LANDOVER -- Facing a 3rd-and-7 from the inside the red zone, Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton locked eyes on his running back cutting across the middle. A completion appeared eminent, and it would have set the Bengals up with a 1st-and-goal to start Thursday's preseason game against Washington.
Only at the last second, Redskins defensive lineman Daron Payne freed his left hand from his opposing blocker and flailed it in the air to deflect the throw. The ball hung in the air, then into the hands of free safety Montae Nicholson. He could clearly see the end zone from 96 yards away.
Washington's starting defense came out aggressive -- maybe too aggressive -- in its 2019 debut, as 15-yard penalties carried Cincinnati down the field. But on the verge of falling behind, the first-team unit flipped the momentum with a highlight-reel pick-six. On the next two series, the Bengals gained six yards on six plays and punted twice.
The starters exited after the opening period, but by then the narrative had already been set: the Redskins defense intends to dominate.
"This is a little test, just to show everybody that it is real," Nicholson said after the 23-13 defeat. "We're here to cause problems."
Goals for the starting defense included playing fast, physical and in relentless pursuit of the ball carrier, middle linebacker Jon Bostic said. The Redskins were hungry, corner Josh Norman added. They were tired of going against their own offense every day in practice, especially along the defensive front.
"When you get them bulls up there running like they’re doing, it’s going to be very chaotic once they get to the football," Norman said of his teammates in the trenches. "They were licking their chops, ears pinned back and were ready to show today."
Sometimes, though, their physicality was too much for the referees' liking. On the second play from scrimmage, Nicholson received a penalty for lowering his head to initiate contact. Two plays later, Jonathan Allen got hit with a 15-yarder for unnecessary roughness. And on the next snap Norman received two flags, one for unnecessary roughness and the other for unsportsmanlike conduct.
By way of four yards from scrimmage and 45 penalty yards, Cincinnati moved into the red zone. Yet three plays later, it was Nicholson streaking towards the opposite end zone, with Payne and outside linebacker Montez Sweat leading the way.
"To recover from those penalties – I think four on the first drive – and to get the pick-six by Montae [Nicholson] was big time," head coach Jay Gruden said. "I liked to see them respond, and then the next two drives they were pretty successful."
"Pretty successful" seemed like an understatement. Upon taking the field after the pick-six, the Redskins stuffed two run plays for a combined four yards and then forced a false start, setting up a 3rd-and-11. Bostic then made his third consecutive tackle, chopping down the running back a few yards shy of the first down to force a punt.
The next defensive series began with an incompletion, as corner Quinton Dunbar ran step for step with the wide receiver down the left sideline. Then came two more Cincinnati penalties. Facing a third-and-long, the Bengals countered with a wide receiver screen, but the ball carrier could not run away from the 300-pound Allen. After engaging with the right tackle, Allen sprinted down the field to make the tackle outside of the numbers. Still 11 yards short of the sticks, the Bengals punted once again.
“It shows how good this defense can be," Bostic said of Thursday night's effort. "When you have defensive linemen that are retracing and making plays on screens, when you’ve got physical corners who can come up and tackle, physical safeties that can come up and tackle, that shows the toughness in the defense."
Another emphasis Thursday centered around communication. With several new pieces, the starting defense is still getting used to playing with one another. There's Sweat or Anderson lining up next to Kerrigan, Bostic making the defensive calls and Landon Collins -- who came up to make a tackle on the first play from scrimmage -- patrolling the secondary.
That's a lot of talent, Dunbar said, and if the unit communicates, "there ain’t nothing that’s going to stop us."
Nicholson praised the unit's cohesion following its debut performance. Mistakes are inevitable, especially in the preseason, but for the most part the Redskins' starters were on the same page during those three series. Penalties were the only reason the Bengals moved the ball at all.
Their second act comes Thursday night in Atlanta, when the ones will receive their largest workload of the preseason. It'll serve as a dress rehearsal for Week 1 in Philadelphia and a larger sample of what this defense can become in 2019.
“Turn up the heat. More pressure on the quarterback and more pressure on the receivers, more turnovers," Nicholson said. "That’s a big thing that we want to focus on. We take the ball away and we win."