ASHBURN, Va. -- The heat is on for the Washington Redskins, and it has little to do with the 90-degree temperature greeting them tonight in the Arizona desert.
This is the time for their defense to improve, or changes will probably be made. This is the time for their defense to hold an opponent under 20 points, or starting jobs will almost assuredly be lost.
The pressure has always loomed over the league's worst defense this season, but the vise will be tightened tonight, especially given the circumstances.
When the Redskins (3-1) play at Tempe, Ariz., at 8: 20 p.m., they will face the NFL's 28th-ranked offense in the Arizona Cardinals (2-3), whose franchise quarterback is hurting and whose go-to receiver is limping. Arizona has produced 72 points in five games and has scored just six offensive touchdowns.
Still, the Redskins will gladly take any advantage since they have yielded a league-worst 433 yards and 29 points a game.
Most of the blame has come down on linebackers Derek Smith, Greg Jones and Shawn Barber, whose average age is just over 24. But excuses based on their youth have worn thin. Their slow reaction time has caused the defensive line and backfield to try to compensate for the linebackers' mistakes, throwing the defense in flux.
It has risen to a point where the coaching staff has backed off in its vehement line of defense.
"I think when you're not playing as well as you can, you certainly can be fighting for a job," coach Norv Turner said of his linebackers. "I hope they do feel like they have something to prove, but I don't want them to go into the game tight."
The players have seen the subtle changes and have heard enough rumors to understand that tonight could have a major impact on their futures.
The Redskins brought in 72-year-old Bill Arnsparger as a "defensive specialist" last week to put another set of eyes in the coaching booth. They also added Kurt Gouveia, who is on the downside of his career at 35, prompting speculation that he may find a spot in the starting lineup.
One scenario has Gouveia moving into the middle, pushing Smith back to the outside, where he played last season. Smith would replace Barber, who has struggled on the weak side making reads and filling gaps on run defense.
"I put myself on the hot seat," said Barber, who played mostly passing downs last year. "I'm just not being consistent. I'm my own worst critic. Anything the coach tells me, I've probably told myself three or four times before that."
There has also been talk that the Redskins might lure four-time Pro Bowl veteran Ken Harvey out of his three-month retirement to take over on the strong side for Jones, who has become seemingly invisible during some games and ranks seventh on the team with 19 tackles.
"There's always in the back of your mind that there's someone out there that they want to replace you with and that they may bring in," Jones said. "You have got to stick that back in your head and play. Whatever the decision-makers do, that's their job."
They seem like desperate measures for a team sharing the NFC East lead. However, the Redskins recognize that they'll be just one game above .500 if they falter against Arizona, which has had problems with its offense.
Jake Plummer, who owns the NFL's lowest quarterback rating at 41.4, suffered a hip pointer against the New York Giants last Sunday and missed half of practice last week.
If painkillers don't work, the third-year quarterback will have to alter his throwing motion because his torque and turning motion rely on his injured left hip. When he returned to practice, he could throw 15-20 yards flat-footed without problem, but felt pain when he tried to step into the throw.
The Cardinals also have to worry about star wide-out Rob Moore, who missed the past two games and began practicing again on Tuesday since straining his hamstring.
"I want to play on Sunday, because I think it helps the team's chances," said Plummer, who will receive an injection to lessen the pain before the game. "The hips, that's where you make your money throwing the ball. It's all generated from that left hip, the one that's hurting right now."
The Redskins, who haven't beaten divisional opponents in consecutive weeks since 1992, begin their biggest back-to-back road games of the season, traveling to Arizona tonight and to Dallas next Sunday. And with a week off, the defense looks to wipe the slate clean from its horrible beginning to this season.
Washington (3-1) at Arizona (2-3)
Time: 8: 20 p.m., ESPN, Ch. 7.
Line: Redskins by 3.
Vs. spread: Redskins 2-2; Cardinals 2-3.
Last week: Redskins had a bye. Cardinals beat Giants, 14-3.
Series: Redskins lead 64-43-2.
Last meeting: Cardinals won, 45-42, on Nov. 22, 1998, at Washington.
Outlook: The Redskins have scored a league-high 150 points in only four games. That's 76 more points than the Cardinals have scored in five games. Cardinals QB Jake Plummer finally went an entire game without being intercepted last week, but 14 points won't be nearly enough to beat the Redskins. The Cardinals have won six of their past seven home games against Washington and nine of the past 12 overall in the series.
Notable: The Redskins are the only team not to throw an interception this season.
REDSKINS: Out: RB Larry Bowie (ankle). Questionable: TE James Jenkins (knee). Probable: TE Stephen Alexander (back); G Tre Johnson (knee); LB Eddie Mason (hamstring).
CARDINALS: Out: T James Dexter (triceps); DT Mark Smith (knee). Questionable: CB Corey Chavous (knee); WR Rob Moore (hamstring); QB Jake Plummer (hip-ribs); LB Patrick Sapp. Probable: S Tommy Bennett (knee); TE Terry Hardy (ankle); CB Tom Knight (ankle); TE Johnny McWilliams (wrist); DE Simeon Rice (thigh); DT Eric Swann (knee); DE Andre Wadsworth (toe).
Total Rush Pass Total Rush Pass
Washington 2 8 5 31 29 31
Arizona 28 29 26 10 27 2