- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 22, 2005

After middle linebacker Antonio Pierce, last year’s top tackler, and cornerback Fred Smoot, a four-year starter, left as free agents in March there was some worry in Washington. Could the Redskins’ defense remain one of the NFL’s best with undersized career outside linebacker Lemar Marshall and retread Walt Harris at corner?

Two games into the season, the answer is definitely yes. Washington is one of seven unbeaten teams mostly because of a defense that ranks in the top six in first downs, yards and points allowed.

The defense has given up just two touchdowns, one after a fumble gave Chicago a first down on the Washington 23, the other on a 70-yard trick play in Dallas. The Bears offense scored 24 points against Detroit but just seven against Washington. The Cowboys offense scored 28 points at San Diego but just 13 against Washington.

“They played great the other night,” Redskins coach Joe Gibbs said of his defense. “Nothing good was happening for us on offense for three quarters. For the defense to keep slugging like they did and to hang in there and keep us in the ballgame is a real tribute to them.”

And after Santana Moss’ dazzling 70-yard touchdown put the Redskins on top with 2:35 left, Tyson Thompson returned the kickoff to the Washington 48. The defense had to come through again, and Harris did so, tackling Terry Glenn a yard shy of a first down on fourth-and-4. When Dallas got the ball back at its 21, just 36 seconds remained. Time expired six plays later with the ball only at the Dallas 48.

“If Walt doesn’t tackle that guy, who knows?” left end Renaldo Wynn said. “Walt’s a student of the game. That play was a result of studying film. That would have easily been a first down if Walt doesn’t break on the ball the way he did.”

Harris, who started for Chicago and Indianapolis from 1996 to 2003 before the Redskins made him their nickel corner after a career-threatening leg operation in 2004, always assumed he would be the starter after Smoot left even after the Redskins used the ninth pick in the draft on cornerback Carlos Rogers. At 31, the former first-rounder isn’t cocky, just quietly confident.

“It’s my job until someone tells me otherwise,” Harris said.

In contrast, Marshall, an undrafted player who was cut three times before making the Redskins in 2002, only became a starter after weak-side star LaVar Arrington was hurt last year. And Marshall, 28, had to fend off numerous challengers in the middle during the offseason and training camp while adjusting to an unfamiliar position.

“I had a whole offseason to get ready, so it’s going pretty well, but I’m not where I want to be,” said Marshall, who wouldn’t come out in Dallas despite straining a groin in the fourth quarter.

Linebackers coach Dale Lindsey said Marshall needs to make more plays — his 12 tackles trail strong-side starter Marcus Washington’s team-high 19 — and become more of a presence in the huddle, but his smarts are paying dividends.

“It’s easier to move from the middle to the outside than the other way around,” Lindsey said. “Lemar has done pretty well under the circumstances, [but] he’s quite capable of better. Lemar is learning you have to yell during a game, particularly at home [when the crowd is roaring to bother the opposing offense]. But he has done an excellent job of making the right calls to get people lined up.”

Wynn likes how Marshall has stepped in for Pierce.

“Lemar has handled the pressure from the media and from us,” Wynn said. “We’re looking at him like, ‘All eyes on you. You’ve got to be the general and take us to the promised land.’ ”

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