Young is 12 games into his career, and Washington is 13 games into its season. Both are trending the same way. The rookie defensive end provided a signature performance in Sunday’s 23-15 victory over the San Francisco 49ers. He dominated with his legs, which consistently pushed blockers into the backfield and easily carried him 47 yards with a scooped-up fumble for his first career touchdown. He dominated with his arms, some combination of Plastic Man and the Hulk, swatting passes to the turf and ripping the ball from a running back’s hands.
Try to take your eyes off him. You can’t.
“I’m at a loss for words,” Young said in a Zoom call with reporters from Glendale, Ariz., where the 49ers’ home games have been moved because of the coronavirus pandemic. “I was just out there playing ball, man, and good things happened for me today.”
Just playing ball produces different results for Young than most because he has the physical talents of several good players in a single package. But as he stalked the sideline and yapped at his teammates Sunday, it’s clear there’s more. He’s not a veteran, not yet. His full impact, though, comes not in how he performs on the field but how he leads.
“He’s a dog,” fellow defensive lineman Daron Payne said in the most complimentary manner possible. Young’s stat line from a that’s-exactly-why-you-took-him-second-in-the-draft Sunday filled a holiday shopping basket: six tackles, including one for a loss; a sack, two passes tipped; the scoop-and-score fumble recovery; a forced fumble, two quarterback hits — and the clear impression that even when he’s not making plays, he’s helping others make them.
Who, right now, is a more threatening 1-2 pass-rushing, playmaking punch than Young and second-year end Montez Sweat? San Francisco’s Nick Bosa and just about any other 49er, but Bosa’s out for the year. Aaron Donald of the Los Angeles Rams and a tackling dummy, maybe. Pittsburgh’s T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree, and Denver’s Von Miller and Bradley Chubb are candidates, but Dupree and Miller are injured.
So here’s Young, standing out.
“Guys that are taken as early as Chase was taken [have] to be a guy that can impact a game and help the guys around him be better, play better,” first-year coach Ron Rivera said. “And we’ve got a group of those guys on that defensive line — they all help each other be better, play better.”
Which is the primary reason Washington has somehow won four straight and is now favored to take the division, a nearly inconceivable notion a month ago. The offense is so inconsistent as to be maddening; on Sunday, it failed to manage 100 yards passing or rushing. The defense always has had potential. Now it has production — and a star.
“We’re relevant,” said Rivera, who might not fully comprehend how much irrelevance there has been in Washington this entire century. “We’re in the conversation. People are talking about us. We have to maintain and be humble.”
There are caveats all over the place, but concentrate on math and probabilities, not the raw records. Washington (6-7) is a game up on the New York Giants (5-8), who swept Washington but lost Sunday to an Arizona team that had dropped four of five. Washington’s remaining schedule: home vs. Seattle, home vs. Carolina and at Philadelphia.
The way this defense is playing now — and assuming Alex Smith’s calf injury isn’t serious — Washington figures to be favored in two of those final three games. The Giants will certainly be underdogs next week vs. Cleveland and the following week at Baltimore but should be favored in the season finale against Dallas.
Play it out as expected, then, and Washington finishes 8-8, New York 6-10. Given that Washington now has road wins against Dallas, Pittsburgh and San Francisco and the Giants won a week ago in Seattle, assuming what’s expected will happen is folly. Still, Washington’s path to the division title is both in its control and much better than improbable.
“We’re not satisfied,” Young said, “and we’re going to keep going.”
That, Young said, is the motto he has developed for the team: Keep going. He has applied it to himself because there was a stretch of the season — starting when he missed the Week 3 game with a groin injury — when he found it difficult to get to the quarterback. In a six-game span in October and November, he had just one sack and two other quarterback hits. Late in a game at Detroit, he made a silly decision to hit the quarterback late — 15 crucial yards that led to the Lions’ winning kick.
During all this time, Young took his own advice: He kept going. After the Detroit debacle, Dwayne Haskins — the benched quarterback who was Young’s teammate at Ohio State and who relieved the injured Smith on Sunday — had a conversation with his rookie teammate. What, Haskins wanted to know, would Young do to transform himself into a producer and a leader in the NFL?
“The stuff you do in college isn’t going to work here,” Haskins said he told Young.
What Young did Sunday is what keeps offensive coordinators wide-eyed into the wee hours. In the first quarter, he laid back as if in coverage — until he saw no one between himself and San Francisco quarterback Nick Mullens. He swallowed Mullens whole. His strip of San Francisco back Jeff Wilson Jr. was just brute force, a fumble Payne recovered.
And when Payne stripped Mullens of the ball in the final minute of the first half, Young had the moment the nation will notice. Racing down the left sideline, he held the ball out because he was gassed.
“That’s why I was holding it like a loaf of bread, for real,” Young said. If he had tucked the ball to his body, he couldn’t have churned in his full stride. And his full stride is impressive.
“He got it and kept trucking!” said his mother, Carla. Chase had carried his phone into the interview room still connected with his mom, who had watched from back home in Prince George’s County.
“Oh, my gosh, I’m just so worn out,” Carla Young said. “It was just outstanding. I couldn’t even believe it. I was in shock.”
Chase Young is going to get to the point when he’s not shocking people, but when his uncommon production is expected. He has the talent and the personality to be a national star, something Washington hasn’t had since … when? Probably Robert Griffin III in his rookie season of 2012, and who knows before that?
What Young also has is Washington’s defense poised to control the NFC East race. That’s a certainty right now. It feels like a strong probability well into the future.
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