After Sunday's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers was in the books, Cornelius Griffin was still bothered that the defense had allowed Jerome Bettis to rush for 100 yards.
"That's bugging me because I thought we did better than that," Griffin said. "We never like it when a back gets 100 yards on us. We just have to keep working hard."
The Redskins may be 3-8 and their playoff aspirations all but finished, but there hasn't been any quit in the team all season long. And it's the defense that has led the way.
Griffin and his teammates are developing an intense sense of pride--and it showed on Sunday when they squared off against Pittsburgh, owners of the NFL's top-ranked defense. The Redskins are ranked No. 2.
"This defense has a lot of pride," said safety Ryan Clark, one of several young, scrappy defenders on the team who has stepped up because of injuries. "We want to be No. 1 again and there's a lot of motivation for that. But we also know that those stats will fall into place after the season. We want to do our part in winning games."
Assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams is aiming to establish a foundation of hard-hitting, aggressive defensive football. Certain NFL teams have cultivated a similar reputation for years, with Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia coming to mind. Williams wants Washington have a feared defense year-in and year-out.
On Sunday, the Steelers defeated the Redskins 16-7, but not without a fight. The Redskins' defense allowed just 207 total yards and 100 yards passing. Bettis may have logged 100 yards rushing, but he averaged only 3.2 yards per carry. Steelers rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was sacked four times--twice by Marcus Washington--and pressured repeatedly.
"I felt like our defense came out and played extremely hard again," head coach Joe Gibbs said. "Obviously they kept us in the ballgame against a very good Steelers offense. Bettis had 100 yards on us, but it wasn't much of an average per play. Roethlisberger, out of his nine completions, six of them were on check-downs or screens. The defense was very physical and kept us in the game."
Some other statistics of note for assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams's unit:
- The defense has not allowed an offensive touchdown in three games this season and has allowed only one offensive touchdown in two other games.
- The defense has allowed less than 200 yards twice this season: Week 1 against Tampa Bay and Week 6 against Chicago. Last Sunday in Pittsburgh, the defense's 207 yards allowed was the third lowest of the season.
- The defense is ranked first overall in rushing average, allowing just 3.1 yards per carry this season.
- The secondary, led by veterans Shawn Springs and Fred Smoot and imposing rookie safety Sean Taylor, has given up only four touchdowns to wide receivers this season.
Two of the defense's stalwarts this season have been Washington and Griffin. Washington is second on the team with 85 tackles, including 3.5 sacks and six tackles for a loss. Griffin is third with 71 tackles, with four sacks and nine tackles for a loss.
But the defense has also excelled with a collection of players who entered the season as reserves. Middle linebacker Antonio Pierce has a team-high 112 tackles. Lemar Marshall replaced injured starter LaVar Arrington at outside linebacker after Week 2 and the defense has not missed a beat. Clark replaced Bowen in Week 5 and is fourth on the defense with 70 tackles. Demetric Evans and Ron Warner have been solid replacing injured defensive end Phillip Daniels.
On Sunday in Pittsburgh, linebacker Chris Clemons and defensive tackle Ryan Boschetti saw their first playing time of the season. Clemons recorded a sack in the first quarter and Boschetti, an undrafted rookie out of UCLA, logged four tackles.
Simply put, when reserves step onto the playing field, there is an expectation that they will play up to the high standard set by the defense this season. It is a foundation
"We had Chris Clemons and Ryan Boschetti--those two guys came in, got thrown into the fire and they did a real good job," Washington said. "We've had guys like that all year. Somebody gets injured or goes down and someone comes in and steps up. It's all about accountability."
Perhaps no other player does more to drive up the intensity of the team than Washington; during pre-game, he is whooping it up in warm-ups and in the locker room, shouting out words of encouragement to his teammates.
Then there is Griffin, the quiet giant who like Washington, Springs and Smoot is having a Pro Bowl-caliber season. He maintains a singular focus by shutting out distractions and leading by example. He is among the sources of the Redskins' pride on defense.
"No matter what happens, we're not going to hang our heads after a loss," said Griffin, who signed with the Redskins as a free agent last offseason. "We're still going to come out and hit you in the mouth."
Added Williams: "His pride is that he is going to give you a full day's work for a full day's wage. Sometimes when guys get paid in this league, they think they have arrived. Cornelius is about proving himself every day. That was very important about identifying that characteristic of starting a foundation that we want here, especially up front.
"A defensive line has to have the workmanlike attitude day-in and day-out, and Cornelius has really been shining in that way. He has been a very good example for the rest of our team."