ASHBURN, Va. -- Mike Nolan knows what's coming.
When the point was made to the Washington Redskins defensive coordinator that Tampa Bay would run the ball often in Saturday's NFC playoff game, he chuckled.
"Because of us, or because they're Tampa Bay?" Nolan said.
The Redskins defense and a big running play are never parted for very long. In what is becoming a Washington tradition, the Redskins finished near the bottom of the league against the run this season. Starting with the 1993 season, they've ranked 28th, 27th, 29th, 30th, 28th, 28th and, this year, 27th in rushing defense.
True, the Redskins allowed only 45 yards rushing in Saturday's 27-13 first-round victory over Detroit. But the Lions were using a fullback at tailback and have had virtually no running game since Barry Sanders' departure. Detroit got only 31 yards on the ground in the first meeting against Washington in December, yet the Lions won easily.
The difference between the first and second Detroit games was the Redskins' pass rush and the play of the secondary. Lions quarterback Gus Frerotte was rattled early -- sacked by Greg Jones on the first play of the game -- and the defensive backs contained Herman Moore, Johnnie Morton and Germane Crowell, forcing Frerotte to hold the ball longer.
"Our defensive front was outstanding," coach Norv Turner said.
They'll need a repeat performance against the Buccaneers, who feature Mike Alstott and Warrick Dunn in an offense that thinks "run" first.
"The mentality in Tampa Bay is different from a lot of people's," Nolan said. "It's very smash-mouth, hard-nose running football. It's not finesse like a lot of teams."
Overall, the Redskins had the second-worst ranked defense in the league during the regular season, ahead of only the expansion Cleveland Browns. Yet they improved substantially in the second half of the season, from 402 yards per game allowed in the first eight games to 311 in the final eight. The promotion of Anthony Cook to starter helped against the run, and third-down specialist Ndukwe Kalu added a spark to the pass rush.
"I don't know if we're doing anything too different," Jones said. "We're still blitzing as much as we blitzed before. We haven't drastically changed the whole philosophy. We're just working together."
Jones said the big turnaround for the defense came in 1998, when the team adopted a more aggressive on-field approach during the bye week after going 0-7.
"We changed the whole way we did things," Jones said. "We started emphasizing running to the ball."
Before the start of this season, owner Dan Snyder called the Redskins defense "vanilla," and there was speculation that Nolan would be fired when the Redskins were finished. Nolan has deflected talk away from himself and focused on the team.
"The goal is to win," Nolan said. "Mostly you're measured by your wins. And hopefully we'll keep going."
Turner, whose job also was on the line until the team clinched the playoff berth, is getting tired of the subject. At his post-game news conference Saturday, Turner was asked if the victory saved Nolan's job.
"That's a stu ... " Turner said, before regaining his composure. "That's an inappropriate question. We're coming off a big win."
Pro Bowl guard Tre Johnson, who grabbed an official's head during a scuffle last weekend, will not be suspended for Washington's playoff game Saturday at Tampa Bay.
The NFL told the Redskins on Monday that Johnson will not be forced to miss the game. But Johnson still faces disciplinary action, a league statement said.
Johnson struck the official during a fight in the second half of the Redskins' 27-13 playoff win over Detroit. He drew two penalties and was ejected.
"The entire episode, including Johnson's role and possible fines against other players from both teams, continues to be under review," the NFL said.
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