Washington's Defense Has Turned it Around

When Pro Bowl safety Sean Taylor was sidelined with a sprained knee during the second half against Philadelphia on Nov. 11, Washington's defense caved in as it had more often than not last year. Reggie Brown and Brian Westbrook blistered the Redskins for touchdowns of 45 and 57 yards as the visiting Eagles turned a 22-13 deficit into a 33-25 victory.

The following Sunday at Dallas, Terrell Owens ran wild through the defense for 173 yards receiving and all four Cowboys touchdowns, as the Redskins ran the Cover-2 defense that Owens seems to devour..

But after holding the Cowboys to a franchise-record low one yard (on 16 carries) and 147 total yards in Sunday's 27-6 playoff berth-sealing victory, the Redskins are playing as well as they have on defense during their four years in assistant head coach Gregg Williams' scheme.

"A spectacular effort on their part," coach Joe Gibbs said of the defense's performance against the Cowboys, which included getting off the field on all 12 third downs. "If you're going to get something done in the playoffs, your defense is going to have to lead you."

Washington finished fourth in run defense and eighth in total defense, a year after ranking 27th and 31st in those categories. When the Redskins last made the playoffs in 2005, they were ninth overall and 13th against the run. They were third overall and second in run defense during Williams' debut season of 2004.

"There's still room for improvement, but after what happened last year, we've got to be proud of how we played," said tackle Cornelius Griffin, who joins cornerback Shawn Springs, end Phillip Daniels and linebacker Marcus Washington as the only starters here throughout Williams' tenure.

Daniels said that Taylor's murder has been a rallying point.

"Sean pulled us together and made us realize you don't get no tomorrow in this game," Daniels said. "You gotta play hard as you can today. The funeral was closure for us. You get closure and you can move on and concentrate on the things you've got to do. That's what we've done."

The defense hasn't just come through after Taylor's tragic loss, it has been playing without cornerback Carlos Rogers and weakside linebacker Rocky McIntosh, who both suffered season-ending knee injuries.

"I'm proud of how resilient we were," said middle linebacker London Fletcher. "The way we've battled and had to win four straight games against four real good football teams, we earned it getting into these playoffs."

Indeed, they pounded the NFC's best team, the Cowboys, even though they would have qualified anyway thanks to losses by New Orleans and Minnesota.
"We got ourselves in the playoffs," Daniels said. "We didn't rely on nobody else to get us in there."

NOTES, QUOTES

--Running back Clinton Portis, who had played with Sean Taylor at the University of Miami and then reunited with him in Washington in 2004, spoke on Monday with the murdered safety's father and fiance. "They're fine," Portis said. "(They said) 'Happy New Year, congratulations (on making the playoffs in his honor).' They enjoy what we're doing here, keeping Sean in our thoughts and prayers."

--Portis earns his millions as a ball carrier, but the running back established personal bests with 47 catches and 389 receiving yards. Portis laughed when asked if he needs to renegotiate his contract.
"I get paid to run the ball," Portis said. "I need to get paid for throwing a block. I need to get paid for being a motivator. I need to get paid for everything I do."

--After seven NFL seasons, cornerback Fred Smoot is finally playoff-bound. "It's sweet, but it will be sweeter when we win these next three (playoff games en route to the Super Bowl)," Smoot said.

PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES

--WR James Thrash, who missed four games with a high-ankle sprain, aggravated the injury against Dallas and is in a walking boot.
--LB Randall Godfrey is expected to play despite suffering an abdominal strain against the Cowboys.
--OT Stephon Heyer is expected to play with the mild sprained knee he suffered against Dallas.
--OT Chris Samuels will play with a sprained finger on his right hand.
--QB Jason Campbell will miss a fourth straight game with the dislocated left kneecap he suffered on Dec. 6 against Chicago.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

REPORT CARD VS. COWBOYS

PASSING OFFENSE: B-plus -- Quarterback Todd Collins continued to shine after sitting on the bench for 10 years. Collins fumbled twice early after blindside sacks but bounced back to post a 104.8 passer rating with 244 yards and two touchdowns. Receiver Santana Moss continued to torment the Cowboys with eight catches, 115 yards and a score. Pro Bowl tackle Chris Samuels was beaten by DeMarcus Ware for a sack.

RUSHING OFFENSE: B -- Running back Clinton Portis produced a second 100-yard day in three weeks with 104 yards on 25 carries and two touchdowns, running equally well to both sides. Backup Ladell Betts set up a field goal with an eight-yard run. The blocking was solid.

PASS DEFENSE: A -- After intercepting two passes in 2-1/2 years, cornerback Shawn Springs picked off his fourth in four weeks. First-year starting safety Reed Doughty deflected a sure touchdown away from Pro Bowl tight end Jason Witten. First-year end Chris Wilson had two sacks, equaling his total of the first 15 games, and two hurries.

RUSH DEFENSE: A -- Tackle Cornelius Griffin and end Andre Carter had big stops of Dallas running backs Julius Jones and Marion Barber, respectively. Linebacker London Fletcher dumped Barber for a four-yard loss. Linebacker Marcus Washington led the way with six tackles, one more than Doughty and safety LaRon Landry recorded.

SPECIAL TEAMS: B-plus -- Shaun Suisham kicked field goals of 21 and 46 yards to finish his first full season with seven in a row and 29 of 35 accuracy. Leigh Torrence downed a punt at the Dallas 1. Antwaan Randle El had his best game of the season with three of his six punt returns topping 10 yards. Kick returner Rock Cartwright and punter Derrick Frost weren't special.

COACHING: A-minus -- Gregg Williams had his defense primed for the Cowboys and Al Saunders' offense is a perfect fit for new starting quarterback Collins. But most of the credit for the four-game tear goes to coach Joe Gibbs, who has shown once again that he's a Hall of Famer when times are toughest. Gibbs' players almost always play hard for him.


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