Sans ex-Jets, defense makes its point

Updated: September 5, 2003, 9:05 AM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

LANDOVER, Md. -- For kicker John Hall and the three other ex-New York Jets players now drawing paychecks autographed by Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder, the script could not have played out any better.

Chad Morton averaged 22.3 yards on four kickoff returns and added 11 more yards from scrimmage. Right guard Randy Thomas helped carve out enough holes for Washington to produce 160 rushing yards and a healthy 4.7 yards per attempt. Wide receiver Laveranues Coles snagged five balls for 106 yards, and ran unchecked at times through his onetime teammates before being shut down in the second half.

And Hall nailed the game-winning 33-yard field with only five seconds remaining as the Redskins christened the NFL season with a 16-13 victory over the Jets.

So which of the New York defectors deserved the game ball that Hall clutched tightly as he sprinted from the field here late Thursday night, while Coles stared hard at the guys with whom he once lined up, and Thomas and Morton renewed acquaintances with their buddies dressed in green and white?

Uh, try the Washington defenders, none of whom has ever played so much as a single snap for the Jets.

In a game high on emotion and shy of big plays -- especially in the second half, when Redskins coach Steve Spurrier demonstrated he had learned as essential lesson during his humbling debut campaign of 2002, and showed a far more balanced attack -- Washington fashioned a key victory by getting back to a time-honored formula.

The Redskins ran the football hard between the tackles, played stingy on defense, and allowed themselves a chance to win in the closing minutes. The headlines will credit Hall and second-year quarterback Patrick Ramsey, the latter of whom displayed poise and control, with cobbling out the win. But when Spurrier and his staff show the videotape to the team on Friday morning, they would do well to highlight defenders who faced down adversity much of the second half, and never blinked.

"One touchdown, that's it, man," said middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter, whose stuff of New York tailback LaMont Jordan for a four-yard loss on a third-and-one play with just 2:30 to play forced the punt that provided Washington its final possession. "You give up one touchdown in this league, when you have your back up to the wall sometimes, you'll take that every week. We just decided we were going to hold the fort."

Indeed, the resurgent Trotter, back from a late 2002 knee injury that threatened his career, was like Davy Crockett at The Alamo.

Just one play before Trotter stopped Jordan, it was strongside linebacker LaVar Arrington who planted tailback Curtis Martin for no gain on a second-and-one run. Suddenly a Jets drive launched by a nine-yard gain from wide receiver Santana Moss on a reverse, and which looked promising, went nowhere.

That was the story much of the evening for the New York offense, which gained a paltry 158 yards and 11 first downs, and which was particularly unproductive in the second half. On its six possessions in the second half, the average starting point for New York was its own 42-yard line, and three matches began in plus-territory, on the Washington side of the 50-yard line.

But on possessions that began at the Redskins 26-, 41- and 43-yard lines, the Jets could manage just a pair of Doug Brien field goals. And when Ramsey was shaky at times in the second half, after a splendid opening two quarters in which he completed all but one of his 13 attempts for 156 yards and one touchdown, his defensive mates bailed him out.

"Now that was some good defense," gushed Redskins assistant head coach and secondary mentor George Catavolos. "We stood tall when we had to, huh? Those guys deserve a lot of credit. They didn't get much attention during the week."

For sure, as the league spin doctors and the media corps from both cities churned out a library's worth of copy about the bad blood that existed between the two franchises, the Washington defense barely merited a mention. Perhaps because the unit didn't pilfer any Jets talent, it remained pretty much anonymous, out of the spotlight.

And then, when the Monday Night Football lights came on, the Redskins defense came out.

It permitted New York just one sustained drive, the Jets' first possession, when Vinny Testaverde shepherded his offense 72 yards in 14 plays, finishing off the march with Jordan's one-yard scoring plunge on fourth down. After that, the Jets never had a march in which they registered more than a single first down. In their final eight possessions, they totaled five first downs, never moved the ball more than 24 yards, never took more than 3:04 off the clock.

Over the game's final 47 minutes, New York managed just a measly 3.1 yards per play.

Noticeably a half-step slow to the hole in his ninth season, and coming off a '02 year in which he played on balky ankles, Martin averaged only 3.2 yards per carry. Testaverde consistently threw the ball underneath, his longest completion for 17 yards, and the Jets receivers averaged only 7.0 yards per catch. Part of the anemia, clearly, is the lack of comfort Jets offensive coordinator Paul Hackett still has with Testaverde, who replaced Chad Pennington when the latter went down with a wrist injury.

But to overemphasize the right-wing bent with which Hackett called the game would be to diminish the performance of the Redskins defense.

"We just weren't afraid of anything they were doing," said free safety Ifeanyi Ohalete, who had two passes defensed. "We didn't feel like they could beat us deep. Hey, we didn't feel like they could beat us at all. We felt real good about ourselves. If no one wanted to talk us up, no big deal, because we feel we can play with anyone."

Ironically, the Washington defense has even fewer home-grown starters than does the offense. Just three of 11 starters actually began their careers in Washington, including the suffocating cornerback tandem of Champ Bailey and Fred Smoot. All of the starting front four are imports and, of the top four defensive tackles, three weren't even on the 'Skins roster at the outset of training camp.

But big-play performers like Arrington and Bailey are Pro Bowl-caliber defenders, Trotter played in the second half like the guy who starred for the Philadelphia Eagles before they cast him adrift, and safety Matt Bowen brings much-needed toughness.

Said weakside linebacker Jesse Armstead: "Guys just flew around and made plays. We could not have written a better script, huh? I mean, it's a best seller."

Even the ever-smarmy Spurrier -- who couldn't help making a few wise cracks as he bounded to his post-game media conference -- must have read the NFL primer during an offseason in which he clearly questioned his offensive approach. By using a far more balanced game plan, he protected the inexperienced Ramsey, and shortened the game.

The play-calling was remarkably balanced. The Redskins had 34 runs and 23 passes, and their ability to control tempo was a major ingredient in the victory. Tailbacks Ladell Betts and Trung Canidate combined for 123 yards and averaged 4.4 yards per carry. On the game-winning drive, Ramsey scrambled left and, when the New York defense parted like the Red Sea, rambled for a key 24-yard gain.

"To tell the truth, I think I lulled them to sleep, because the last thing they expected was for me to take off," Ramsey joked.

Look for the hard-running Betts to play an ever-increasing role in coming weeks. He is the tougher of the two runners, more a north-south rusher, while Canidate seems to have trouble locating holes because he's looking too hard for one. Notable, though, is that the Redskins had more yards on the ground than the Jets had total.

"We knocked people off the ball," said Redskins left tackle Chris Samuels, who had a subpar night in pass protection. "And our backs ran really hard."

In only two games last season did the Redskins rush for more than the 160 yards they posted Thursday. Said one Washington veteran: "Maybe (Spurrier) figured out that you still have to do the simple things to win in this league."

The Redskins did them, and did them well. What was supposed to be a game largely about revenge motives turned into just a game of basics. And because Washington was better at the basics, it gained a memorable victory.

One that will be recalled, years from now, because of the storybook finish for a former Jets kicker. One that should be remembered, as the Redskins prepare for the balance of the schedule, because those tried-and-trued constants, defense and the running game, gave Washington a physical advantage.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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