Rivalry faded, Redskins still up for Dallas visit; Cowboys expected to test Washington's attempt to bolster run defense


ASHBURN, Va. -- Will Dallas Cowboys superstar Deion Sanders play today? Will Washington Redskins rookie cornerback Champ Bailey draw Michael Irvin for his first assignment?

Maybe the Redskins should be asking themselves a more important question going into today's 1 p.m. season opener at Redskins Stadium in Landover, Md.: Can they win a game before November this season?

It was only a year ago in the season opener when the Redskins watched three turnovers translate into 21 third-quarter points and a loss to the New York Giants, prompting Marvcus Patton to yell at quarterback Gus Frerotte on the sidelines. That disaster shattered the team's confidence and snowballed into an 0-7 start.

"We want to put that behind us completely," running back Stephen Davis said. "We have to go out there to make a statement in our first game."

To wipe away memories of that start, the Redskins will have to deal with the root of last year's problem -- their run defense. The Redskins, 28th out of 30 teams in run defense, gave up 152 rushing yards a game, their worst average in 18 years.

Dallas, in particular, had little difficulty opening holes against the Redskins defense, accumulating 380 yards rushing in two games. At Landover, a 31-10 Dallas win, Cowboys running backs Emmitt Smith and Chris Warren each gained more than 100 yards.

However, the Redskins are touting a new and improved defensive front with the addition of right end Marco Coleman and the shift to more of an attacking style, allowing tackles Dana Stubblefield and Dan Wilkinson more freedom.

But the Redskins will have to prove all that talk against an upgraded Dallas offensive line. The Cowboys added center Mark Stepnoski, known for his speed off the ball, to give them one of the NFL's most formidable units.

"The fact of the matter is whatever they do, we have to go out and execute our defense and stop their run, plain and simple," Wilkinson said. "If that happens, they're not going to get done what they want to get done against us."

"When you have a team that's able to run on you, that just keeps you off-balance as a defense. You're trying to stop the run and gambling for the pass, it's not a good situation to be in. Most of your bad defenses in the league do bad against the run."

The Cowboys don't have any sympathy for the Redskins, because they have to deal with more question marks on their defense.

Dallas could have to fill the void left by as many as four starters, because cornerback Kevin Smith is out with a bad back, linebacker Quentin Coryatt has an ailing Achilles' tendon, defensive tackle Leon Lett is suspended, and Sanders has practiced sparingly on the big left toe that was surgically repaired in April.

Cowboys coach Chan Gailey said the availability of the dynamic Sanders, will be a game-time decision.

"I've quit guessing on Deion," said Gailey, who begins his second season in Dallas. "He's done some phenomenal things. I think most people would not be there, and it just remains to be seen whether he plays or not. If you have a Deion Sanders, it makes a pretty big difference."

The Redskins won't be taking any chances concerning the eight-time All-Pro cornerback.

"A player of Deion's caliber, it's always smart to prepare as if he's going to play," Redskins fullback Larry Centers said. "Then, if he doesn't, you're pleasantly surprised."

The other question around Redskin Park is about who Bailey, the Redskins' first-round draft pick, will cover in his pro debut.

Bailey, a Georgia product and the seventh player taken in the draft, talked as if he would cover Irvin. Redskins coach Norv Turner was more vague on the subject, saying Bailey could shift between Irvin and Raghib Ismail.

Irvin "is one of the greatest, probably a future Hall of Famer," Bailey said. "I know it's going to be a great test, my first test and my first game in the biggest rivalry here. I've watched him for a long time. I know what kind of player he is."

Although many Redskins and their fans still consider the Cowboys their chief rival, Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman said that a lot of Cowboys followers have lost interest in the declining Redskins over the years. Dallas fans have shifted their focus to conference rivals San Francisco and Green Bay -- and that hasn't sat well with the Redskins.

"Dallas is a big game to our fans," receiver Michael Westbrook said. "But to us, this Dallas game is the beginning of our season, and we want to make a statement with them coming into our house. We know they want to beat us, because they don't think too much of us. But we're all going to be ready."

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