A fourth-down stop to seal the game was an exclamation point for Washington’s defense after an impressive performance against Carolina last Sunday. The missed 52-yard field goal attempt to potentially tie the game by Dallas Sunday evening might not have had the same effect, but the end result wasn’t lost on left tackle Trent Williams.
“The defense carried us today, and have carried us a lot this season,” Williams told reporters after the game. “We’re down a few guys on offense, and they realized that and they stepped up to the plate and handled a really good Dallas front and running back.”
In particular, Washington’s run defense stepped up to the plate and crushed it, to lean on Williams’ analogy, as they held Dallas’ star running back Ezekiel Elliott to 34 yards on 15 attempts. That is the second-fewest rushing yards Elliot has ever had in a game, and by far the fewest he’s collected this season.
Before the game, Elliott had averaged over 100 yards rushing in his career against the Redskins, as he and quarterback Dak Prescott had led Dallas to a 4-0 record against Washington since being drafted in 2016.
Those streaks were broken Sunday with Washington’s 20-17 win at home. It took everything from the defense to win it, but it really started with the guys up front. The defensive linemen, or young bulls as safety D.J. Swearinger Sr. affectionately calls them, dominated the sturdy Cowboys offensive line.
From the first carry of the game onward the Redskins controlled the line of scrimmage, making contact with Elliott as soon as he chose his running lane. It was the second week in a row that the Redskins had held a top-notch rushing attack to a season-worst performance.
Last week Carolina came to FedExField leading the league in rushing yards per game at 154. They left with about half that on the day, and running back Christian McCaffrey only managed 2.5 yards per carry in the process.
Fast forward a week and Dallas got the same treatment. The Cowboys entered second in the league in rushing yards, averaging over 140 per game, but only managed 73 total on Sunday. Washington’s concerted effort in stopping the run has began to pay dividends, and linebacker Mason Foster told reporters postgame exactly how they defense has done it.
“It’s one of the big reasons why you draft guys like [Daron] Payne, [why] I re-signed here and Zach Brown re-signed, is to stop the run, stop those big guys up front with Dallas and their running back so, we took it head on and everybody worked hard and was locked in on their keys,” Foster said.
Head coach Jay Gruden said something similar earlier in the week, noting that the team had drafted defensive linemen Jonathan Allen and Payne in consecutive years partly because of Ezekiel Elliott running all over them. Gruden reiterated the value of their run defense at his post-game presser.
"It was very important. You know, it was very, very important. [Elliott]'s a great, great player and it takes all 11 men on defense to get him stopped. And I think we got that. Our defensive line played outstanding—[Daron] Payne and [Jonathan] Allen and [Matt] Ioannidis. Obliviously, [Ryan] Kerrigan, Preston [Smith],” Gruden said. “It was an all-around good tackling effort, but I think we won the line of scrimmage which was key."
Apart from the staunch run defense, Washington also got after quarterback Dak Prescott, sacking him four times and forcing two fumbles, one on a key fourth-down conversion and the other in the end zone, leading to a defensive touchdown.
The fumble on fourth-down was forced by Swearinger Sr., the vocal leader of the defense, who said he was happy to get the win but that they should have won 20-10 instead of “laying a goose egg.” He eventually offered up some praise for their performance Sunday, but hinted at why he was upset about the late touchdown they allowed.
“Like I said from the beginning of the year, we need to be a top-five defense if we’re going to go where we need to go in the playoffs,” Swearinger Sr. said. “We’ve just got to keep in that that top-five.”
For right now, Washington is closer to top-10 than top-five in most defensive metrics, but they’ve made it count when they’ve needed to. Swearinger Sr. may just have to be content with their close games and gust-of-wind forcing missed field goals, because Washington is 4-2 and leading their division by a game and a half, and on the path to January football.