The Redskins' defense has been nothing short of outstanding this season. After Week 8, the unit was ranked first overall in the NFL, allowing only 252.3 yards per game. As the offense has struggled to get rolling in Joe Gibbs' first season back, the defense has kept Washington in nearly every game.
Most remarkable, perhaps, is that the defense has played so well in spite of several injuries that have sidelined key personnel for extended periods of time.
"A lot of people don't give us credit for that," cornerback Fred Smoot said. "We've been missing a lot of key components to the defense. Just wait until we get fully loaded."
The most notable absence is linebacker LaVar Arrington, who has been sidelined since Week 3 with a lingering knee injury. Arrington made the last three Pro Bowls and is the cornerstone of the defense.
Linebacker Mike Barrow has not seen any game action due to knee tendonitis. Starting safety Matt Bowen suffered a season-ending knee injury against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 5, and safety Andre Lott's season concluded prematurely when he tore a muscle in Week 8 against the Green Bay Packers.
Defensive end Phillip Daniels returned to action against the Packers after missing several games with a groin injury.
Despite a lengthy laundry list of injuries, the defense has not missed a beat. Reserves such as linebacker Lemar Marshall, defensive linemen Ron Warner and Demetric Evans and safeties Ryan Clark and Todd Franz have stepped up their play when called upon.
The end result is evident in the NFL's defensive rankings.
"Basically, everybody has stayed on top of their game, and guys have proven that each week," said linebacker Antonio Pierce, who is having a breakout season filling in for Barrow. "Guys like Lemar Marshall and Ron Warner are improving each week and helping our defense get better. They're doing what the coaches are asking them to do and not more than what they're supposed to do."
Smoot pointed out that players all over the Redskins' defense are having solid seasons. Pierce, who played mainly on special teams the past three seasons, has made a name for himself at middle linebacker in 2004. Pierce led the team after seven games with 51 (36 solo) tackles, and assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams has repeatedly praised Pierce for his smart, tough play.
"We practice with a fast pace and getting the play calls in quickly enough," Williams said. "Now I get about halfway through the signals. I do about one or two movements and all of a sudden Antonio just turns around, ignores me and calls the play. He is ahead and he knows what I am thinking. He's a smart kid. That helps the pace of the game."
Free agent acquisition Marcus Washington has also excelled at linebacker. His 49 total tackles through seven games were second-most on the team behind Pierce, and his 40 solo takedowns led the team.
Defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin, another offseason acquisition, was on pace after seven games to establish career highs in total and solo tackles. His 35 (29 solo) tackles through Week 8 were best among Redskins' defensive linemen. He led the Redskins with eight tackles and two sacks in the Week 7 victory at Chicago.
"He's come in and on the field, he's been very explosive," said assistant coach Greg Blache, who oversees the defensive line. "He's been a dream come true for me. If he continues to play like he's playing, the guys around the league will have to consider him when they vote for the Pro Bowl, because he's having that type of year."
Cornerback Shawn Springs, who was acquired this offseason to offset the departure of All-Pro cornerback Champ Bailey, led the team with three interceptions through seven games.
His two picks against Brett Favre in Week 8 helped bring the Redskins back in a game they trailed early 17-0. He is eying his career high of seven interceptions established with the Seattle Seahawks in 1998.
Springs also led the team through seven games with three sacks. Gibbs said last month that Springs has answered any questions about his ability to replace Bailey.
"I think our defense has been stellar," Gibbs said. "I think our corners have played extremely well. We're real pleased with that."
Several members of the defense, when asked why the unit is performing so well, have various explanations. A common theme among them, however, is the team concept with which the group is playing.
"I don't hear guys talking about their individual stats," Pierce said. "There's not a lot of talk about the Pro Bowl right now. No one is really talking about that. It's more about team defense. What's key about that is if the team defense is good, then the individual awards will take care of themselves. I think the guys on the team this year understand that."
Defensive lineman Renaldo Wynn added: "It's guys being on the same page, doing their jobs. The level of trust we have for each other is phenomenal. Guys are doing their jobs to the best of their abilities."
Players have also given credit to Williams and other defensive coaches. The Redskins have assumed an attacking mentality in their first year under Williams and are constantly pressuring opposing offenses. The level of preparation leading up to games has been extensive, as well.
"The coaches have given us a chance to prepare and to win," said Wynn, who is in his eighth NFL season. "They do a better job than I've seen since I've played this game, as far as preparation."