle Jermaine Haley provided the pressure that forced Johnson into the Pierce interception.

“That’s what’s neat about it: It’s a team effort,” Bowen said. “It’s not just one guy making all the plays. This defense requires everyone to follow the defense, everyone to be in the right spot and everyone to make a play when the chance comes. There will be a lot of guys making plays.”

Added cornerback Fred Smoot: “There’s going to be a lot of odd people with sacks. There’s going to be a game where I have two sacks, and that’s really going to shock you.”

Though the Redskins’ defense surely turned some heads with its Week 1 performance, it should be noted the unit got off to an equally impressive start last year, holding the New York Jets to 158 total yards in a season-opening win.

“I can recall last year, in the first game of the season, we were pretty dominant,” Arrington said. “But the feel is different [this year].”

Different or not, Williams acknowledges his defense has a long way to go before establishing itself as one of the NFL’s best.

He had five months to prepare for the Bucs. He now has seven days to prepare for the New York Giants.

“This is only one game; we have 15 left to go,” Williams said. “This was a game we have been preparing for since the schedule came out. Now we’ve got to get into the division. The most important thing is to get into this division and play well.”

Staff writer Jody Foldesy contributed to this article.

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