Preston Smith and the Redskins’ defense came away with several key turnovers in Sunday’s win over the Buccaneers. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
Columnist

TAMPA — To appreciate these Washington Redskins, you have to see their soil as more than dirt. They’re not merely winning ugly. Their grimy victories represent a team doing the digging and planting to grow something of substance and permanence. There is no flash to them, just grit, and they have their best chance in years — in decades — to produce sustainable success.

So please excuse the very fundamental thing we’re going to discuss: turnover margin. Yes, this is the portion of this peculiar season in which a dissection of the ratio of takeaways to giveaways takes over this column. It’s such a 2018 Redskins topic. In a season void of weapons, this is their secret weapon.

You keep asking how this unattractive team could have a 6-3 record. Well, you have to look at the stats that don’t catch your eye. Did you know Tress Way ranks in the top five in punts downed inside the 20-yard line? Yeah, this is the real hidden, uncelebrated statistical minutiae that doesn’t matter until it really matters. And turnover margin might be the most important.

During a 16-3 victory over Tampa Bay on Sunday, the Washington defense kept competing despite allowing 501 yards, and it wound up tormenting a Buccaneers offense that turned over the football like it was giving away leftover Halloween candy. Tampa Bay committed four turnovers. Quarterback Alex Smith and his sure-handed Redskins had zero. And that’s how you keep an opponent that ran up so many yards out of the end zone and win by nearly two touchdowns.

Washington’s virtue became clear against the woefully inefficient Buccaneers. It was the perfect example of why one team is 6-3 and the other is 3-6.

For the season, Washington is among the NFL’s best with a plus-11 turnover margin. It has forced 18 turnovers in nine games (nine interceptions, nine fumbles) and committed just seven (three interceptions, four fumbles). The stat is both impressive and necessary.

In trading for Smith and letting Kirk Cousins walk in free agency, Washington knew it was swapping Cousins’s high level of productivity for Smith’s dual-threat versatility and dependability when it comes to protecting the ball. Cousins was far from a turnover machine, but he would always have one or two frustrating performances each season in that area. On the other hand, Smith could go down as one of the safest quarterbacks in NFL history when it comes to limiting picks. For a team that wanted to play a more physical, defensive, run-oriented style, ball security was essential.

Coach Jay Gruden will admit that, if his team’s turnover margin weren’t so good, this season could be a disaster. The team is no longer built around Cousins’s ability to throw for 300 yards any given week.

“I promise you this: If we were even or minus-11, we wouldn’t be 6-3,” Gruden said. “These games are very, very close, and it comes down to a turnover here or there, or a penalty. So I think the turnover battle is critical. It’s what we’ve been preaching, and hats off to our quarterback, our receivers, our ball carriers for great ball security, and our defense for getting the ball. It’s not easy, but it’s been a difference so far. And it’s why we are where we are.”

It has been quite a journey. In 2014, Gruden’s first season, Washington was minus-12 in turnover margin, which ranked 30th in the NFL. During his first four seasons as the head coach, the team forced more turnovers than it committed only once. That came in 2015, when Washington finished plus-4. No surprise, that was the last time the team made the playoffs.

Since this is a low-scoring squad that struggles to create explosive plays, Washington is often considered to have a small margin for error. This stat is one way the team creates separation. It’s not some random thing. Smith was acquired to help eliminate turnovers and negative plays in general. On the other side, the defense doesn’t consider a turnover simply a gift. The defense works daily to improve its effort in pursuing the ball, its technique in trying to force fumbles and its ability to play the football while also covering receivers.

On offense, limiting turnovers is about focus and attention to detail. On defense, taking away the ball is a mind-set.

“It’s about effort,” said linebacker Ryan Anderson, whose fourth-quarter strip of Jacquizz Rodgers resulted in a touchback. “It’s about getting the fourth, fifth and sixth man to the ball. That’s what it’s all about. You get hats to the ball; you get the ball out. It’s more of an effort thing. It’s a mind-set.”

Afterward, Anderson was praised because he does similar things in practice. Finally, the second-year linebacker was able to show his nose for the ball in a game. The defense has a practice standard: It tries to force three turnovers every day. Before the game, safety D.J. Swearinger challenged his teammates to get five against Tampa Bay. It almost happened.

“The coaches were saying, ‘Let’s go get a three and out,’ ” Swearinger said. “I’m like: ‘Nah, bump a three and out. We want the ball.’ An angry defense wants the ball every time. Anytime you step on the field, you’ve got to be hungry for the ball. If you go out there thinking three and out, you’re just going to try to get a three and out. If you go out there thinking turnover, we got turnovers twice in a row when I called for them. It’s all about a mind-set.”

The Buccaneers now lead the NFL with 25 giveaways. They’re minus-19 in turnover margin. Would you rather be 3-6 Tampa Bay, which had no problem moving the football but couldn’t score a touchdown in five red-zone opportunities Sunday? Or does 6-3 Washington look more desirable, despite its lack of a vertical passing game and its ability to induce narcolepsy?

“We’re winning ugly,” Gruden said, “but I don’t know if there is such a thing as winning ugly.”

More than the lack of style, the team’s resiliency resonated most. Without three starters on the offensive line and two starting wide receivers, the players found a way to win. The defense needs to tighten up some things, but it stood up. The team played extraordinary situational football. Substance wins.

“You just have to look at the scoreboard,” Gruden said. “That’s what it’s all about. With a new offensive line in there, they’re driving the ball, but they aren’t really getting any points. They are holding the ball. We’re kind of staying fresh on offense. It really wasn’t a bad formula this week because we really didn’t have that many opportunities to screw it up.”

Keep it simple, and let the other team lose the game. It’s an underrated approach to NFL success.

More Redskins coverage:

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The biggest takeaways from the Redskins' victory in Tampa

‘Bend but don’t break’: Redskins give up 501 yards but just 3 points in win over Bucs

Josh Norman slams Redskins fans after road win: ‘They just boo everything’