With about nine minutes remaining in the first quarter of the Redskins' preseason game against Carolina, Washington's defense confronted one of its first true tests of the 2004 season.
The Panthers' offense faced third-and-goal from the one-yard line, and running back Stephen Davis was ready to plunge into the end zone and give Carolina an early lead.
The Redskins' defense, however, was up for the challenge.
As Davis ran left and lunged toward the goal line, he was stopped in his tracks by linebacker Antonio Pierce. The fourth-year player out of Arizona, who started the game with the first-string defense made one of the finest defensive plays by a Redskin in the early going of the preseason.
"It was just a weak-side dive," Pierce said of the play afterwards. "LaVar [Arrington] and I got there and got the two backs. I got over the top and he boxed the ball carrier back to me. It was an easy play to make."
Pierce's role in a goal-line stand in a pre-season game may not mean much in terms of wins and losses, but the psychological impact the play had on the Redskins' defense was evident.
"It felt like the regular season," said cornerback Fred Smoot after the game. "We kind of had that tempo out there. We said this year that no matter what, we have to stop these guys even from the one-yard line. We're going to go out there and play hard."
For his part, Pierce hopes to see more snaps on defense in 2004.
Ever since the Redskins signed him out of the University of Arizona as an undrafted free agent in 2001, he has been a reliable contributor on special teams. Pierce finished last season third on the team with 18 special teams tackles, but he managed only nine tackles on defense. He hopes that number increases significantly this season.
"It's going to be a long process with a new defensive coordinator, a new defense and everybody trying to get on the same page," Pierce said. "If I can get into the lineup somehow, that would be great."
Pierce managed to get into the starting defense against Carolina and Miami at the middle linebacker spot instead of his normal position at outside linebacker. He had played the middle during mini-camp and training camp, but it was his first game action at the position.
The coaching staff wanted to give Pierce a look at the middle linebacker spot to see if he could relieve veteran Michael Barrow if need be. Barrow has been slowed by a knee injury. Considering his tackle on the goal line, Pierce showed he is capable of stepping in, should the need arise during the course of the season.
"It feels good to get that opportunity," he said. "It was kind of rough because it was my first time ever playing middle linebacker in a game. It's different from practice. I felt that I did okay, but I have a lot to improve. It's a different outlook from playing outside linebacker."
In last Saturday's game at Miami, Pierce recorded three tackles. He also had a sack of Dolphins' quarterback A.J. Feeley, but the play was negated due to a penalty.
Pierce's finest season to date was his rookie year in 2001 when he started eight games due to injuries suffered by Arrington and former Redskin linebacker Shawn Barber. He posted 64 tackles (48 solo), an interception, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
In terms of his Redskins career, Pierce's best moment came in the 2001 season finale. His interception sparked a win over the Arizona Cardinals.
The 25-year old was a restricted free agent after last season, and the Redskins re-signed him. Now, he has a chance to continue his development under assistant head coach/defense Gregg Williams.
Said Pierce: "With coach Williams, he brings so many defensive packages that he gives a lot of guys opportunities to play. One of those positions is linebacker. He likes to use linebackers to do a lot of things like blitz, drop into coverage and disguises. I think I fit in well. As long as I keep doing well and continuing to grow as a linebacker, I think I'll be okay."
Williams said at a mini-camp in March that he likes using multiple looks at linebacker to force an opposing offense to do things it would rather not.
"Offenses do everything they can to take you out of your rhythm," Williams said. "They motion and run in different sets. Defensively, why can't we do the same thing?"
Added Williams: "We're going to try and do the same thing by dictating to the offense. That may mean running different players in and out, and giving the offenses different looks to deal with."
Pierce hopes to benefit from that shuffling of personnel. For him, the more time on the field, the better.
"As long as I get on the field and play, that's all I care about," said the Long Beach, California native. "Anything I can do to help the team out and better myself, I'll do it."