The Redskins' defense went into the final game of the regular season last year with a shot at unseating the Pittsburgh Steelers as the No. 1 defense in the NFL. The Redskins ended up at No. 3, behind the top-ranked Steelers and the Buffalo Bills.
This year, the Redskins' defensive unit wants to finish the job by becoming No. 1 and helping lead the team to the postseason for the first time since 1999.
In last Friday's preseason game against the Cincinnati Bengals, several injured defensive starters returned to action and the first-team defense seemed to pick up where it left off last season.
The Redskins' defense forced the Bengals into consecutive 3-and-outs on their first two possessions. The Bengals' third possession ended with an interception by rookie cornerback Carlos Rogers. And the Bengals' fourth possession resulted in a punt.
Many of the Redskins' backups entered the game at that point of the game.
Asked to assess the Redskins' defensive performance, defensive lineman Phillip Daniels said: "I think we did very well. We went out and got off the field and gave the ball back to our offense. There's room for improvement--we're only running a few things out there. We're not using the whole package or anything. Just to go out to get a feel for each other is important. Every guy is taking it upon himself to improve."
Added defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin: "Everybody's swarming to the ball. That's Redskins defense. You can feel that this defense will be just as good as last year, and better."
Even with the departures of two starters from last year's squad--cornerback Fred Smoot and middle linebacker Antonio Pierce--the feeling is that this defense will succeed with the same formula as last season.
Seasoned veterans such as Pro Bowl linebacker Marcus Washington, Griffin and Shawn Springs were joined by previously untested players Pierce, Lemar Marshall, Ryan Clark, Sean Taylor and Demetric Evans, among others, to form a formidable unit.
The defense gave up 4,281 yards, or just 267.5 yards per game, last year.
Can they do it again?
The key will almost certainly be how well cornerback Walt Harris--and possibly rookie draft pick Carlos Rogers later in the regular season--steps in for Smoot, as well as who steps up as the middle linebacker, often regarded as the quarterback of Gregg Williams' defense.
The addition of linebacker LaVar Arrington, a three-time Pro Bowler, could help elevate the defense, as might the return of a fully healthy Daniels. Arrington missed most of last season with a knee injury while Daniels had a myriad of injuries that sidelined him for 11 games.
Arrington could be ready to play as early as this Friday's game against the Steelers.
Williams believes the depth of this year's squad is superior to last year.
"We're deeper right now in preseason than we were last year," Williams said. "Good players come in all sizes, shapes, forms, fashions. There's not just one cookie-cutter body type or mental type that you have to have. We have a lot of good football players here."
Williams also sees a camaraderie developing among his players.
"Behind the scenes, a special thing we have going on defense is that we like to laugh and we like to joke when it's appropriate," Williams said. "But the intensity is there on the field, and it can be pretty hard and pretty heavy."
Added Washington: "We're all a little more comfortable. When you're more comfortable, it makes you faster because you're playing more relaxed.
"You can always make improvement, though. My saying is, 'If you're not getting better, you're getting worse.' We can always do the little things better, like trying to get a faster read for the pass rush. You always have room for improvement."