Defensive players such as Cornelius Griffin, Marcus Washington, Shawn Springs and Fred Smoot have received accolades--and justifiably so--over the fact that the Redskins' defense has been ranked at or near the top of the NFL rankings at various times in 2004.
Redskins' middle linebacker Antonio Pierce has been a large part of that accomplishment as well.
The statistics tell the story: In his first campaign as a full-time starter in the NFL, the 6-1, 240-pound Pierce has led the Redskins' defense with 127 total tackles. A distant second in terms of tackles was fellow linebacker Washington, who has totaled 101.
Pierce, the fourth-year player out of the University of Arizona, has contributed double digits in tackles six times. His career high came on Oct. 10 at FedExField. The Long Beach, Calif., native totaled 15 tackles versus the Baltimore Ravens in a game the Redskins lost 17-10.
And now there's even talk of a Pro Bowl berth. Assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams said he'd like to see Pierce get consideration for the honor.
"I would say he has played production-wise as well as any middle linebacker," Williams said. "I don't if there are many middle linebackers that have to do as much, with the checks, audibles and running the show the way we ask the middle linebacker, as you trace all the way through the years in [this style of] defense.
"The pressure that is put on that one guy--it is amazing that he has been able to produce in really his first year of playing at this level. With the numbers he has--and he has to get everybody else lined up--he deserves it."
Signed by the Redskins as an undrafted free agent in April of 2001, Pierce has had to be patient as his NFL career has unfolded. As a rookie, he basically served as a backup, occasional starter and special teams contributor.
Pierce was part of the 2001 Redskin team that started 0-5 but went 8-3 over the final 11 games to finish at .500 under Marty Schottenheimer.
Actually, Pierce was a key part of that 8-8 finish. Pierce started eight games his rookie year in place of the injured Shawn Barber. But he started just two games in 2002 and none last year as the Redskins chose to go with more experienced players.
In the season finale, versus Arizona in the mud and the muck at FedExField, the Redskins fell behind at halftime. Pierce intercepted a Jake Plummer pass--marking his first NFL pick--early in the second half. The sequence sparked the Redskins to a 20-17 win and put Antonio Pierce on the NFL map.
In subsequent seasons, the Redskins signed veteran Pro Bowlers to start with LaVar Arrington at linebacker, namely Jessie Armstead, Jeremiah Trotter and Mike Barrow.
This year, Arrington and Barrow have been sidelined due to injuries, and that has afforded younger players such as Pierce and Lemar Marshall to get extended looks. Neither has disappointed Redskins linebackers coach Dale Lindsey, who has helped mold other young linebackers into NFL standouts. Case in point: Brian Urlacher of the Bears.
With Barrow out, assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams turned to the versatile Pierce, who had never played middle linebacker before 2004 but was more than willing to fill in.
Pierce has been one of the vital components in the Redskins' stifling defense ever since the early going. His fourth-quarter interception of Brad Johnson in the season-opener preceded John's Hall's go-ahead 30-yard field goal. The Redskins beat the Bucs 16-10.
"He has been outstanding for us," head coach Joe Gibbs said of Pierce. "Our defensive coaches think he's smart enough to play linebacker at any position. He gets our defensive guys lined up in the right places in those critical situations where it can get real confusing."
Added Williams: "We practice with a fast pace and getting the play calls in quickly is important. I get about halfway through the signals, I do about one or two movements, and all of a sudden Antonio just turns around, ignores me and calls the play. He's ahead, and he knows what I'm thinking. We're talking about a smart player."
Pierce still feels he can improve on his play--a positive sign as Redskins officials begin to evaluate needs for next year. Pierce becomes an unrestricted free agent this offseason.
"It's good to get noticed, but I still feel like I have a lot to prove," Pierce said. "I want to prove that I can go week-in and week-out for 16 games. All I can do is play as hard as I can."