Since 2001, linebacker Antonio Pierce has quietly waited his turn. He signed with the Redskins as an undrafted rookie out of Arizona that year. He mostly served as a backup, occasional starter and contributor on special teams.
Meantime, the Redskins signed a pair of Pro Bowlers to start with LaVar Arrington at linebacker: Jessie Armstead and Jeremiah Trotter. This year, the team added veteran Mike Barrow to start at middle linebacker. Barrow missed four preseason games and the first two regular-season games due to knee tendonitis.
Assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams turned to the versatile Pierce, who had never played middle linebacker before but was more than willing to fill in.
Pierce has been one of the keys of the Redskins' top-ranked defense in the early going, recording a team-high 22 tackles (14 solo) in two games. His fourth quarter interception in the season-opening 16-10 win over Tampa Bay led to John Hall's go-ahead 30-yard field goal.
"He has been outstanding for us," head coach Joe Gibbs said. "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 several times 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 enough. Now 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 is ahead and he knows what I am thinking. He's a smart kid. That helps the pace of the game."
With Barrow listed as questionable for Monday's game against Dallas, Pierce continues to work with the first-team defense. Gibbs has said that he hopes the defense can find a way to get Pierce on the field even after Barrow returns.
"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 and do what I do. I hope they can find a way to keep me on the field, but that's the coach's decision. All I can do is play as hard as I can."
Pierce started eight games his rookie year when ex-Redskins linebacker Shawn Barber went down with a knee injury. But he started just two games in 2002 and played mostly on special teams last year. In his career, he has 86 tackles, one sack and one forced fumble.
This year, Pierce says his patience is paying off. He believes he has always had the talent to be a starter but had to work his way up the depth chart.
"With this organization, in the past we've brought in linebackers with more experience, so all I can do is work my way up," Pierce said. "Every time I'm in there, I'm trying to make plays."