Hot Topic: Redskins Defense Adds Strength

A Redskins defense that was surprisingly the NFL's third-best in 2004 despite playing most of the season without projected starters LaVar Arrington, Phillip Daniels and Matt Bowen returns those three players as well as nine of last year's regulars.

The defense should also be better just because it has the same man in charge, assistant head coach Gregg Williams, for a second straight season for the first time since 1999 (Mike Nolan was succeeded the next year by Ray Rhodes who was followed by Kurt Schottenheimer, Marvin Lewis, George Edwards and Williams).

However, the defense did lose its two most vocal leaders and two of its better players to free agency in middle linebacker Antonio Pierce and cornerback Fred Smoot. Pierce, who jumped to the NFC East rival New York Giants, zoomed from unheralded backup to top tackler last year while also absorbing the intricacies of Williams' schemes. Smoot, who was probably born yapping, was the only cocky member of the secondary and was a fine all-around corner the past four seasons. He signed with Minnesota.

The Redskins could easily have matched both offers, but chose not to top the deals they have the previous offseason to linebacker Marcus Washington and cornerback Shawn Springs. While admirable in principle, those decisions could prove very costly.

There are eight, count 'em eight, candidates at the moment to replace Pierce, but only 35-year-old Micheal Barrow, who missed all of last year and this offseason with a bad knee, has NFL experience in the middle. And while veteran Walt Harris and top draft pick Carlos Rogers will battle to succeed Smoot, Harris probably better suited for the nickel back role he filled last year and Rogers is not only a rookie but will likely be limited when camp starts on Aug. 1 because of a sprained right foot that is currently immobilized.

Then there are the ailing knees of Arrington and defensive tackle Brandon Noble that kept them out of minicamp and much of the offseason program. It's unsure how much either player will be able to do early in camp. Lemar Marshall, who started most of last year when Arrington was hurt, is ready to do so again if necessary.

Second-year safety Sean Taylor boycotted the entire offseason until being excused from minicamp by coach Joe Gibbs in order to focus on his legal troubles. Taylor is facing a felony assault charge and a three-year mandatory sentence if convicted. Trial is tentatively set for Sept. 12, the day after the season opener against Chicago, but will likely be postponed until the offseason. If Taylor is unavailable at some point, Ryan Clark, Andre Lott and former Bill Pierson Prioleau have all started in Williams' system.

The defense's strongest links are tackle Cornelius Griffin, who should have gone to the Pro Bowl, weak side linebacker Washington, who did, Springs, and when healthy and focused, Taylor and Arrington (the former has been embroiled in controversy almost since he was drafted fifth overall in 2004 while the latter has felt like an unloved spare part since he was first hurt last September).

Like Harris and Bowen, ends Renaldo Wynn and Daniels and tackles Noble and Joe Salave'a -- who splits time with Noble -- succeed more with smarts and moxie than with athletic ability.

The defense added experience by signing cornerback Artrell Hawkins from Carolina and safety Tony Dixon for Dallas as well as linebackers Warrick Holdman (Cleveland) and Brian Allen (Carolina). The departures of reserve tackle Jermaine Haley and backup safeties Todd Franz, Pat Dennis and Jason Doering won't be felt.

Williams and his top-notch staff led by former Bears coordinator Greg Blache and former Chargers coordinator Dale Lindsey showed last year that they can make the best out of what they're given. Whether the wonderful chemistry the defense had last year can be repeated minus Pierce and Smoot is the big question.

NOTES

--Like Hall, Ray Brown had seemingly never been hurt despite spending his entire career in the trenches. Since becoming a fulltime starter in 1993, Brown hadn't missed a game while starting all but four of 183 contests. Signed as insurance last August when right tackle Jon Jansen went down with a torn Achilles' in the preseason opener, Brown wound up playing every game and starting 14 last season.

In doing so, Brown lined up at tackle for the first time since 1994.

Brown, who turned 42 in December became the NFL's oldest lineman in nearly 80 years. His only concession to age was having a knee and ankle surgically repaired this winter, his first operations in his 19-year NFL career.

"You're not as quick as you used to be and you're not as strong," Brown said. "It becomes a mental game. The key to it is to come into it with a healthy body. It is so humbling. You realize what is wrong with your body. I had to get my balance back because I had surgery on my opposite ankle and opposite knee."

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