GLENDALE, Ariz. — As only he can, Josh Norman describes with flair and perhaps hyperbole what it’s like to encounter a hungry Washington Redskins defensive lineman before a game. He recalls sharing a moment with Jonathan Allen on Sunday, and, well, let’s defer to Norman’s storytelling brilliance.
“Big Jon Allen came to me before the game and was like, ‘Look, I’m ready to run through somebody’s face,’ ” the star cornerback said, smiling and growing more excited with each word.
The game didn’t make Allen a liar. During Washington’s impressive 24-6 victory over the Arizona Cardinals, Allen ran through faces, as well as shoulders, knees, feet and any other body parts in his way. He was part of an overpowering performance up front by both the defensive and offensive lines, which set the ideal tone to begin a season in which your favorite mediocre football team refuses to be the finesse pushover that it has been in the past. And to hear Norman tell it, the Redskins have a collection of steamrolled Arizona faces to prove it.
“Literally, that’s exactly what they did up front,” he said. “And I couldn’t be more happy about it. I’m just sitting there watching, like, waiting on my time, waiting on my time. They’re young. They’re youthful, and they’ve just got it.”
You won’t necessarily remember this triumphant 2018 opener for all the skill that Washington displayed. The Redskins had moments of explosive play, particularly when Adrian Peterson and Chris Thompson touched the football, but they can be sharper. Here’s the most spectacular and important thing the players accomplished at State Farm Stadium: They imposed their will in every facet of the game in a manner that we’ve rarely seen during Coach Jay Gruden’s tenure. In the first half, they established a blueprint for how they should play, and they executed it to near perfection.
The results painted a picture of hard-nosed football. Washington, the team that never sticks with the run, rushed 42 times for 182 yards, with Peterson (26 carries, 96 yards) serving as the bell cow and Thompson (five carries, 65 yards) dashing for big gains in addition to leading the team with six receptions. And a defense that allowed the most rushing yards in the NFL last season held Arizona to a measly 68 yards on the ground. The Redskins played their best football early, when the Cardinals were adamant about being the more physical team, only to be denied.
“I think any coach has that vision,” Gruden said. “That’s what pro football is all about: your ability to run the ball and stop the run. And we’re getting there. We’ve got a long way to go, but I’m happy the way this game ended.”
For years, Gruden has talked about wanting to play this way, but for most of his tenure, he has had to work around issues with the team’s talent, depth and health. Finally, all the pieces seem to be together to sustain this style. The offensive line is solid. With all the investments the team has made to improve the defensive line — including using back-to-back first-round picks on Allen and Daron Payne, hiring assistant coach Jim Tomsula, and promoting a front seven-focused coordinator in Greg Manusky — that group is as good as it has been in years. And the running back corps, with Peterson and Thompson, is dangerous.
Combine it all, and you see a team with more muscle and substance. No surprise, there is also a greater belief in the locker room. The players aren’t hoping to be good. They know they’re talented, and they just want to develop consistent habits now. It’s a departure from the uncertainty and insecurity that has burdened the locker room as the team has struggled to rise above mediocrity.
“For sure, we definitely know we have the blueprint,” safety D.J. Swearinger said. “But more than that, this is a start. We know we have to stay consistent. Keep our heads down and keep grinding. If we do that, we’re going to be hard to beat.”
The veterans know to be cautious. During Gruden’s four-plus seasons, there have been streaks of physical play, but the team hasn’t been able to sustain it. Strong line play hasn’t become a hallmark of Washington football under Gruden. You can go back to 2015, when the Redskins last made the playoffs, and remember that they rushed for 161 and 182 yards in their first two games. That year, their defense — with an aging group of linemen who nicknamed themselves Capital Punishment — held their first four opponents below 90 yards rushing. But success was fleeting. On both sides of the ball, they reverted to poor performance up front and ended up losing in the wild-card round of the playoffs.
This feels different because there’s a higher level of talent, as well as youth and upside on defense. On the offensive line, there’s continuity, but all the core members are still in their prime.
“This is just a starting point,” right tackle Morgan Moses said.
“Guys are taking ownership,” left guard Shawn Lauvao said. “There’s a focus. There’s an intensity to what we’re doing.”
You can mix that perspective with the naive perks of youth. Payne, the 2018 first-round pick, has no idea that he could be helping Washington do something special. This is simply how he plays. He doesn’t care much that the defense finished last against the run a year ago. He’s here now, and he’s not burdened by past disappointment.
“Just play ball like we know how to do,” Payne said of the approach. “Strike blockers and don’t let them get anyplace. That’s what we do. The defensive line is definitely the tone-setter.”
Despite all the fuss about the team winning its opener for the first time under Gruden, it’s not just the 1-0 record that matters right now. It’s the manner in which 1-0 was achieved. This game, particularly the first half, can be referred to all season for best practices. Washington won’t start every game with a 21-0 lead. It probably won’t go into halftime ever again having outgained its opponent 261-36. But the dominance helped the players see what they can be. They didn’t revise their expectations with a road victory over a Cardinals team not expected to be very good. But they gained significant trust in themselves, in their coaches and in the overall team identity.
“A gust of fresh air,” Norman said. “It really is.”
Since arriving in Washington before the 2016 season, Norman has often told the team, “We don’t have to make it close.” He means that, if the players lock in, they can do special things. They can blow out teams. They can dominate.
Now they have started a season with proof that this is true. That’s why the vibe about this entire season has improved. It doesn’t guarantee they will avoid the hard times, but when things get difficult, they do have fodder for positive reinforcement.
Just 21 months ago, in this stadium, Washington played a soft, lackluster game and lost to Arizona, 31-23. The even-keeled Gruden went off afterward, screaming so loudly that you could hear him berating his team through the cinder-block walls.
On Sunday, loud noises came from the locker room again. This time, the coach was praising his team and leading thunderous applause. The difference was striking and poetic.
Gruden’s soft team has gotten tougher. A lot tougher. Legend has it his players run through faces now.