Tuesday, May 15, 2007

If the Washington Redskins’ defensive line were a stock, it would be a sell in neon lights.

The line was pivotal to Washington’s defense in 2004, when the Redskins allowed a league-low 3.1 yards a carry and finished third overall. Two years later, that line allowed 4.5 yards a carry (25th), making it heavily responsible for the team’s decline to second-to-last overall on defense.

Two starters and two reserves are on the wrong side of 30. Starter Phillip Daniels, the 34-year-old left end, had surgery on both ankles and a wrist in January. Neither 30-year-old starter Cornelius Griffin, the left defensive tackle, nor 32-year-old Joe Salave’a stayed healthy in either of the past two seasons.

The other starters, right end Andre Carter and right tackle Kedric Golston, aren’t sure things either. Carter, signed to replace 33-year-old Renaldo Wynn in March 2006, was looking like a bust until he enjoyed an excellent December. Golston, a sixth-round draft choice who supplanted Salave’a in November, is more a testament to work ethic than athleticism.

Yet the Redskins did not pursue any linemen in free agency and bypassed the top collegians at the position, instead using the sixth pick to add a safety, LaRon Landry, to a secondary full of former top-10 selections. Not one of Washington’s five draft choices was a defensive lineman. Coach Joe Gibbs said the Redskins didn’t feel pressure to add new talent, and assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams is sticking by his players.

“Williams said he had faith in us, and he lived up to that,” Griffin said.

Carter, 28, said the players have to justify that faith.

“The coaches have all the faith in the world that we’ll get the job done,” Carter said. “But this is a production business. If you don’t produce, the next thing you know, you’ll be out of here. I have all the confidence in the world that we will produce.”

To do that, Daniels slimmed down from 285 pounds to 277, and Griffin is noticeably bigger from the waist up after an injured shoulder kept him from lifting weights for much of the previous offseason.

“When I first came here, I had a chip on my shoulder,” said Griffin, who felt cast off by the New York Giants. “Maybe after being the No. 3 defense and then No. 9 [in 2005], we didn’t have the same chip on our shoulders. This year we have a different mentality. We have a chip on our shoulders because we’ve been to the bottom.

“Last year is in the past,” Griffin said. “I don’t forget about it. I learn from it, but I’ve only got two arms. I can’t hold on to the past if I’m going to grab on to the future and go forward. I’m a lot stronger and maybe a lot faster. You can see the difference. I’m a lot bigger up here and more explosive. My hips are healed up.”

Williams said an improved secondary should allow his linemen to be more aggressive this season, but Carter understands that doesn’t mean he just can go after the quarterback.

“Turning it loose means we should have more opportunities, and when you hear that, all you can do is smile,” said Carter, who had four sacks in the final five games of 2006 to finish with a team-high six. “But you have to stop the run in order to get those opportunities. Last year, we weren’t up to par on first and second down. We always ended up third-and-3, third-and-2. That really limits those opportunities.”

The line has more support in the back seven and is in better shape physically. Maybe Daniels can justify calling 2006 “a fluky year where nothing went right.”

But NFL players rarely improve or get healthier after 30. So why should anyone expect the line to return to its pre-2006 standards in 2007?

“I can’t answer that,” Carter said. “It’s like in the business world. If you know the guy can do the job and he’s accountable, then that’s the guy you rely on. I believe these guys have a lot more football left.”

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