Redskins come to grips with porous defense

Team says it must stop big plays against 49ers

Pro Football

September 20, 2002|By Edward Lee | Edward Lee,SUN STAFF

ASHBURN, Va. - Maybe LaVar Arrington was onto something after all.

When the Washington Redskins' Pro Bowl linebacker ripped the defensive unit for surrendering 257 yards of total offense to an unimpressive Arizona Cardinals offense two Sundays ago, teammates and fans chalked up Arrington's comments to his high expectations for a defense that finished last season ranked 10th in the NFL.

But then Washington rolled out the welcome mat for the Philadelphia Eagles, who amassed 451 yards - 292 through the air - and scored on five of their six first-half possessions en route to a 37-7 rout before a Monday night audience.

Even a few days of introspective review and film breakdown haven't wiped away some of the shock.

"I'm stunned a lot, because I was really looking forward to having the No. 1 defense," said Redskins cornerback Fred Smoot. "It's not like it's too late, but we got to focus and do what we got to do."

Monday's performance reminded strong safety Sam Shade of the unit's troubles last season through the first five games, during which opposing teams racked up 376.4 yards, 28.8 points and 23 first downs a game.

"Monday night, I felt like we played like the team that started the season 0-5 last year," Shade said. "I don't want to say we played slowly. We weren't quick enough."

The pace is bound to quicken when Washington (1-1) visits the San Francisco 49ers (1-1) and their West Coast offense Sunday. Although San Francisco has struggled in compiling 270 yards of total offense and 15 points a game, the 49ers are 8-2 in their past 10 games at Candlestick Park and own one of the league's more dynamic passing tandems in quarterback Jeff Garcia and receiver Terrell Owens.

The defense was supposed to be the anchor of a club that was adjusting to new coach Steve Spurrier and his intricate Fun 'N' Gun offensive system. Defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis was wooed away from the Ravens with the league's biggest contract for an assistant, and he was given the label of assistant head coach.

But big plays have haunted the Redskins' defense, which is 21st in the league.

After giving up five passing plays of 15 yards or more and one rushing play of at least 10 yards to Arizona, Washington coughed up eight passing plays of 15 yards or more and three rushing plays of 10 yards or more to Philadelphia.

The culprits are numerous. The starting front four hasn't applied much of a pass rush - backups Del Cowsette (Maryland) and Ladairis Jackson have one sack apiece - and opponents are inclined to run the ball against the Redskins if defensive tackle Daryl Gardener can't play because of a long history of back problems.

Without a pass rush, the secondary has been left alone and has one interception.

The most bewildering part of the defense has been the play of the linebacker trio of Arrington, Jessie Armstead and Jeremiah Trotter - who share eight Pro Bowl appearances among them.

Armstead, who left the New York Giants, and Trotter, who came from Philadelphia, were the big-name free-agent acquisitions whom owner Daniel Snyder preferred rather than other free agents like current Buffalo Bills quarterback Drew Bledsoe. The Redskins preferred bolstering the defense rather than getting a high-profile quarterback.

Arrington is still getting used to his new role as a pass rusher (he has one sack), and all three were poster material when Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb froze the linebackers with a slight fake and scrambled 8 yards into the end zone for Philadelphia's first touchdown.

Lewis said much of the preseason hype showered on his defense was just that.

"We're going to go through some adversity," he said. "Like I said [Monday], I would've hoped that we had gotten through a lot of it in the preseason and realize that we don't have to go out and be he-men."

Free safety David Terrell said the defense's futility surprised everyone who watched the game film this week.

"We looked at a lot of mistakes that we made," he said. "For the most part, it was us hurting ourselves - playing out of position, a lot of technique problems and stuff like that. We're really concentrating on those mistakes this week."

Health has not been a factor for the defense. Tackle Dan Wilkinson is expected to play although he dislocated a finger and sprained his wrist during Monday's game.

He could play alongside Gardener, who said he is healthy and intends to start after watching Monday's game.

"It was tough to watch that game," Gardener said. "I just said to myself, `No matter what happens, I'm going to go out there and play if I'm in pain or not.' I just feel like I can't sit there and watch a game like that ever again."

Next for Redskins

Opponent:San Francisco 49ers

Site:Candlestick Park, San Francisco

When:Sunday, 4:15 p.m.

TV/Radio: Chs. 45, 5/WJFK (106.7 FM), WNAV (1430 AM)

Line:49ers by 9

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