Redskins get defensive when the topic is Smith Cowboys' star RB is major nemesis


ASHBURN, Va. -- Emmitt Smith should be a litmus test for the Washington Redskins.

The Dallas Cowboys running back is the only player to run for 100 yards in four straight games against the Washington defense. He'll try for five straight when the teams play Sunday at RFK Stadium.

If he can do it, and lead the Cowboys to their fourth victory in the past five games against Washington, the Redskins -- despite their modest two-game winning streak -- know they're not likely to go very far even if they make the playoffs.

"If we don't win this one, I think we've got a real problem," said Richie Petitbon, the assistant coach for defense. "If we're going to do anything, we've got to be able to win games like this."

There's a chance the Redskins could get a third shot at the Cowboys in the playoffs, but Petitbon wouldn't want to go into that game with an 0-2 mark.

"It's a pipe dream to think you can keep losing to somebody and then you can play them in the playoffs and beat them. That doesn't make sense," he said. "It's a lot better if you keep beating somebody."

The way it is now, the Cowboys keep beating the Redskins because the Redskins can't stop Smith.

In the past four meetings, he has rolled up yardage totals of 123, 112, 132 and 139 against them. The only one of those games the Redskins won was the opener last year when they rallied for a 33-31 victory after Smith became ill and departed with 112 yards in 11 carries.

The oddsmakers aren't ready to bury the Redskins. Washington, coming off victories over the Phoenix Cardinals and New York Giants by a combined 69-13, have been made them three-point favorites at RFK Stadium.

"I think it's ridiculous," Petitbon said. "It doesn't make sense."

Quarterback Mark Rypien said, "I think somewhere along the line people feel, hey, let's not count the Redskins out yet. We've got too many cagey vets who've been there before. They [oddsmakers] must know more than we know sometimes."

The top priority for the Redskins'"cagey vets" is stopping Smith.

Petitbon said one of the reasons Smith is so difficult to contain i that the Cowboys surround him with a solid offensive package.

Since quarterback Troy Aikman is so dangerous, the Redskins can't just key on Smith, who leads the NFC in rushing with 1,309 yards, second in the league to the 1,444 yards by Barry Foster of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

"He's [Smith] probably one of the best in the game right now, but there's never a simple answer to something that is really very complex," Petitbon said.

"He's very strong. He's got tremendous balance. He's got great vision. He's very difficult to tackle because he's always under control. He always sees things. He makes very few poor runs. He's done this since he was in high school. This is nothing new."

If the Redskins have one thing going for them, it's that Smith ha never faced them in December. It's their time of the year. Since Joe Gibbs became coach in 1981, the Redskins' 32-9 regular-season record in December is second best to the 36-7 mark compiled by the San Francisco 49ers.

Gibbs credits outdoor practices in bad weather and the weightlifting program for the late-season success.

Petitbon said, "You can hit a lot of things, from weightlifting to practicing in the cold. I just think that good football teams play better down the stretch and I think there's more truth to that than the rest of the stuff."

Coaching probably has something to do with it, but neither Gibbs nor Petitbon will mention that.

L In any case, the Redskins are looking forward to this game.

"This will have a playoff-type atmosphere. You go through training camp to get to games like this," Petitbon said.

The Redskins know what's on the line.

"I think we have something to prove to ourselves and to a lot of people about just exactly what type of football team we have. We haven't had our team on the field. Half of them have been in the hospital all the time," Petitbon said.

On Sunday, the Redskins will have most of their team on the field. They hope they don't spend most of their time chasing Smith.

NOTES: The Redskins injury situation looks better than it has in several weeks. CB A. J. Johnson (knee) has a chance to return this week after missing two games, and the three players who suffered knee injuries Sunday -- TE Ron Middleton, TE Terry Orr and OT Ed Simmons -- are expected back this week. . . . Cowboys starting right CB Larry Brown is doubtful because of a knee injury. Brown suffered a slight ligament tear in his right knee in Sunday's 31-27 victory over the Broncos.

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