- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 24, 2006

ST. LOUIS. — Gregg Williams left the Edward Jones Dome last December with a dominating performance by his defense and the status as the hot candidate to be the next coach of the St. Louis Rams.

A year later, the Redskins’ assistant head coach-defense of the Washington Redskins limped away from here like a pug boxer who had been knocked out by a world champion.

The Rams rallied from a 28-14 deficit midway through the third quarter yesterday to claim a 37-31 overtime victory over the Redskins.

The numbers certainly weren’t pretty for Williams’ defense: The Rams racked up 579 yards of offense, running back Steven Jackson ran for 150 yards on 33 carries and caught six passes for 102 more and quarterback Marc Bulger passed for 388 yards and four touchdowns.

“We weren’t able to make the significant stops we typically make in the second half,” said Williams, who raved about Bulger’s accuracy and Jackson’s playmaking ability. “We played good in spurts. We would play well for two or three plays and all of a sudden have a bad play. Our tackling, which has been so good for the last month … we didn’t tackle as well as we needed to.”

That’s an understatement.

Vernon Fox, filling in at the strong safety spot that was supposed to be manned by underachieving Adam Archuleta, challenged weak-side linebacker Warrick Holdman for the top matador award. Talented free safety Sean Taylor, meanwhile, simply didn’t make many plays.

Cornerback Carlos Rogers, coming off a season-best performance in last week’s shutdown of the top-ranked New Orleans Saints offense, said the disastrous play of the pass defense yesterday was a combination of the Rams’ excellence and the Redskins’ incompetence.

“They’re good. You’ve got to give them credit,” Rogers said. “They were finding holes in our zone. They got behind us on certain plays. And if we took that away, they were running the ball real well. We played real well against them last year, but today they made plays.”

Lots of them.

The Redskins’ pass defense held Bulger, Jackson and receiver Torry Holt — all Pro Bowl players — in check in the first half. But when top cornerback Shawn Springs isn’t on the field — and he left the game for good in the first quarter because of a shoulder injury — the secondary collapses like a sand castle under a wave.

“It’s probably because I have a better understanding of the defense than the rest of the guys,” said Springs, who along with Taylor and reserve corner Ade Jimoh are the only members of the secondary to last throughout Williams’ three seasons.

Perhaps. Or maybe it’s because, even at 31, Springs remains the Redskins’ best cover guy. So when he went down with a fractured shoulder on the first series, it was only a matter of time before the entire defense broke.

“Shawn allows us to do a little bit more when he’s in there,” Williams said. “Unfortunately [losing Springs] puts us into a mix and match there the rest of the game. We’ve got enough guys here with enough experience that we’ve got to hold up our end of the bargain.”

The Redskins have been there before. Springs was sidelined for two months following Aug. 15 pelvic surgery, and he later missed a game against the Atlanta Falcons because of an ailing hamstring.

Rogers and Kenny Wright, who took over for Springs yesterday as he did when he missed the first five games, bristled at the suggestion of Springs’ irreplaceability.

“We love Shawn and what he brings to the table, but one man don’t change the defense,” Rogers said.

Said Wright: “Shawn’s a good player, but once we lost him the other guys had to step up.”

The defense played horribly the first half of the season but improved greatly the past month with Springs back on the field. The defense, in fact, was starting to resemble the top-10 unit it was in 2004 and again last season.

Yesterday, however, Bulger, Holt, Jackson and receiver Isaac Bruce ripped through that defense for more big plays than Neil Simon has written — a huge step back that set the stage for what promises to be a serious offseason evaluation.

“We don’t throw everything out the window that happened this last month, but we will have to take a critical look at what we’re doing, why we’re doing it and who we’re doing it with,” Williams said.

Hardly the words with which he left here 55 weeks ago.

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