ASHBURN, Va. -- There are several reasons why the Washington Redskins are ranked next-to-last in total defense among the 28 NFL teams, but let's start with one: the defensive line. Or, the absence of a stable, healthy one.
The door to the Redskins' defensive line continued to revolve yesterday, with the probable return of three starters and the departure, at least temporarily, of another.
Former four-time Pro Bowl defensive end Charles Mann was back on the practice field at Redskin Park after missing the past five weeks because of arthroscopic knee surgery for a torn ligament. He is listed as "probable" for the Redskins (1-5) Monday night against the Buffalo Bills (5-1) in Orchard Park, N.Y.
Mann's presence, as well as the return of defensive tackle Tim Johnson and defensive end Jason Buck after both missed the 36-6 thumping by the Phoenix Cardinals two weeks ago, should bolster a defensive line that has recorded only five of the team's 12 sacks.
But defensive tackle Bobby Wilson's status is uncertain. Coach Richie Petitbon said after practice that Wilson was home in Chicago with his father, who is critically ill from cancer. Petitbon said Wilson's situation will prevent the Redskins from making final decisions on their defensive line for a few days.
As for Mann, Petitbon said: "A lot of water has to go under the bridge before [a decision is made] . . . but he did a couple of good things today."
Said Mann: "Hopefully we'll start making some of the big plays that we've made in the past. Coach [Joe] Gibbs and Coach Petitbon always believed that you won big games with your defense. This year, the defense hasn't gotten it done."
The Redskins have been a welcome sight, if not a welcome mat, for opposing offenses in their five-game losing streak. In the past four, they have given up 402.2 yards per game.
The Bills and their no-huddle offense have struggled -- they didn't score a touchdown in last week's 19-10 win over the New York Jets at the Meadowlands -- but they have been winning. Their only defeat was 22-13 at home to Miami on Sept. 26.
"We just self-destructed at some inappropriate times," Bills offensive coordinator Tom Bresnahan said after Sunday's game against the Jets. "We're getting better in all areas, but we still keep making these little mistakes that are knocking us off course. We'll get better."
Said Petitbon: "This is a very explosive football team. They are probably the best team in the AFC."
The Redskins and their woeful defense appear to be the perfect panacea for the Bills: Washington ranks last in the NFL in yards per play, and it is next-to-last in total yards and per-game passing yardage. Only the Atlanta Falcons are worse overall defensively.
It has made what seemed like a terrific midseason matchup of former Super Bowl opponents -- the Redskins beat the Bills, 37-24, at the Metrodome in January 1992 -- turn into a seeming mismatch. Buffalo is favored by nine points.
"The pressure is not on us," said Johnson. "People are not expecting a lot from us. For us to win a game will get us started in the right direction."
The Redskins will have to do the expected: put pressure on Bills quarterback Jim Kelly and keep tailback Thurman Thomas under wraps. Getting to Kelly, who has been sacked 17 times, could be easier than stopping Thomas, who ranks second in the AFC in rushing.
Not that the return of Mann, Johnson and Buck, who missed the Phoenix game with a partially separated shoulder, is any guarantee for success. There were signs long before Mann's most recent injury that he was slowing down, and Buck has mostly been a backup.
Mann said yesterday that his knee was between "70 and 80 percent" of full strength, but added, "We don't really ever play at full strength." Though Buck can button his shirt and brush his teeth, something he had trouble doing last week, he admits that his right shoulder is still tender. Of the three, Johnson seems to be in the best shape.
What could help is that Buffalo's offensive line has been banged up, too. Not that Mann wants to use his injury, or anybody else's, as an excuse. If anything, the time off has allowed Mann to maintain his blue-sky outlook more than some of his somber teammates.
"You don't want to go into a game thinking you're going to lose," said Mann. "I'm a firm believer in positive thinking. Things can turn around."
NOTES: Former All-Pro OT Joe Jacoby, who had been listed as doubtful for Buffalo during the bye week, will sit out Monday because of back spasms. . . . The 9-point spread is the largest against the Redskins in 13 years. . . . Asked to compare the respective roads the two teams have taken since they played in Super Bowl XXVI, Petitbon said, "That's a long time between dances."