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Little-known Pierce coming up big


ASHBURN, Va. - Washington Redskins middle linebacker Antonio Pierce is realistic about his chances of being invited to the Pro Bowl.

"I don't really see it happening," Pierce said. "When you've got a guy like [the Chicago Bears' Brian] Urlacher - I think he's missed, what, six games - he'll still go to the Pro Bowl. The Pro Bowl is a lot about names. Sometimes the coaches and players might vote fairly, but you've got the fans and other people involved and they vote for who they know."

Pierce, 26, may be an unknown commodity to a lot of people and even some NFL teams, but to the Redskins, the fourth-year pro from Arizona has been invaluable.

Pierce leads Washington's second-ranked defense into tomorrow's game against the San Francisco 49ers at Monster Park with 90 tackles in 13 starts. He has also registered two fumble recoveries, one forced fumble, one sack and one interception.

Pierce, who has filled the middle linebacker role that initially belonged to Mike Barrow, has played so well that there has been some speculation that Barrow, who has been sidelined the entire year with tendinitis in his left knee, could be the odd man out next season.

Pierce, however, is a free agent after this season and could receive offers from teams in need of defensive help. The Minnesota Vikings nearly signed him to an offer sheet for a three-year, $2 million deal last summer before Pierce decided to accept the Redskins' one-year, $628,000 offer.

Joe Gibbs, the team president and head coach, said retaining Pierce is "a main priority. We've been working on it. We've had several proposals going back and forth. Hopefully, we're going to get that done quick. We don't want him going anywhere else."

Pierce, who was signed by the Redskins as an undrafted free agent in 2001, started eight games that season due to injuries to LaVar Arrington and Shawn Barber but made just two more starts over the next two seasons.

Viewed primarily as a special-teams contributor, Pierce caught the attention of Washington's coaching staff this season as he began to understand assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams' complex system, which depends heavily on the middle linebacker's ability to identify an offense's scheme and call a responding package.

"Gregg wants somebody on the field that thinks like him," Pierce said. "You've just got to put in the time during practice and pay attention to the little things and hear the things he says."

Arrington said he is not surprised by what Pierce has done for the Redskins.

"He's always been a player," Arrington said. "He's just been in the wings. People just didn't get the opportunity to see him play."

When asked why he is just now starting to accumulate accolades for his play, Pierce said, "I'm just one of those guys that nobody has seen for three years. This is a coaching staff that doesn't care about money or names. They'll put the guys out there that can play."

Williams said he expects Pierce to board a plane to Honolulu in February.

"I would say he has played production-wise as well as any middle linebacker," Williams said. "I don't know if there are very many middle linebackers that have to do as much with the checks, audibles and running the show the way we ask our middle linebacker. It's amazing that he has been able to produce in really his first year of playing at this level."

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