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Saturday, January 7, 2006
Updated: January 11, 8:16 AM ET
Skins' investment in defense pays off

By Len Pasquarelli
ESPN.com

TAMPA, Fla. -- Eight million dollars doesn't always take you very far in the NFL.

But the $8 million investment that free-spending owner Dan Snyder made this week, in retaining much-coveted defensive coordinator Gregg Williams with a three-year contract extension that kept him off the head coaching market, is taking the Washington Redskins all the way to Seattle for a divisional-round playoff game next Saturday.

Marcus Washington
Redskins linebacker Marcus Washington had 10 tackles, a fumble recovery and an interception.
And after that, well, who knows how far the clever Williams and his staunch defense can take this offensively challenged Redskins outfit?

"He called an absolutely great game," assessed Redskins strongside linebacker Marcus Washington of Williams' brilliant mix of strategies in a 17-10 wild card-round victory over the Tampa Bay Bucs. "Whatever it was they paid him, $8 million or whatever, he's worth every penny. It seemed like, in every really big situation, he dialed up the right defense for us."

And it seemed like every time Williams dialed up something, the Washington defenders answered the call, executing his brilliant machinations in equally brilliant fashion.

Brains and blueprints can never be underestimated in the playoffs, but more often than not it's the brawniest team that prevails, and the Redskins defense spent most of the day out-muscling a Tampa Bay offensive line that had been suspect most of the season. Washington's defense had to be extraordinary, because the Redskins' offense was even less than ordinary, registering only 120 yards. How microscopic is that? It represents the lowest total in NFL history for a winning team in a postseason game, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

Washington quarterback Mark Brunell, who completed only seven passes for 41 yards, and who had an embarrassing 25 net yards on 17 drop-backs, called his team's display of offensive anemia "nasty." Fortunately for the Redskins, who won their first playoff game since the 1999 season, their defense was far nastier.

The Redskins, who have won six games in a row, might not make it to Detroit for Super Bowl XL next month. But if they fall short, it probably won't be because Williams and the defense faltered, that's for sure. Not if Saturday was any kind of indicator.

At first blush, it might appear the game was dominated by a Redskins starting linebacker corps that totaled 32 tackles, two interceptions, three passes defensed and two forced fumbles. All three starters -- Lemar Marshall in the middle, flanked by Washington and weakside 'backer LaVar Arrington -- posted double-digit tackles. Arrington registered a first-quarter interception to set up the game's initial score, and Washington sealed the win by pilfering a Chris Simms pass with only 57 seconds remaining.

But a deeper examination of Washington's defensive performance, which limited the Bucs to 243 yards, points to the front four as the unit that most served as catalyst in the suffocating outing. Unheralded tackles Joe Salave'a and Cornelius Griffin in particular dominated the interior. Salave'a tipped the Simms pass that Arrington intercepted, and Griffin said he got "about three fingers" on the wounded duck Washington picked off.

In all, the Washington front four accounted for five of the team's eight passes defensed.

It was more, though, than just pass deflections that forced the usually nondescript down linemen into the spotlight on Saturday.

Time and again, the Redskins' tackles moved the line of scrimmage into the Tampa Bay backfield, making life miserable for Simms and rookie of the year tailback Cadillac Williams, who rushed 18 times for just 49 yards, and who lost a fumble that was run back for a touchdown by Washington free safety Sean Taylor. Things were especially difficult for Bucs center John Wade, who simply wasn't stout enough to anchor the inside against the Redskins' tackle tandem, and who several times got stood right up by Griffin, who frequently aligned at nose tackle.

It's all about physically breaking down the other guy. You try to take the things you do well and match them against the things (your opponent) isn't as strong with. We did a good job of that today.
Redskins' DT Cornelius Griffin
"It's all about physically breaking down the other guy," said Griffin, whose play was far more spectacular than the modest stat line that showed him with three tackles and two pass deflections. "You try to take the things you do well and match them against the things (your opponent) isn't as strong with. We did a good job of that today. I thought pretty early in the game, we established ourselves, because we were beating on their guys pretty good, you know? We played with great collective intensity."

The victory was especially satisfying for Salave'a, a seven-year veteran who essentially defines the term "journeyman," but who has now found a home in the interior of the Washington defensive line as a key anchor player. Released three different times in his career by three different teams, Salave'a had just a dozen career starts before the 2005 season and was viewed league-wide as a spare part. But the former University of Arizona standout started 13 games this season, posted a career-best 31 tackles and had a monster game versus the Bucs in a regular-season meeting on Nov. 13.

"Sometimes the guys that knock around a little bit, they just need to get to the right team at the right time and sort of create a niche for themselves," Salave'a said. "I feel like that's the situation I'm in here. They've found a way to use me that other teams I played with hadn't in the past. Man, it feels great."

Salave'a is typical of the manner in which Williams, whose new contract is the priciest ever for an assistant coach and who will have to wait until 2007 to pursue head coaching jobs now, has been able to transform less-heralded players into steady contributors. The Redskins defense, which statistically ranked No. 9 in the league this season, isn't exactly stocked with Pro Bowl-caliber players.

The defense doesn't rush the passer especially well, as evidenced by the fact 20 teams had more sacks during the season. Washington was just plus-one in turnover differential in 2005. None of the starting front four was originally drafted by Washington, and the starting lineup includes only three home-grown veterans.

The unit's highest-profile player, Arrington, spent most of the season in the doghouse and on the bench. Taylor, ejected in the third quarter for allegedly spitting on Bucs tailback Michael Pittman, is often an enigma. And Washington, who made the Pro Bowl in 2004 but wasn't selected this season despite having an even better overall year, is relatively unknown outside the Beltway. But the hallmark of the Williams defense is that the unit is better than its individual components.

And that the crafty Williams usually puts players in situations where they can succeed.

His game plan for Saturday wasn't quite the polar opposite of the model he used against Tampa Bay in the regular-season meeting, but there were key differences. In the earlier game, Williams used a lot of blitzes, trying to pressure Simms from a variety of angles. Sensing that his front four players were healthier this time around, and that the Bucs would employ more maximum-protection blocking schemes to keep Simms from being so consistently pestered, Williams relied more on a straight rush and opted to drop off and cover in the secondary.

Which isn't to say he didn't blitz at all.

On a critical fourth-and-1 play from the Washington 19-yard line with just under eight minutes left, Washington roared up the middle on a blitz and forced Simms into a hurried incompletion. The Redskins held on downs a second time later in the final stanza, when Tampa Bay had reached the Washington 35. And then Washington, who was named this week to the ESPN.com All-Pro team, secured the win with the pickoff of Simms on a play that originated from the Bucs' 46.

Williams joked after the game that Washington, who was named as the NFC defensive player of the month for December, already had a pretty good leg up on January, too. Apprised of the comment, Washington smiled, and acknowledged that whatever he has accomplished of late has been well plotted by his coordinator.

"Like I told you," Washington said, "he's well worth the money, isn't he?"

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here Insider.