Even with their backs against the wall, the Washington Football Team’s defense didn’t break.
The Cowboys had taken over at the 4-yard line, in prime position to cash in on linebacker Jaylon Smith’s 43-yard interception return. Instead, Dallas went nowhere but backwards.
On a first-down handoff to Ezekiel Elliott, Washington’s defense stuffed the running back for a loss. A trick play on second down to CeeDee Lamb left the receiver gobbled up in the backfield, too. And Lamb’s third-down drop in the end zone sealed the fate of another red zone possession for the Cowboys — three trips, three field goals.
“The game slowed down right there,” defensive end Chase Young said. “We took it one play at a time, and I think that was the biggest thing. We didn’t really look down. We took it one play at a time, and we executed each play.”
Washington entered Thursday with the fifth-best red zone defense, according to teamrankings.com, allowing touchdowns on under 54 percent of trips. That unit displayed its bend-don’t-break qualities throughout Washington’s 41-16 win against Dallas.
Barring a 54-yard touchdown pass to Amari Cooper in the second quarter — one of seven plays over 50 yards this defense has allowed this year, tied for most in the league — Dallas struggled to turn its 57 plays into points.
The Cowboys’ first drive stalled at the 15-yard line, and their third drive resulted in a turnover-on-downs inside Dallas territory. And shortly before halftime, the Cowboys had a chance to knot the score line. Kendall Fuller, though, made sure that wouldn’t happen.
On a quick screen to wide receiver Michael Gallup, needing five yards for a first down, Fuller raced forward. He didn’t make the tackle, but he did enough to trip up Gallup, allowing safety Kamren Curl to make the play and hold Dallas to three points.
“I thought [defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio] and the defensive coaches did a nice job with the red zone again,” Washington coach Ron Rivera said. “The last few weeks, we’ve been very good in the red zone.”
After Sunday’s win against the Bengals, Young said the defense trusted each other more. In that contest, Washington held Cincinnati under 300 yards — although quarterback Joe Burrow’s season-ending knee injury stifled most of his squad’s production.
The 315.8 yards per game Washington allowed entering Thursday ranked as the sixth fewest in the league. Washington held the best pass defense, too, despite a propensity for allowing chunk plays.
“Just trusting that we’re going to be where we need to be at all times as a unit,” Young elaborated Tuesday. “I feel that’s real big as a defense.”
That trust seemed evident on Thanksgiving. Washington allowed just 247 yards against Dallas — the third lowest mark this season, following 240 against the Giants and 142 in the team’s first meeting with the Cowboys.
Washington stopped the Cowboys on three of their four fourth-down attempts. And defensive end Montez Sweat put an exclamation point on the performance late in the fourth quarter, leaping to bat Andy Dalton’s pass before corralling the ball for a 15-yard interception returned for a touchdown.
“Sky’s the limit,” Washington defensive tackle Tim Settle said. “There’s a certain expectation that we have in our room, and when big-time plays come … and you make them, that’s part of the big-time football that we’re trying to play. And when we’re executing, and we’re on it, we’re going to play dominant football.”
Perhaps Thursday’s game might’ve gone differently had Dallas managed to score a touchdown when it began a drive at Washington’s 4-yard line. But that wasn’t to be, resulting in just another failed red zone situation.
Much of that credit can go to wide receiver Terry McLaurin for chasing down Jaylon Smith before he could return Alex Smith’s interception to the house. McLaurin’s tackle ensured Washington’s defense would take the field.
And on Thursday, good things happened when Washington’s defense took the field.
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