- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 8, 2004

Four days before their regular-season opener, the Washington Redskins still must sort out two key positions on their starting defense: middle linebacker and nose tackle.

Mike Barrow, the projected starting middle linebacker, is questionable for Sunday’s game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with a lingering knee injury. Nose tackle Brandon Noble has recovered from knee surgery and a broken hand but is being challenged by Joe Salave’a for the starting job.

Barrow’s situation has been in flux for more than a month, since he first began feeling the effects of tendinitis in his left knee. He was unable to play in any of the Redskins’ five preseason games but slowly has been working his way back into practice this week in hopes of suiting up against the Bucs.

Washington’s coaching and training staffs plan to let the rest of the week play out before determining Barrow’s status.

“It’s still too early to tell,” assistant head coach for defense Gregg Williams said.

Even if Barrow plays, he’s unlikely to be in condition to make it through all four quarters. For that reason, backup Antonio Pierce is approaching this week as though he’s going to see significant playing time at middle linebacker.

“It feels sort of like my rookie year when I got the chance to play,” said Pierce, who started eight games at outside linebacker in 2001 in place of Shawn Barber. “It’s a good opportunity, and I’m just trying to take advantage of it.”

Salave’a appears to have taken advantage of his time subbing for Noble this preseason, so much so that the sixth-year veteran could earn the starting nod Sunday.

“We’re going to have a nose tackle controversy,” defensive coordinator and line coach Greg Blache joked. “Those guys are both excellent, good ballplayers. Brandon had the cast on [his broken right hand] all preseason, and that kind of slowed him down a little bit. But we know what he can do. Joe’s had a good preseason. We’re going to keep that suspense until game time so Tampa won’t know what to expect.”

Royal return

The last time Robert Royal was seen in uniform in a regular-season game, the tight end was being helped off the field by Redskins trainers after breaking his hip. That was last Oct. 12, and the opponent was Tampa Bay. Eleven months later, Royal finally makes his return against the same team.

“I’m just excited to be out there for the start of the season,” said Royal, who’s been healthy for only six games in his two-year NFL career. “No matter if it was Tampa, Carolina or anyone else, I’m just happy to be out there with my team.”

Royal suffered his hip injury on a play where he was asked to block Buccaneers Pro Bowl defensive end Simeon Rice one-on-one. Though Royal insists Rice had nothing to do with what he called a “fluke injury,” the Redskins’ old coaching staff came under plenty of fire for devising a blocking plan that often left tight ends on defensive ends.

That shouldn’t be the case any longer with Joe Gibbs and Joe Bugel running the show, much to Rice’s chagrin.

Asked yesterday during a conference call with Washington reporters if there’s a tight end in the league that can block him one-on-one, Rice had his response ready.

“Yeah,” he said. “I just haven’t met him yet.”

Extra points

The Redskins submitted only three players on their first injury report of the season. Joining Barrow are H-back Brian Kozlowski (strained calf) and safety Andre Lott (sprained knee). Both are listed as probable for Sunday. …

Guard Randy Thomas drew plenty of stares yesterday after showing up with bleach-blond hair. Thomas, who said he sported the California look once before on his goatee, added that he plans to shave his head in a few days anyway. …

Wide receiver James Thrash has chosen to wear uniform No. 83 for the season. With no numbers in the 80s available until final cuts were made this week. Thrash had been wearing No. 17 during preseason games and No. 3 during practices.

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