They stood together in the FedEx Field mud Sunday afternoon, 11 Washington Redskins defenders, clinging to what would be a 23-17 victory over the Carolina Panthers. Before them stood Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, one of the NFL’s most dangerous players. Behind them was just 16 yards of turf and the end zone.
The scoreboard said fourth down. Thirty-eight seconds remained. The crowd of 60,482, roared as loud as a crowd has roared in this stadium this year.
“Get them off the field!” the Redskins on the field screamed at one another.
“Everybody knew what was at stake,” linebacker Zach Brown later said. “No matter what, we had to get them off the field. If we didn’t then [they’d score a touchdown] and we’d be 2-3 and nobody wanted to be 2-3.”
Then Newton leaned back and threw. The Redskins players held their breath, then erupted with joy as the throw fell harmlessly behind cornerback Josh Norman. They celebrated so hard one of the officials threw a penalty flag. To the Washington players leaping and dancing across the field, it didn’t matter. They needed this win. They needed, as Brown said, to be 3-2 and back in first place in the NFC East.
It had been a long six days since the disaster of Monday night’s 43-19 loss to the Saints. Everything had gone wrong in New Orleans, especially on defense, which gave up what Coach Jay Gruden estimated was 150 yards on three plays where defenders were in the wrong coverage. None of those players had been more maligned that Norman, who was responsible for the most-egregious of those mistakes and had been benched for a series on Monday for wearing headphones during Gruden’s halftime talk.
“We took what happened on Monday to heart,” linebacker Josh Harvey Clemons said Sunday afternoon. After the team arrived back at their practice facility at close to 4 a.m. Tuesday, the defensive players called a series of meetings they considered challenges. The first was arranged later that day by Norman, and the star corner told the other defensive backs: “We just got to man up,” adding, “That starts with me.”
The second was more profound. On Thursday, linebacker Pernell McPhee asked all the defensive players to dinner at an expensive restaurant. They had to be together, he said. McPhee picked up the bill. “The tab was sky high, man,” safety D.J. Swearinger said.
“Anytime you get blown out you got to go back to the drawing board and make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Swearinger added as he stood in front of his locker in a Sean Taylor jersey, which he said he wore because he thought it was “time” to invoke some of the ex-Redskins safety’s toughness.
“The dinner was big,” Norman later said as he walked down a corridor beneath the stands. “Everybody came together. It was what we needed.”
Many of the Washington players had been wondering how they would respond to Monday’s blowout. The days after were a constant hum of criticism. Many of the defensive players are young and some of their more experienced teammates wondered whether players would start blaming each other. Instead, their practices Wednesday and Thursday were fierce, and they came into Sunday confident against Newton, who has had great success against the Redskins.
Their plan was to keep Newton from running, because he can be as dangerous as a runner as he is passing. Early in the game their plan worked. Under pressure and unable to break away in the first quarter, he lobbed a wobbling pass that Norman snatched from the air for an interception. Later, Norman knocked the ball from Panthers wide receiver D.J. Moore’s hands for a fumble that was recovered by linebacker Mason Foster. Those two plays, along with another earlier Moore fumble (forced on a punt return) might have been the difference.
Newton had 275 yards passing and another 43 running, but many of those came at the end, after Washington built leads of 17-0 and 20-9 before hanging on late.
With the Redskins passing offense still unable to do much against an aggressive Carolina pass rush — quarterback Alex Smith had just 163 yards throwing — Washington had to rely on what has become a familiar formula in the early weeks of this season: build an early lead, ride Adrian Peterson and hope the defense can hold.
Much like the defense struggling to keep the season from spinning away, Peterson was a mess this week. He sprained his shoulder in the Saints loss, still vowing that night to play Sunday. But as the week went on and the shoulder hurt, he wavered on that promise. Still, he ran for 97 yards on 17 carries against the Panthers — many times churning through tackles as tacklers banged into him, each blow to his shoulder adding to the ache.
“The pain was constant,” Peterson said as he walked to his locker after the game.
Then he shook his head and smiled.
“It is what it is, man,” he said.
In the room around him, the players were happy but there were no shouts of joy. “We knew this was going to be a grinder,” Peterson had said a few minutes before. And it was. Washington won because of his running, because of three Dustin Hopkins field goals (the longest of which was 56 yards) and a defense that didn’t crumble in the days after the Saints loss, when everything could have been bad.
Late in the day, Norman stood in the hallway outside the locker room. He said reports that he wore his headphones during Gruden’s halftime talk were correct. “Everything but the ending,” he said.
It wasn’t clear what he meant about the ending.
Maybe it was that moment when the Redskins’ defense was going backward against their goal line only to stop 16 yards short of breaking.
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