The NFL is a “what have you done for me lately" business. The most recent series of events is the only thing that people will remember the next day. A team could dominate for 59 minutes, but a slip up in the final seconds is all it will hear about for the following week.
During Sunday's 23-17 victory over the Carolina Panthers, the Redskins defense found themselves with the potential to end up on the negative side of this scenario.
For nearly 57 minutes of game action, Washington’s defense had been playing in a dominant fashion. Cornerback Josh Norman rebounded from a tough performance on Monday night to force two turnovers, an interception and a fumble. Shaun Dion Hamilton forced a fumble as well on a Panthers punt return, and running back Christian McCaffrey would finish the day with just 20 rushing yards.
“I mean gosh, you can’t ask for something better from a defense standpoint,” Norman said. “I’m so proud of those guys, each and every one of them.”
As strong as the performance was, with 3:15 left on the clock, Cam Newton and the Panthers offense got the ball back trailing by only six points. Without a stop there, the Redskins’ defense would only be remembered for a faulty finish. One more drive stood in the way of two very different outcomes.
To the naked eye, it looked as if the final possession was starting off exactly how the Panthers needed it to. The offense drove down the field methodically with pass after pass, most only going for moderate gains. However, this was exactly what the Redskins had prepped for.
The Panthers couldn't settle for a field goal, and though you never want a team to get into your territory, the Washington defense understood there was a bigger battle to win.
“It was simple, just don’t let them score. They could get all the yards they want to get, but they had to score a touchdown on us,” linebacker Mason Foster said. “[Defensive Coordinator Greg] Manusky goes over those situations all the time about what calls we’re going to play, and how we’re going to switch it up. Play a little zone coverage until they cross a certain yard line, then we’re going to go after them.”
With about a minute remaining in the fourth quarter, the Panthers arrived at the cusp on the red zone. Now, it was time for Foster and company to go after them.
A five-yard pass to McCaffrey to bring Carolina to the Washington 16-yard line would be the last completion of the game for Cam Newton and the offense. On the next three plays, with the game hanging in the balance, the Redskins forced three incompletions and sealed a victory.
After struggling to defend the pass six days ago in New Orleans, the secondary came up in the most crucial moment.
“We came together, locked in. We really locked in, made it personal for us each day,” safety D.J. Swearinger Sr. said about the performance, which he credits to a better week of practice. “It showed out there, crunch time we made some plays. We just had a full team win, it feels good.”
One of the key players in the final stand was cornerback Quinton Dunbar. Dunbar had struggled earlier in the contest, beat by wide receiver Devin Funchess in the first half. But a halftime adjustment allowed Dunbar to learn from the mistakes and come out with a stronger gameplan in the second half. On the incomplete passes on second and third down, he was the man with the tight coverage, trusting his technique.
“He [Quinton Dunbar] got beat on a double move earlier, came back and locked it up two times in a row,” Foster said “He’s a big time player, that’s what we need out of guys like that.”
The offense, who could do nothing but watch from the sidelines, shared its own excitement for his clutch stop.
“Yeah it was kind of nerve-wracking standing over there,” running back Adrian Peterson said about the final minutes. “But our defense, they’ve been playing outstanding, they gave us three turnovers today.”
When it mattered most, the Redskins defense did what they needed to. Shut down the opponent and win the game, even if it wasn’t for the faint of heart.
“I’m already going bald,” wide receiver Paul Richardson Jr. said with a laugh.