Entering the 2006 season, Redskins defensive coaches were hoping for more out of middle linebacker Lemar Marshall. They wanted him to rise to another level and be more of a force inside.
Not that Marshall's 2005 season was anything shabby. He had posted team-highs in tackles with 132 and interceptions with four. He also had two sacks.
Last season, Marshall's stats dipped as the Redskins' defense struggled. He posted 119 tackles, second-most on the team, and 1.5 sacks. He was forced into pass coverage more often last season as offenses tried to set up big plays down the middle of the field.
In a season in which the Redskins' defense finished 31st overall in the NFL, Marshall suggested that the defense was most successful when it was aggressive.
He said the unit was at its best in late-season wins over the Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints.
"If you play faster, it makes a big difference," Marshall said. "When things aren't going well [on defense], it's because you're thinking too much and trying to compensate. Just go out there, play fast, play hard and have fun."
Assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams said Marshall had to bounce back from off-season shoulder surgery last year.
"We worried about him not being able to have a real strong offseason coming into training camp, what kind of fitness and power he would have," Williams said.
Still, Williams saw signs of improvement from Marshall last season. The fifth-year veteran is responsible for calling the defensive schemes and making adjustments at the line of scrimmage.
"He is comfortable to the point that very few things surprise him," Williams said. "He has been through three years of experience of [game situations] that you can't always practice. He can draw upon things that happen throughout the course of a season. He remembers how to bail himself out and how to get everyone lined up."
Defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin, like all of his teammates, realizes the entire defense struggled against the run for long stretches of the season.
In the Redskins' last two regular-season games, the defense yielded 197 rushing yard to the St. Louis Rams and 261 rushing yards to the New York Giants to drop to 27th in the NFL.
"We all had ups and downs," Griffin said. "No one on this defense played outstanding or had outstanding stats. Lemar is our middle linebacker. As a defensive tackle, I have to do a better job of keeping the guards off of him, making plays in the backfield.
"The thing about Lemar is, he's a tough guy. When things don't go well, he keeps fighting."
Marshall was tapped to start in the middle after the departure of Antonio Pierce to free agency in the 2005 offseason.
The 6-2, 232-pounder previously played at outside linebacker or served as a special teams contributor, and he played safety at Michigan State.
Williams said it's not a certainty that Marshall will remain at middle linebacker for the rest of his career.
"You never know," Williams said. "Every year, we try to take a look at the collective group. Lemar's versatility is good for him because we like our middle linebackers to be able to play as many positions as possible. We try to mix and match them and play the best guys we can. Versatility is a strength."