Sure, Mark Rypien was the MVP, and the Washington redskins' offense rang up 417 yards, but it was their defense that really did a number on the Buffalo Bills. First, it stopped Thurman Thomas, the little tailback who was No. 1 on Skins defensive coach Richie Petitbon's agenda. Washington stymied Thomas by hitting the gaps, bringing its linebackers up quickly and filling his cutback lanes. "Run blitzes, " Petitbon called it. Not a bad way to start against the NFL's top rushing attack.
Then the defense went after Buffalo quarterback Jim Kelly. "The films of him scare you, " Redskins linebacker Matt Millen said during the week. "When he gets in his rhythm, it's like a feeding frenzy."
But Kelly never got in any kind of rhythm on Sunday. Washington got a big push from its front four, especially inside, and it continually blitzed its outside linebackers, Andre Collins and Wilber Marshall, in hopes of creating a numerical edge. "When they blocked with five, we brought six, " Marshall said after the Skins' victory. "When they blocked with six, we brought seven. We always outnumbered them by one."
Kelly normally would ruin this kind of scheme by stepping up and throwing quick zips—hot reads, they're called, or sight adjustments—to Thomas, wideout Andre Reed or tight end Keith Mc Keller. Against Washington, though, Kelly had no pocket to step up into. The Skins destroyed it. So he was forced to operate around the perimeter, backing off, bringing the ball down and looking... looking. And what he saw was a Redskins secondary that showed an ever-changing spectrum of coverages: sometimes a three-deep or a two-deep zone, sometimes a straight man-to-man, sometimes a box-and-one, with cornerback Darrell Green covering Reed all over the field while the rest of the defensive backs played zone.
And each defensive back closed quickly on Kelly's receivers, often knocking the ball loose from them, always making sure they heard footsteps. Kelly needed all the help he could get, but he got none from his receivers, who dropped nine passes. McKeller and wideout Don Beebe each dropped a deep throw, and Beebe dropped another one in the end zone. "[Beebe] was looking mc right in the eye when the bail hit him [in the end zone], " said Washington free safety Brad Edwards, who intercepted two passes and broke up five more.
The Bills had no extraordinary catches, except Beebe's leaping one in the end zone late in the fourth quarter, and no breakaway runs—none of the big plays that can turn a game when it's slipping away. The NFL's No. 1 offense was simply annihilated. Buffalo's eight first-half possessions ended with six punts and two interceptions. At intermission the Bills had gained 78 yards, for an average of 2.3 yards per play, and they trailed 17-0.
Then on the first play of the second half, the curtain came down on this lopsided bowl. "Larry Peccatiello, our linebacker coach, came up with a new wrinkle during the pregame meal, " Petitbon said. "He came over to me and said, 'How about if we....' I said, 'Let's not do it until the second half. I don't want to confuse 'em.' "
Pcccatiello's idea called for Fred Stokes, the right end, to peel off into coverage on Thomas, and for Collins to blitz up the middle. "We saw pictures at halftime," Marshall said. "The middle was wide open."
On that first play after the intermission, Collins fired through unblocked and went straight at Kelly. "I was saying, 'Hurry up, Andre, hurry up,' " said the 274-pound Stokes. "I mean, how long can I cover a running back?" Kelly tried to dump the ball off to McKeller, but middle linebacker Kurt Gouveia intercepted the pass and returned it 23 yards to the Buffalo two. One shot by short-yardage back Gerald Riggs, and Washington led 24-0.
The Redskins lost their nickelback, A.J. Johnson (sprained right knee), in the first half, then lost their coverage linebacker, Monte Coleman (groin pull), in the third quarter. Green also sat out the third quarter with leg cramps, ft didn't seem to matter who was on the field.
"I've said it all along—this is a really fine defense that's been constantly underrated," Petitbon said. "People just don't realize bow good we are. It's a case of the whole being better than the individual parts."