This situation — Carolina down by three, facing fourth down late in the fourth quarter — seemed like one McCaffrey was born to win. He was raised by Ed McCaffrey, a Super Bowl champion, and has molded himself into one of the NFL’s toughest players to cover — a physical running back who runs routes like a wide receiver.
The Washington Football Team, in man-to-man coverage, had tapped a lesser-known player. Curl was raised by Greg Curl, a basketball player who joined the Navy after high school because his father told him college sports weren’t practical. Even though Curl grew up obsessed with football, teaching himself its nuances by playing the Madden video game series, he remained unheralded at the highest levels. Oklahoma, the school he idolized, didn’t recruit him until it was too late, and NFL teams drafted 215 players before him in 2020.
Before the snap during that Week 11 matchup in Charlotte, Carolina shifted McCaffrey from right to left. Curl followed him as a shadow, and as McCaffrey sprinted out of the backfield, Curl recognized it was a “choice” route. He angled his body to force McCaffrey toward the sideline, and when the pass came, Curl pounced, muscling him out of bounds short of the first down. “I don’t know too many players who are making that play consistently,” Washington wide receiver Terry McLaurin said after the game.
“It’s crazy just to sit back and think about,” Curl said of being assigned the opponents’ best players, some of whom he grew up admiring, in man-to-man coverage. “But you really got to take that out your head. … On Sundays, I got to act like I don’t know them.”
This season, the second-year safety out of Arkansas has established himself as a versatile defender who can match up in man-to-man with the hybrid headaches dominating the league. He already has limited some of them — Atlanta tight end Kyle Pitts, New Orleans running back Alvin Kamara, Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce — and he has cemented himself as a steadying linchpin of a Washington secondary that has rebounded after a poor start.
In Week 7, Coach Ron Rivera cited Curl’s superlative play as a reason for adjusting Landon Collins to a hybrid safety-linebacker role, and the team’s shift to a three-safety scheme has helped lead its defensive resurgence in recent weeks. Curl hasn’t missed a tackle in 41 tries this season, according to Pro Football Focus, but he admitted he’s still anxious over not having recorded an interception this year, pointing out that he may have a chance on “Monday Night Football” against the Seattle Seahawks.
“We got Russell Wilson this week,” Curl said. “He trusts his receivers a lot, so he throws it up. We just got to take advantage of it.”
In the big picture, the keys to Curl’s game are his intelligence, which defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said he flashed on the team’s first Zoom session last season, and his man coverage skills. Curl is tall (6-foot-2), long (79-inch wingspan) and quicker than his 40-yard dash (4.6 seconds) might indicate. He played cornerback and safety in college, so the combination of his frame and his understanding of how to maximize it has allowed Del Rio to use him as a chess piece.
Yet even though he broke out in place of the injured Collins last season, Washington didn’t stick with Curl at strong safety to start the season. Instead, coaches platooned him and Collins with free safety Bobby McCain. Curl admitted it was difficult to find a rhythm, to get a feel for how fast certain receivers came off the ball, and the back end became susceptible to explosive plays. The coaches didn’t see Curl as part of the problem, though, and kept asking him to help solve difficult matchups, such as Pitts, who caught four of nine targets for 50 yards in a Washington victory.
In each matchup, Rivera saw Curl learning how to use space. Early last season, he said, Curl allowed a few big catches, including a touchdown, because veterans outfoxed him. But this year, he has seen Curl start to process how his opponent will think in real time, which is notable because Curl lines up at both safety spots in addition to the team’s big nickelback role in the slot. If Curl is in man coverage and has help in the middle of the field, the tight end may try to “widen” Curl with his release, meaning he would run away from the help defender to create space.
“Now he knows that, if a guy pushes me out, he’s going to try and work back to [the middle of the field],” Rivera said. “You see that he’s learning and understanding those little nuances to the game.”
Greg Curl has seen his son’s confidence grow. He’s no longer a rookie desperate for a shot; he’s a key contributor entrusted with important assignments. When they have talked on the phone before games, Greg has started hearing things like: “I got 87 [Kelce] this week. I’m going to go ahead and pick one off.”
“That’s not how he says it, but that’s what I hear in his voice,” Greg said. “He’s got the confidence. He’s like: ‘I can do this. I’m a vet now.’ ”
After Rivera changed Collins’s role, the secondary seemed to find a rhythm. Washington upset defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay in part, Curl said, because the three-safety scheme confused quarterback Tom Brady. Curl said Brady was at times unsure of where he, Collins and McCain would go after the snap — and the three appear to communicate better with more defined roles.
Curl pointed to the first drive as an example. The defense disguised what appeared to be a cover-two zone, and instead of dropping to the deep part of the field, Curl moved up to hit the check-down receiver, knocking the ball loose for an interception. It wasn’t the last time Washington called that play against the Buccaneers.
“[Brady] couldn’t get the hang of it,” Curl said, grinning.
Now the 22-year-old has a shot to solidify himself as a defensive key in Washington for the foreseeable future. His play is, week after week, putting him in the spotlight — even though he might not seem entirely comfortable there. Teammates call him quiet, friends call him a “homebody,” and Curl often wears the hood of his sweatshirts, letting his dreadlocks curtain his face. Sitting courtside at a recent Wizards game, Curl was surprised to look up and see a camera trained on him.
It was the night after his big stop of McCaffrey. The crowd didn’t give Curl its loudest cheer — that was reserved for McLaurin, who was sitting nearby — but it showed recognition of a seventh-round pick who has become an integral part of a talented defense.
Curl knows the way to earn the respect McLaurin has — and to help his team win — is to do what he has always done.
“I ain’t going to force nothing,” he said. “It’s going to come to me.”