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Defense Rose Above Expectations

In a three-part series, takes a look back at the recently completed season. Today: the defense.

There were signs of how dominant the Redskins' defense would become in the preseason. Remember the 17-0 shutout of the Miami Dolphins on Aug. 21 in South Florida? Or how about the 27-0 win over the playoff-bound Atlanta Falcons on Sept. 3 at FedExField, where the Redskins harassed Michael Vick into an interception, a sack and two incomplete passes?

The Redskins' defense was primed when the regular season began. In the opener against Tampa Bay, a 16-10 win, they allowed just 169 total yards and 30 rushing yards. The only touchdown the befuddled Buccaneers would score was on a fumble return by cornerback Ronde Barber.

Tampa Bay had several chances to drive downfield for a game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter. On Brad Johnson's last three pass attempts, he was sacked all three times, including the last play of the game by a jubilant LaVar Arrington.

They didn't let up through the next 17 weeks, no matter who was inserted into the lineup.

Middle linebacker Mike Barrow sidelined with a knee injury? Here's Antonio Pierce waiting in the wings. Defensive lineman Phillip Daniels sidelined for an extended period of time due to various injuries? Backups Demetric Evans, Ron Warner and Ryan Boschetti can fill in. Cornerback Fred Smoot sidelined with a back injury? Say hello to undrafted rookie Garnell Wilds.

It was a combination of nine-year veterans and first-year players all had a part in the Redskins' defense finishing third overall in the NFL in yardage allowed and first in the NFC. The defense gave up 4,281 yards, or just 267.5 yards per game.

"It has been gratifying in the fact that they bought in to what we wanted to do so quickly," assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams said. "I am really proud with what they did and how they built depth at every position. We've had a lot of guys on injured reserve on defense this year, so we've had a lot of guys that had to step up in backup roles. We have said there is no such thing as a backup--and they bought into that."

It was the likes of Joe Salave'a, Brandon Noble, Ryan Clark, Evans and Lemar Marshall and others who helped the defense establish an identity as a group of lunch-pail type of players. They would do whatever it took to shut down opposing offenses. More often than not, they succeeded.

Early in the season, Pierce was the storyline. Barrow was sidelined with knee tendonitis, giving Pierce an opportunity to play middle linebacker for the first time in his career. He filled in like a steady veteran, calling out the plays and directing the defense.

Pierce finished with 160 tackles (109 solo) and two interceptions, including one that he returned 78 yards for a touchdown in the Week 15 win over San Francisco.

When Pro Bowl linebacker LaVar Arrington was sidelined with a knee injury after Week 2, Williams turned to Marshall, who like Pierce had toiled in relative obscurity on special teams the last few years. Marshall filled in admirably, recording 82 tackles, 1.5 sacks and four passes defensed. On passing downs, he mostly covered linebackers and running backs coming out of the backfield--in effect becoming another defensive back on the field.

"Lemar played very physical and very tough when people said that was not what his nature was," Williams said. "Our linebackers get a chance to do an awful lot of things in our defensive system because they get a chance to rush and cover. He has very good, athletic defensive back skills because he used to be a defensive back."

By Week 6, Cornelius Griffin began to garner attention as a dominant defensive lineman. In that game against Chicago, the Redskins were clinging to a 13-10 lead with the Bears starting a potential game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter. Griffin stepped up to sack quarterback Jonathan Quinn on consecutive plays, stymieing the Bears' offense again.

Three weeks later, against Detroit, Griffin had another two-sack game and even dropped back into coverage, breaking up two pass attempts.

One of the Redskins' key off-season acquisitions, Griffin came into his own in Washington. For the season, he logged 96 tackles--an astonishingly high number for a defensive lineman--plus 15 tackles for a loss and six sacks.

"It is hard for me to believe we were able to get somebody that good during free agency," head coach Joe Gibbs said. "He is outstanding. He is extremely strong in the pass rush, against the run, everything. And he's a real character guy. I'm excited about the future mainly because of guys like Cornelius."

With Matt Bowen and Andre Lott both placed on injured reserve by midseason, the Redskins needed some new faces to step up in the defensive backfield.

Rookie free safety Sean Taylor and backup strong safety Clark stepped in and didn't miss a beat. Both had 80-plus tackles on the season and were solid against the run and in pass coverage.

Taylor began to establish himself in the NFL by midseason. His Week 6 interception was his first as a pro and helped seal the win over the Bears. He brought an intimidating style of play and instant attitude to the Redskins' defense, but he also learned some valuable lessons. He was part of the coverage that allowed a game-winning touchdown to the Dallas Cowboys on Week 16 and he was beaten one-on-one against Pro Bowl wide receiver Randy Moss in Week 17.

Taylor finished his rookie campaign with four interceptions, one sack and two forced fumbles.

"Each week he has gotten better," Williams said. "There are so many things that he can do that you cannot coach. But the things you do have a chance to help with with, he has accepted those things. He has gotten better in the mental abilities for an NFL football player. And that never stops. Each year, you have to grow mentally because of the nuances of the game."

At cornerback, Shawn Springs and Smoot combined to field a formidable duo. They gave up only nine touchdowns all season to wide receivers they were assigned to cover.

Springs, another key off-season acquisition, wrapped up an impressive first season in Washington by leading the defense with five interceptions and six sacks. (He actually tied Griffin for the team lead in sacks.) Springs becomes one of only three players--and the first cornerback--in NFL history to lead a team in sacks and interceptions in the same season.

And yet, despite the defense's high ranking and the solid performances up and down the lineup, the Redskins had only one Pro Bowl player: Linebacker Marcus Washington. The Redskins' 6-10 record may have had something to do with it, but players like Griffin, Pierce and Springs deserved better.

With an impressive first season as a Redskin, Washington vaulted himself into the upper echelon of NFL linebackers. He was second on the team with 130 tackles and logged 4.5 sacks. He was also first on the team with 11 quarterback pressures.

"I was able to get into the backfield a lot more this year and cause a lot of disruptions and mayhem," Washington said. "I was just given the opportunity to blitz and be aggressive. I think every linebacker loves to do that. Even though I didn't get all the sacks that I wanted to get, I was able to cause a lot of confusion in the backfield."

Washington also brought an infectious enthusiasm for the game. It was common for the 6-3, 247-pounder to be seen whooping it up during pre-game warm-ups, shouting out words of encouragement to teammates.

By season's end, young players were making a name for themselves in Williams' defense. Linebacker Chris Clemons showed speed as an outside pass rusher and recorded three sacks in six games. Boschetti, an undrafted rookie who spent most of the season on the practice squad, had four tackles in a game.

Another "no-name" defender was forced into action in the season finale against the Minnesota Vikings. Wilds stepped up in place of the injured Smoot and served as the third cornerback. He occasionally lined up against Pro Bowl wide receiver Randy Moss.

Even Gibbs admitted he was nervous when he saw that matchup. But Wilds held his own against Moss.

"Garnell played so hard out there," Gibbs said. "Here's a guy who was on the practice squad, worked hard all year, never a complaint. He ran other teams' plays offensively as a receiver. He went and practiced on defense and wound up getting a chance to play at the end of the year."

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