CLEVELAND — As they entered the week facing the possibility that they would have to take on the Cleveland Browns without star quarterback Robert Griffin III , members of the Washington Redskins’ defense said they would have to help ease the pressure on rookie Kirk Cousins and their offensive teammates.
On Sunday, they did just that. They flustered Browns rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden into two interceptions and held Cleveland to just 58 yards rushing in a 38-21 victory at Cleveland Browns Stadium.
“We knew we had to do that with Kirk’s first start,” linebacker Ryan Kerrigan said. “He played awesome in what was such a chaotic week. . . . But we knew defensively that we had to set the tone. . . . It feels great because we’ve really wanted to be a focal point this season, but many times, our offense has carried us.”
The effort marked the continuation of a recent surge that has seen the unit distance itself from the struggles of the season’s first half and grow into a more formidable unit, particularly in the second halves of games.
In the two games leading up to the Redskins’ meeting with the Browns, the defense allowed the New York Giants and Baltimore Ravens to pile up yards in the first halves of play, but buckled down to hold those teams to a combined 10 points in the second half.
The Browns scored 14 points in the first half, taking a 14-10 at one point, but their production wasn’t overwhelming. They gained a 143 total yards (fewer than Washington’s 159) in the first and second quarters combined.
Then, Washington’s defenders were at their best in the second half as they recorded two interceptions and held the Browns scoreless in a decisive third quarter.
On only the second play of the third quarter, outside linebacker Rob Jackson picked off a Brandon Weeden pass and returned 17 yards to the Cleveland 15-yard line.
That play foiled Cleveland’s hopes of opening the half with a scoring drive to extend their lead, and instead positioned the Redskins to take the lead.
Three plays after Jackson’s interception — his third of the season — running back Alfred Morris scored on a three-yard run to give Washington a 17-14 lead.
“Kudos to the defense,” said Morris, who had two touchdowns on the day. “They played one heck of a game and they definitely kept us in going in at halftime, and then we came out and got our rhythm with their help. So, they definitely stuck it out with us and played a great game.”
The defense put up another strong stand after limiting Cleveland to punt after three plays on their next possession, and from there, Cousins orchestrated a seven-play, 60-yard scoring drive to extend Washington’s lead to 24-14.
The next time out, Cleveland gained 27 yards before stalling, but went for it on fourth and three from the Washington 41. Flushed out of the pocket, Weeden threw the ball out of bounds, killing the drive.
Later in the quarter, with the Browns venturing into Redskins territory once again, linebacker London Fletcher picked off Weeden on first and 10 from the Washington 43. The offense turned that turnover into points as well, marching 67 yards in 10 plays to score on an Evan Royster touchdown.
It marked the sixth multiple-interception game of the season for the Redskins (the most they’ve recorded since 2007). But more importantly, Washington picked up its fifth consecutive victory (also the first since 2007), improved to 8-6 and moved into a tie for first place in the NFC East.
“It feels good to know that we can get behind, and something bad can happen and the guys in this locker room are so resilient that they can come back from it,” cornerback DeAngelo Hall said. “It hasn’t been the mentality the last couple years, but we have the mind-set that no matter who’s back there, we have that mentality and confidence that no matter what, we can get the job done.”
The unit had one hiccup in the second half. Wide receiver Travis Benjamin beat backup corner D.J. Johnson for a 69-yard touchdown reception from Weeden with 10 minutes 11 seconds left in the game.
But the Browns would come no closer as Washington again denied them on fourth down, forcing another Weeden incompletion.
“We made plays, man. We made plays today,” cornerback Josh Wilson said. “We knew it was going to be on our shoulders. Kirk had his first time out there starting and we knew it was going to be a dogfight, but we went out there, gave it our best and came out victorious.”
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Summary: Redskins 38, Browns 21
Photos: More scenes from Cleveland