Redskins counting on Fletcher to return defense to prominence

ASHBURN, Va. -- London Fletcher was discussing the Washington Redskins defense when assistant coach Gregg Williams walked by.

"Gregg, they asked me how the defense has changed," Fletcher said. "I told them it changed from a terminology standpoint."

"Terminology standpoint," Williams nodded, "and it's gotten shorter."

Zing! Another dig at the middle linebacker listed at 5-foot-10. There's no mercy for the short guy in the NFL.

"I pick at him all the time," defensive end Phillip Daniels said. "He needs a step ladder to get up on the (training) tables in there."

If it's indeed true that people only pick on people they really like, then the Redskins must love Fletcher. Then again, they should. He's here on a rescue mission, signed to help restore respectability to a defense that ranked next-to-last in the NFL last season.

It's a defense he knows well, having played in Buffalo when Williams was the head coach there.

"I'm just here to do my part, be a piece of the puzzle," Fletcher said. "Me, I'm just an extension of Gregg in terms of relaying a message and things that I may see or anticipate."

Fletcher has always been about defying expectations. He broke into the NFL with the St. Louis Rams as an undrafted free agent from Division III John Carroll in 1998, and he hasn't stopped since. He's never missed a game over his nine NFL seasons and has started 103 in a row, the third longest active streak. He won a Super Bowl ring with the Rams in 1999 and later spent five seasons with the Bills. He's been the leading tackler for his team for eight straight years.

So Williams can rib Fletcher all he wants about his size. Fletcher's best comeback, other than those impressive stats, is that the holes open horizontally, not vertically, so height doesn't really matter.

"Obviously it wasn't a problem with him," Fletcher said. "He not only brought me to Buffalo, he brought me back here. So there's something he obviously likes about me."

The Bills and Redskins played some common opponents in the AFC South last year, and Fletcher knew something was missing when he watched the film. The Williams defense that had been so aggressive in years past was having to blitz less and play more zone.

"I saw some guys who weren't sure about some certain things," Fletcher said, "whether it be from a cover standpoint or a run standpoint, or their responsibilities."

Once the season was done, Fletcher came to Washington and signed a five-year, $25 million contract that included a $10.5 million signing bonus. He instantly became the quarterback of the defense, taking over the middle spot from Lemar Marshall.

Ordinarily such an important leadership role isn't easy for a newcomer, but Fletcher appears to have fit right in.

"He is one of the guys. We took him in real fast," Daniels said. "He definitely plays bigger than he is. He gets to the ball and he puts us in the right place to make plays. That's what you want in a middle linebacker. He gets us where we need to be."

Fletcher is part of a defensive overhaul that includes free agent cornerbacks Fred Smoot and David Macklin, first-round pick LaRon Landry and a youth movement along the defensive line. Williams has also simplified the scheme in order to maximize each player's potential.

Still, much of the success will rely on the player in the middle who keeps everyone organized.

"We can't blow it out of proportion too much and say London's going to swell up and take the whole other team on," Williams said. "He's got to do his job, and part of his job is can he help the rest of the guys play up to their potential. He can do that."

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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