The Redskins' defensive line may lack a true superstar in 2004 but that hasn't deterred the group's self-image. Instead, Cornelius Griffin, Renaldo Wynn, Ron Warner, Phillip Daniels and company are confident they'll be able to come together and develop into a rotation capable of stifling opposing offenses.
So far, so good. After three games, the Redskins' run defense is ranked No. 1 in the NFL. The unit has given up an average of just 47.3 yards per game. Overall, the Redskins' defense is ranked third in the league.
Greg Blache, the team's defensive coordinator and defensive line specialist, has a colorful and melodic way of talking about his group. Bear with Blache as he explains it: "I'd rather have a group that's kind of like The Temptations. Everybody does their thing, you hit your step and when they throw you the microphone you sing. No one feels like a fifth wheel. It makes for more harmony and success."
That description aptly applies to the group of linemen that Blache has this season. With the off-season departure of Bruce Smith, the NFL's all-time sack leader, the defensive line lost its biggest name. Smith led all Redskins defensive linemen in sacks each of the last three seasons. But at the same time, he was part of a defense that struggled to pressure the quarterback a year ago.
This time around, the Redskins' front line on the defensive side is made up of talented but unheralded players such as defensive ends Wynn and Daniels, and defensive tackles Griffin, Joe Salave'a, Brandon Noble and Jermaine Haley.
With Daniels currently sidelined with a groin injury, Warner stepped right in and made his first NFL start on Monday night against the Dallas Cowboys.
"I'm banking on our character and I'm banking on our toughness to carry us through," Blache said. "It's going to be a real challenge and a real test. I like the people I have, no question about it. I think they have the makings to be a good group."
Joe Gibbs also commented this week on the D-line's character.
"Their character has a lot to do with their success," Gibbs said. "They do have a lot of talent. They're a strong, tough group of guys. I take great heart in that, because that's a big deal for your team.
"Greg Blache has done a terrific job with them. They were out there Wednesday and you could just tell they have a good feeling about themselves."
Blache emphasized that the defensive line's success this season depends in part on the depth within the rotation of players. The former defensive coordinator for the Chicago Bears plans on substituting defensive linemen frequently during games in order to keep players fresh.
Because the Redskins have solid linemen up and down the depth chart, the group is confident that there will be no drop-off in performance from the frequent substitutions.
"We have good depth this year," Noble said. "We're two-deep across the board, which is nice. The rotation gives the coaches the opportunity to allow you to come in and out of the game and be fresh at the end of the game. That's a big advantage for a defensive lineman."
Added Daniels, prior to his injury: "Here's how we all have to think. We don't have any backups--we're all starters."
Since the personnel on the front line will be changing constantly, each member of the unit is learning to rely on each other to maintain assignments.
"The most important thing for a defensive line is that you have to have trust and know where each other fits," Blache said. "So much of being a complete line is knowing each other because when you know where guys fit in a blocking scheme, it makes your job much easier."
He admitted, however, that it's an ongoing process.
Said Blache: "To maximize the talent that we have, we have to jell. We may not be individually the most talented group in the league, but that doesn't mean we can't work to be the most dominant group in the league."
The Redskins did not select a defensive lineman in April's NFL Draft, but the team did sign Daniels, Griffin and Salave'a as free agents during the offseason to improve the unit.
Daniels, who is expected to return from his groin injury in the next 1-3 weeks, was acquired by the Redskins as a free agent in March. The University of Georgia product played the last four seasons with the Bears, and was recommended by Blache. The eight-year veteran played four seasons for the Seattle Seahawks prior to his stint in Chicago.
Daniels, who stands at 6-5 and 285 pounds, had his finest NFL season in 2001 when he started all 16 games for the Bears. That year, he established a career high with 72 tackles, and his nine sacks tied a career high.
Wynn, a seven-year veteran, has started all 32 games since joining the Redskins during the 2002 offseason. Last year, he played opposite Smith and accumulated 30 tackles (24 solo) and two sacks.
The Notre Dame product and former Jacksonville Jaguar registered a first quarter sack in the Monday night game against Dallas. He burst past Torrin Tucker and tackled Vinny Testaverde for a three-yard loss. He also registered half a sack during the latter stages of the Redskins' season-opening 16-10 victory over Tampa Bay. Helping out on that sack was the speedy Warner, a fourth-year NFL player who signed with Washington late last season.
The Redskins added Griffin and Salave'a this offseason to help solidify the defensive tackle position. Griffin signed with the Redskins after spending his first four NFL seasons with the New York Giants. Last season, the 27-year old University of Alabama product posted a career-high 68 tackles (44 solo), one sack and one forced fumble.
"Defensive linemen are extremely hard to find," head coach Joe Gibbs said when the team added Griffin. "We thought Cornelius was one of the top defensive linemen out there. He's an extremely hard worker and he's terrific in the weight room. He's a high-quality person and a real talented guy."
Griffin excelled during his Redskins' debut with two solo tackles and a fumble recovery in the first half against Tampa Bay.
In Salave'a, the Redskins hope to have found a hidden gem. Although the native of American Samoa has played in only nine NFL games over the last two seasons, he started four of the Redskins' five pre-season games this summer. The 29-year old played for Redskins assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams from 1998-2000 when both were with the Tennessee Titans.
"I'm just really thankful that the Redskins gave me an opportunity to be here, and I'm taking advantage of it," Salave'a said. "If I can improve little by little every week, and be the guy in the middle that clogs it up then I'm more than willing to do that."
Noble and Haley are the incumbents at the defensive tackle spot. Noble joined the Redskins during the 2003 offseason, but his Redskins debut was delayed a year due to a knee injury he suffered during the second pre-season game against New England. His arduous rehabilitation has been well documented, and his remarkable comeback was complete when he saw game action versus Tampa Bay in the opener. In his first four NFL seasons, the Virginia Beach, Va., native and former Penn State Nittany Lion had 7.5 sacks, 217 tackles and four fumble recoveries.
Haley started five games for the Redskins last season in his first year with the team. He was slowed by a thumb injury, however, and was placed on injured reserve with a month left in the season. At 325 pounds, he is the second-heaviest Redskin; offensive guard Derrick Dockery weighs in at 345.
"He's much more athletic than I thought he would be," Blache said of Haley. "I'm impressed by his quickness; Jermaine's got uncanny quickness for his size. He can do things a lot of guys at his weight aren't capable of doing."