Matt Hasselbeck's completion to Mack Strong left the Seattle Seahawks two yards short of a touchdown on fourth down in the waning moments of the first half. Instead of taking the conventional approach and attempting a field goal to cut the Washington Redskins' lead to eight points, Seattle Coach Mike Holmgren elected to take a page out of Redskins Coach Steve Spurrier's playbook and called for a pass.
But as Hasselbeck backpedaled, surveying the end zone for a receiver, Bruce Smith rammed his 39-year-old body into the quarterback for a sack that caused a loss of nine yards and kept Washington's lead at 14-3.
The crucial play deflated the Seahawks, whose 64,325 fans filled Seahawks Stadium with boos as the Redskins players celebrated.
"That was definitely a big momentum change for us," right defensive end Renaldo Wynn said.
Holmgren's decision may have been more understandable early in the season, when the Redskins defense floundered. But the Redskins defense has turned stingy after a sluggish start. Today, Smith, who is now nine sacks behind Reggie White for the NFL's all-time lead, led a unit that was virtually flawless in the red zone.
"We're really starting to jell," Wynn said. "We didn't know when it was going to happen. We knew we had to do it fairly fast. But guys are getting used to the scheme and everybody is doing their job."
Redskins quarterback Shane Matthews was 10 of 27 for 114 yards with a long of 19 yards. Running back Kenny Watson flourished in his starting debut, replacing Stephen Davis (sprained right knee). But the Redskins' rugged defense gave Spurrier the first victory of his career when his quarterback completed only 10 passes, he said.
"It was an unusual game for all the games I've coached," Spurrier said. "Our defense certainly played well -- kept them out the end zone. They made a bunch of third downs here and there. But they only got three points, and that's the reason we won."
The Redskins' defense still showed a vulnerability on third down, something that has plagued the unit the entire season. Today, the Seahawks converted 6 of 17 third downs with a few big plays. But those conversions were moot because the Seahawks couldn't score a touchdown in three tries in the red zone. And the Redskins did not allow a touchdown for the first time this season.
Smith has embodied the slow start of the unit that started the season with high expectations after Marvin Lewis was hired as defensive coordinator and middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter became the latest player with Pro Bowl experience to join the team. But the Redskins gave up an average of 26.6 points in the first three games, with the line applying little pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
"We have great linebackers," Wynn said, "but it's got to start out front."
Smith entered the season with 186 sacks. He had one sack through the first seven games, although he was occasionally just a step short of getting to the quarterback.
"Bruce is used to getting a sack here, maybe two," Wynn said. "I could tell, it was kind of frustrating for him at the start. And he's a little bit closer to that record, so I know he has to be smiling right now."
Smith said: "When we win and I force the quarterback to other players, I'm happy because we've won. I'm disappointed in myself that I haven't been able to get the quarterback down as much as I should have. I've been on the quarterback quite a few times this year. I just haven't been able to get him down."
The season-ending injury to Seahawks quarterback Trent Dilfer forced the club to go with Hasselbeck, who has been prone to being flustered under duress. So the focus of the Redskins' defense was to stuff the run and force the quarterback to pass, making it easier to apply pressure. The Redskins held tailback Shaun Alexander to 67 yards on 19 carries (an average of 3.5 yards).
Daryl Gardener continued his strong play, and Smith credited the defensive tackle with drawing double teams, making it easier to get to the quarterback.
On Seattle's opening series of the third quarter, Hasselbeck guided the Seahawks to the Redskins 21. But after an incomplete pass, Alexander was stopped for no gain by strong safety Ifeanyi Ohalete, forcing third and 10.
Smith sprung past tackle Walter Jones to sack Hasselbeck and force a fumble. Wynn pounced on the ball and ended the Seahawks' scoring threat. Smith entered the season having sacked 69 players in his 18-year career, including Hasselbeck last season. But with quarterbacks more mobile than when Smith entered the NFL, the task has become more difficult.
"The quarterbacks that are out here," Smith said smiling, "some of them are running backs playing quarterback. And it's very difficult, me being an 18-year veteran, having played against the Marinos and the Elways . . . and so forth and so on."
But Smith -- who teammates were poking fun at during postgame interviews -- showed that he can still contribute to a defense that seems to keep getting stronger.