For all the talk about a young team’s growth and the adjustment everyone was making to a new coaching staff, Washington curiously was not overwhelming opponents with its defense the way many thought it could. While much of the focus this season has been on the search to figure out quarterback, Washington’s defense has struggled, too.
Then, on Sunday in the rain against the Dallas Cowboys, Washington attacked two Dallas quarterbacks, shut down star running back Ezekiel Elliott and kept the Cowboys’ gifted wide receivers from having much of an impact. Perhaps more than anything else, its 25-3 rout of a division rival was the result of defensive dominance.
In a dreary NFC East in which six wins could earn one team a division title, Washington might have a defense good enough to get it there.
After next week’s bye, a four-game stretch looms that can decide this team’s season, with games against the New York Giants, Detroit Lions, Cincinnati Bengals and Dallas again on Thanksgiving. When Washington Coach Ron Rivera talks about taking a shot at the postseason, he’s looking at this stretch. All are winnable games. And at 2-5, just a half-game out of first place in the division, Washington can make a legitimate run at the playoffs. But it’s a run that will rely on defense.
Most of the headlines will be about a Washington offense that put up 397 yards, but the afternoon’s most impressive number might be the 142 total yards that Dallas produced. The Cowboys could generate nothing. Dallas quarterbacks Andy Dalton and Ben DiNucci combined for just 11 completions. Elliott had only 45 yards rushing and aside from wideout Amari Cooper, who caught seven passes for 80 yards, the Cowboys’ wide receivers were almost invisible.
Eventually, Washington was going to get a defensive game such as this. With five first-round picks on its line, the defense has too much talent not to make a bigger impact. Around the team, people kept saying everyone needed to adjust to the new coaching staff and the scheme brought by defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. The word everyone kept using was “patience.”
Finally, something seems to be working. What that something is seems hard to define. Linebacker Cole Holcomb talked about “accountability” Sunday, suggesting that players were learning to be more responsible for the tasks to which they were assigned. Some, in recent days, said the whole group pushed itself to get better. It’s possible, too, that the returns of Holcomb and cornerback Kendall Fuller from early-season injuries gave the defense vital players at key positions.
But there’s also a sense that Kyle Allen brought stability to the offense in the three weeks since he became the starter, which allowed the team to sustain drives and not to place the defense in vulnerable positions.
“It does show you sometimes — when you can put points on the board — what you can do and how [the offense and defense] can complement each other,” Rivera said.
Improvement has been sudden, and it goes back to the fourth quarter of last week’s loss at the New York Giants, which came when Washington was unable to convert a two-point conversion at game’s end. Though the lasting memory of that game may be Giants quarterback Daniel Jones roaring off on a 49-yard second-quarter run, Washington’s defense played well after that.
Washington gave up just 18 total yards as it raced to get back into the game in the fourth quarter at New York, meaning that going back to the last quarter of the New York game, Washington has allowed just 160 total yards.
Neither of those offenses are very good. Dallas, for instance, came in with a makeshift offensive line and hasn’t been able to replace quarterback Dak Prescott, who was lost for the season with an ankle injury. But winning in this year’s NFC East means overwhelming the teams that can’t move the ball well. It means forcing Dalton to throw off-balance and in desperation as pass rushers Chase Young and Montez Sweat come thundering in.
On Sunday, Washington’s offense moved all the way to the Dallas 1-yard line before failing to score on its opening drive — the kind of deflating event that often can break teams early in a game. Instead of allowing the Cowboys to escape from an early predicament, deep in their own territory, Washington safety Landon Collins came around from the outside and knocked the ball from Dalton’s hand, leading to a safety and a 2-0 lead just moments into the game.
“When you get back into that situation, you want to be able to hold them,” Rivera said. “It was good to get that safety.”
Washington’s offense then took the subsequent free kick and scored a touchdown to build an early 9-0 advantage.
Collins would later leave the game with what appears to be a severe ankle injury. Sweat departed, too, with a possible concussion, testing a defense that already has lost key defensive lineman Matt Ioannidis. Still, this is a defense filled with young players who excited Rivera enough to covet the Washington job after he was fired by Carolina last fall. The defense is deep and skilled enough to win some games.
Perhaps even enough to win a lousy NFC East.