Redskins Coach Jay Gruden says he wants two primary things from his defense: effort and tenacity. He got plenty of both Sunday during a 24-6 road win over the Arizona Cardinals.
“A-plus on both of those,” Gruden said.
The six points were the fewest allowed since a 31-6 win over the Eagles in 2012, and it was an encouraging start for a defense that has struggled in recent years.
The unit nearly posted its first shutout since the 1991 season — a stretch of 440 games, including the postseason — but gave up a touchdown in the waning moments. The Cardinals were 1 for 8 on third downs and produced just 213 total yards, compared with 429 from the Redskins.
Few had a true feel for what this defense was capable of before the season opener. The defensive line and secondary are both young, with players taking on new roles, but the 11 players on the field seemed to swarm to the ball on every snap. Only one drive covered more than seven plays, and chunk plays were almost nonexistent. In fact, the Cardinals only recorded three plays of more than 12 yards — two catches by wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald that went for 27 yards each, and a 16-yard reception by running back David Johnson.
“Guys were playing hard,” linebacker Mason Foster said. “It’s something I was talking about to everybody. Play as hard as we can for as long as we can and try to make more plays than they make. We knew they were going to make plays, but it’s about bouncing back and fighting through that adversity. And guys did it.
“It’s about sticking together through the tough times, because our good times are coming.”
These Redskins know all about tough times. Gruden started the day with a 28-35-1 record in his four years as Washington’s coach. The run defense was the worst in the NFL in 2017, allowing 134.1 yards per game, and the team has yet to have a scoring defense rank higher than No. 17 in the NFL under Gruden. It ranked No. 27 in 2017.
Everyone on the field contributed Sunday, however. Five players tied for the team lead in tackles with five, and the defensive line frequently pushed the pocket and occupied linemen so the linebackers could run free. Cornerback Quinton Dunbar was a star in his first game as a full-time starter, with three pass breakups, an interception and five tackles. The rest of the defensive backs helped shut down the second level, and made open-field tackles when necessary. Foster said Gruden and defensive coordinator Greg Manusky pushed the unit even harder than normal in practices last week, and some unimpressive showings during the preseason served as “a wake-up call.”
“We threw a lot at our defense throughout OTAs and training camp,” Gruden said. “Different formations, personnel groups, types of runs and passes and play-passes and boots and all that stuff. We feel we got them in the best mental state of preparation as we could.
“I was most impressed with the way we tackled. I don’t know if we missed any tackles. … A total team effort when you play like that on defense against a guy like David Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald and obviously Sam Bradford. I think it’s a great testament to the defense.”
Players swarmed the practice facility Monday, going through workouts, conditioning and getting medical treatments. There was a jovial atmosphere that edge rusher Ryan Kerrigan said hasn’t always been there.
“What I’ve noticed is different so far is, we’re happy we won,” Kerrigan said. “But we’re all coming in today and we’re ready to work and getting going for the next opponent. We’re not celebrating one win. Like Coach said after the game, whether we won or lost, it was one game.”
Foster added, “Now we see how we have to play. When we do play at this high level with effort and passion and playing together, we see what we can do.”
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