‘Bend-don’t-break’ de­fense de­liv­ers again

The Washington Times Daily - - SPORTS - DERON SNYDER

Con­fi­dence was shaky, at best, Sun­day as Philadel­phia be­gan a would-be game-win­ning touch­down drive. Washington’s de­fense had been less-than-in­spir­ing most of the af­ter­noon at Lin­coln Fi­nan­cial Field, and now the Ea­gles were poised to de­liver a crush­ing blow to the Skins’ play­off hopes.

Faith was hard to come by. But by now, we should know bet­ter than to trust our gut and ly­ing eyes. Be­cause while it felt like the Ea­gles were hav­ing their way on of­fense — dom­i­nat­ing the clock, con­vert­ing third downs and rack­ing up the yardage — the score­board told a dif­fer­ent story. It said one cru­cial stop was the only thing stand­ing be­tween vic­tory and de­feat.

Most fans would rather see Kirk Cousins and his mul­ti­ple weapons take the field for a fi­nal, de­ci­sive drive. But when line­backer Ryan Ker­ri­gan roared in for a strip-sack that was re­cov­ered by

line­backer Trent Mur­phy with 12 sec­onds re­main­ing, Washington’s de­fense held up its end of the bar­gain in 27-22 vic­tory.

There’s no deny­ing that the team’s strength re­sides on the other side of the ball, where Cousins ranks among the league’s lead­ing passers while or­ches­trat­ing a Top-10 unit. Con­versely, Washington’s D ranks as a mid­dling unit in points al­lowed, among the NFL’s lower-third in yards al­lowed and dead-last in third-down con­ver­sion per­cent­age.

Ker­ri­gan and his crew likely won’t im­prove their sta­tis­ti­cal stand­ing much with their show­ing against the Ea­gles. They gave up al­most 400 yards to­tal, in­clud­ing key first downs again on third and even fourth down (the Ea­gles were two of three). But they held when it mat­tered most.

That has be­come a trend, al­beit easy to over­look. This was the fourth game in which the de­fense took the field in a one-pos­ses­sion game with time wind­ing down. They failed to se­cure the vic­tory just once — when Detroit’s Matthew Stafford hit An­quan Boldin for a touch­down with 16 sec­onds re­main­ing.

Oth­er­wise, against the New York Gi­ants (Su’a Cravens in­ter­cep­tion with 1:02 re­main­ing), Bal­ti­more (turnover on downs with 20 sec­onds left), and now Philadel­phia, (forced fum­ble) Washington has with­stood deep for­ays into its own ter­ri­tory with­out yield­ing the go-ahead score.

“It helps that we’ve had a cou­ple, that (de­fen­sive play­ers) know how to reach and how to re­spond,” Washington coach Jay Gru­den said. “It’s just guys step­ping up and mak­ing plays and not blink­ing.”

It seemed like you couldn’t blink with­out the Ea­gles con­vert­ing an­other third down. They were nine of 18, just about the av­er­age for Washington’s op­po­nents en­ter­ing the game (48 per­cent). But Washington is putting the ‘B’ in Bend But Don’t Break this sea­son. They al­lowed only 16 of the 22 points as Cousins threw an in­ter­cep­tion that was re­turned for a touch­down (Philly’s two-point at­tempt failed).

Early on, the Ea­gles were pulling off a per­fect im­pres­sion of their op­po­nent, dom­i­nat­ing the game ev­ery­where but the score­board. Philly had only a 6-0 lead af­ter its first three drives, thanks to Washington stiff­en­ing for two field goals and corner­back De­S­ha­zor Everett’s in­ter­cep­tion in the end zone. For the day, the Ea­gles gained 383 yards, thanks largely to their suc­cess on third down.

“You get frus­trated about it, but at end of day got off the field when needed to,” said Comp­ton, who left with a knee in­jury in the third quar­ter. “We kept them in ad­van­ta­geous field goal range and did a pretty good job, but we still have to cor­rect third downs and play bet­ter in that area.”

When Washington doesn’t get off the field, Cousins & Co. can’t get off the bench. But they proved that a lot of time with the ball isn’t to­tally nec­es­sary, es­pe­cially with a home-run hit­ter like DeSean Jack­son.

The for­mer Ea­gle hauled in an 80-yard touch­down to cap a twoplay drive early in the third quar­ter. Washington demon­strated an abil­ity to strike from dis­tance on the ground as well: Rob Kel­ley ran in from 22 yards out and Chris Thomp­son scored the go-ahead touch­down on a 25-yard toss in the fi­nal two min­utes — with new­lyre­in­stated tackle Trent Wil­liams pro­vid­ing a down­field es­cort.

Af­ter­ward, Gru­den con­ceded that the wiser play might’ve been Thomp­son tak­ing a knee so Washington could run down the clock be­fore at­tempt­ing a game-win­ning kick. That would’ve kept the de­fense out of a hero/goat sce­nario. But the coach ac­knowl­edged the flip side of play­ing it “safe,” a les­son the team brought from Lon­don. “There’s no guar­an­tee on those field goals,” he said. “We learned the hard way.”

Ap­par­ently, this team don’t know any other way to play. Whether the of­fense shines or the de­fense strug­gles, Washington seems des­tined to be in nail-biters that ride on the last pos­ses­sion. But in­stead of be­ing ner­vous when vic­tory de­pends on a stop, ev­ery­one can breathe a lit­tle eas­ier thanks to results thus far.

“We have been tested in ev­ery area that should be tested in sit­u­a­tional foot­ball,” Redskins de­fen­sive end Chris Baker said. “I think this game helped us and let us re­al­ize that no mat­ter the sit­u­a­tion, if we con­tinue to stick to­gether we can find a way to make the play and win the game.”

Maybe Cousins will take a page from Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers and de­liver this mes­sage the next time Washington’s de­fense is on the spot:

“Re­lax.”

Washington Redskins run­ning back Robert Kel­ley rushes for a 22-yard touch­down in the sec­ond quar­ter. Kel­ley fin­ished with 63 rush­ing yards.

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