Wednesday, September 3, 2003

Bruce Smith knew as soon as Brandon Noble went down. Noble’s knee was blown, his year over before it started. Hours later in the FedEx Field locker room, Smith shunned political correctness and let everyone know just what he thought of the Washington Redskins’ defensive interior.

“I said I wasn’t going to comment on it when Big Daddy was released, but I said prior to that that he was one of the guys we couldn’t afford to lose,” Smith said in a tone of pure frustration. “We should have kept one of those two defensive tackles, either [Daryl] Gardener or Big Daddy. … Because right now we’re just a little short. We’ve got to stop this run, or it’s going to be a long year.”

Two and a half weeks and two trades later, Smith still wasn’t sure what to think.

“Ask me after the game on Thursday,” he said after a long pause.

Truth is, no one knows what to make of the Redskins’ defensive tackles, a position that has been overhauled like no other on the club. Where there once were Gardener and Dan Wilkinson, then Wilkinson and Noble, now stand Jermaine Haley and Bernard Holsey, an anonymous pair with just 26 combined starts.

Concern lingers in whispers around Redskin Park. But a preseason of generally solid play and gradual improvement has most players, coaches and club officials confident the defensive tackle rotation will hold up.

“We feel like we’ve got a good group that will go out and work,” defensive coordinator George Edwards said. “And the big thing is that we’ll roll them rotation-wise. We feel like they’re big effort guys. We’ll just rotate them, keep them fresh, and we should be OK.”

Heading into tomorrow’s opener against the New York Jets, it’s easy to forget how 2002 ended with expectations that Gardener would re-sign and serve as the basis for a potent interior. Heck, he basically promised he would.

But the Redskins didn’t meet his price. Then they released Wilkinson on the second day of training camp when he refused a pay cut. Eighteen days later, Noble blew out his left knee against New England, sparking Smith’s outburst and spurring the Redskins to intensify their trade investigations.

The club completed deals for Martin Chase and Lional Dalton over the next two weeks, and final cuts left them with the current foursome of Haley, Holsey, Chase and Dalton. Defensive line coach Robert Nunn only could slump against a wall at Redskin Park and laugh when asked to sum up what the past six months have done to his interior line.

“It’s been an interesting road,” Nunn said.

And it could be a long one, with Jets star Curtis Martin the first of many running backs eager to test Washington’s line. For optimistic evidence of what to expect, the Redskins point to the third preseason game, an Aug.23 victory in which they held Baltimore running back Jamal Lewis to just 4 yards on five carries.

“We stopped the run very, very well against the Ravens, which is a great running team,” cornerback Champ Bailey said. “They’ve got a very good running back. If we can do that against them, I know we can do it against anybody. It’s just all about being consistent.”

Some inside the club, speaking privately, doubt it. Gardener was the club’s player of the year after consistently penetrating the line of scrimmage and disrupting offensive plays. Wilkinson was a big-name defensive tackle who at worst could hold the line and at best, as he did in 1998 and 1999, could provide a legitimate threat against the pass and run.

But each had issues. Gardener was quiet and focused with the Redskins after being cut by Miami in training camp. Washington worried that his personality issues might surface with a big payday. Sure enough, after signing for seven years and $35million with Denver, Gardener injured his wrist in a late-night fight outside an Aurora, Colo., restaurant.

Wilkinson’s production, meanwhile, dramatically dropped last season. The defense actually played better during the last four weeks while he was sidelined by a calf tear. With young end/tackle Carl Powell filling in, the unit yielded an average of 247 yards (vs. 316.6 for the first 12 games) and rallied to a No.5 ranking.

Still, it’s hard to lose two name players.

“Naturally any time you lose two quality players and especially Daryl, who’s a special player, everyone has reason for concern,” Smith said. “We’re hoping that we’re not going to miss a beat. But it’s hard to replace a player like Daryl Gardener or Dan Wilkinson.”

Redskins officials think they did a fair job. To start, they never intended to acquire another Gardener, who can be dominant when he wants to be. Instead they focused on solid players who can hold their ground. The first was Noble. Then came Haley, a restricted free agent slated to be a Dolphins reserve. Then Holsey signed on the eve of camp as Wilkinson’s future grew increasingly uncertain. And then came the two trades.

Haley is a squatty player with outstanding strength. He played just one year of junior college football and spent two years in the Canadian Football League. His pass-rush skills remain dubious, but Washington has him playing nose tackle, where substance wins over style every time.

“I’ve been with Jermaine throughout his entire career,” said Nunn, who was Haley’s assistant line coach in Miami. “I’ve seen him come from a guy who didn’t play much college football to going to the Canadian League to being very unpolished to being an effective run-stopper in the league. I’m really excited about where Jermaine’s at.”

Holsey is a former undrafted rookie of the New York Giants. He played in every game for the Giants from 1996 to 1999, started 13 games for Indianapolis in 2000, sat out 2001 and played in eight games as a New England reserve last season. Nunn speculated that Holsey’s size (286 pounds) kept him from getting more attention as a free agent.

“People are always going to question everything,” Holsey said. “I’m confident in my teammates and myself. It doesn’t bother me what anybody outside of this building says. That really doesn’t determine how we play. We determine how we play.”

The key to the defensive tackles’ performance, everyone in the organization seems to agree, is keeping them in a rotation. None of the four is a Gardener-type standout, a player you want to keep on the field. Instead, Haley, Holsey, Chase and Dalton are relatively equal players who could wear down opposing offensive lines, especially because the Redskins slide ends Renaldo Wynn and Peppi Zellner inside on third downs.

“I think we’ve got a good group of guys,” Chase said. “If we work together and help each other out, I think we’re going to do our job.”

For now, Chase and especially Dalton remain a bit behind in terms of conditioning and knowledge of the defense. They’re expected to push to start in coming weeks but certainly not to dominate. Generally, the Redskins hope their tackles are solid, and their Pro Bowl linebackers (LaVar Arrington, Jeremiah Trotter and Jessie Armstead) are great.

If so, this “interesting road” might lead to an interesting place.

“At first, to be honest with you, I was a little skeptical,” Nunn said. “But right now, I’m very confident with where we’re at. … I think it’s a good combination. I think we’ve got a healthy situation.”

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