“I think it was very important, especially because we have another division opponent coming up after the bye,” Coach Ron Rivera said. “It’s an opportunity for us to hopefully hunker in and play well and see what happens and come out on the right side of that. We can be right in the thick of what’s happening in our division.”
The victory ultimately could be remembered as a blip along a long road for Rivera and his staff. Or, for a young roster and a new coach trying to establish his own mark, the win could be a turning point.
“We’re starting to get a little bit of an identity,” quarterback Kyle Allen said. “For me, coming in here, I just knew it’s a tough year for us. This division is wide open, and we’re fighting to figure out who we are as a team.”
From the opening kickoff, Washington was the better team, and the final score belied its true dominance.
At the half, rookie running back Antonio Gibson had a career-high 94 yards (en route to a 128-yard total, his first 100-yard game) and Washington had outgained the Cowboys 252 yards to 108.
Washington finished with 397 yards, including 208 rushing, converted 9 of 15 third-down attempts and produced four scoring drives. Its defense, meanwhile, held Dallas to only three points (the fewest it has ever allowed to the Cowboys) and 142 net yards. It also forced two fumbles, had one interception and totaled six sacks.
The performance, however, was far from perfect, and reminders of Washington’s youth and roster turnover were sprinkled throughout. But Washington’s mistakes were less egregious and far less frequent than the mind-boggling gaffes of the Cowboys, whose offense has been decimated by injuries. In place of Dak Prescott for the better part of three quarters was veteran Andy Dalton, who was clobbered behind an injury-laden offensive line before Washington linebacker Jon Bostic ended his night with a brutal hit late in the third quarter.
Bostic lowered his shoulder to hit Dalton’s helmet with such force that it popped off his head and he was left reeling on the ground. Dalton walked off the field gingerly with the help of trainers and was later ruled out, while Bostic was immediately ejected and could face suspension and a hefty fine from the NFL.
Bostic was the second defensive starter Washington lost in the game. Strong safety Landon Collins hurt his ankle in the second quarter, and the injury was severe enough that the team ruled him out before he was carted back to the locker room.
And still, Washington trampled the Cowboys.
Its first drive spanned 11 plays and 74 yards, and even though it didn’t result in points, it foretold the success Washington’s offense would have for much of the game. Washington turned to its trio of running backs to move down the field, including Gibson springing free on a 40-yard run, and McLaurin outstretched for a reception that appeared to be a touchdown. But his knee went down at the 1-yard line, and Washington failed to punch it in on fourth and goal.
But it was no problem for Washington’s defense as Collins strip-sacked Dalton on a double blitz with cornerback Jimmy Moreland. The ball rolled backward and was recovered by Cowboys tight end Dalton Schultz, who was tackled by Washington in the end zone for a safety.
“It was good to get that safety and kind of give us back that momentum that we had gained and gotten ourselves with early,” Rivera said. “I think that really was a boost.”
On Washington’s subsequent drive, Logan Thomas pulled in a 26-yard catch, then Gibson waltzed into the end zone, virtually untouched, for a 12-yard score.
Throughout the week, Rivera preached consistency, and for a while it appeared he might be issuing the same message for at least another week. After his team jumped to a 9-0 lead, it allowed a 67-yard kick return by Dallas running back Tony Pollard. But this time, Washington’s defense held up and forced Dallas to settle for a field goal while its offense continued to move the ball — even without key players.
Roughly a minute after Collins suffered his injury, Allen found McLaurin deep as he sped past rookie defensive back Trevon Diggs for a 52-yard touchdown. Diggs had been jawing at McLaurin for much of the game, including the previous play.
“It wasn’t really anything personal,” McLaurin said. “. . . For the most part, I’m pretty calm throughout the game, [so when] you kind of poke at me a little bit, it kind of ups my play and my energy a little more.”
The energy was shared. Linebacker Cole Holcomb became a one-man wrecking crew in the second quarter, barreling through Ezekiel Elliott to sack Dalton, then whipping around the edge of the line to pick off a pass Elliott bobbled at the close of the half, allowing Washington to take a 22-3 advantage into the break.
“I knew I was getting an angle route on that play, and I knew if I got beat on this angle route my coaches would have me go sit on the sidelines,” Holcomb said of his interception. “When [Dalton] threw it behind him a little bit, I was very thankful, you can put it that way. It just popped up right to me.”
Over the past two games, Washington’s defense has allowed a total of 382 yards and 23 points to the Giants and Cowboys. It allowed an average of 379 yards and gave up at least 30 points in each of the four games before that.
“Guys just started taking accountability for what is going on,” Holcomb said. “They’re trying to do their job on each play. I think it just came down to this week we have improved that and have been more consistent.”
Washington’s offense has made its most noticeable strides on third downs. In the past two games, it has converted 56.7 percent of its third-down attempts (17 of 30). Against the Cowboys, offensive coordinator Scott Turner turned to his backs early and often.
“We established the run game early, which was huge for us,” Allen said. “It’s something that we hadn’t really done in previous games, to come out committed to the run. … It just opens up everything else for us.”
Allen picked up 13 yards on the ground himself when he scrambled on a third and nine to help set up the team’s third touchdown, a 15-yard pass to Thomas in the second quarter. It was one of 10 plays that resulted in a gain of at least 12 yards for Washington.
“I”m not sure what the ceiling is, but I know we’ve been clicking the last two weeks,” said Thomas, who had four catches for 60 yards and a touchdown.
In the locker room after the game, McLaurin told his teammates that their performance Sunday was the epitome of complementary football.
“Feel this,” he told them. “Enjoy this s--- right now because that’s what we can build on. Now we’re right in the thick of it.”