For the better part of this season, Redskins outside linebackers Ryan Kerrigan and Preston Smith have faced questions regarding their lack of production.
Entering Sunday's game against the Cowboys, the two had combined for just one sack, a statistic that fails to fully capture their productivity on the field and yet remains the defining metric for a pass rusher. While the emptier stat sheet grew frustrating, both knew the quieter impact they'd been making – causing pressures and incompletions – and that sooner or later, they'd grab a hold of the quarterback.
Throughout the Redskins' nail-biting 20-17 victory, they did, and the duo's impact came into sharp relief at a much-needed time. The punctuation came when Kerrigan made a late rush towards quarterback Dak Prescott, wrapped him by the end zone and punched the football from his hands, where Smith scooped it up and walked into the end zone for his first career touchdown.
It was Kerrigan's second sack of the day, and though Smith never tallied his own, he was in the perfect position to capitalize on the defense's second turnover of the game.
"Yeah that's one of the easiest touchdowns I've ever had," Smith said. "I thought Ryan was going to kind of hold him up and maybe I can get a point-5 [sack] to help my stat category out."
Smith jumped into the stands, was mobbed by teammates and put the Redskins ahead by 10 points. The lead would shrink on the next Cowboys possession and it nearly vanished before a 52-yard field goal attempt bounced off the left upright. In effect, it was the difference in a tight game dominated by the defense.
"They may not get the sacks like we're all used to seeing but they were wreaking havoc up there, creating mismatches, doing a bunch of stuff helping everybody else get free so, it was big man," linebacker Mason Foster said. "It was good that they finally get rewarded on a kind of a double-team play like that to get the sack and the touchdown so it was big for our defense, man. We all just play as hard as we can, and it showed tonight."
Before the hysteria, the Redskins defense had its way for more than three quarters, especially at the line of scrimmage. On the second play of the game, Kerrigan's rush around the edge forced an incompletion, offering a sign of the pressure (the defense combined for four sacks) that Prescott would face the majority of the day. Though Smith injured his ankle on the Cowboys' second offensive drive, he had it wrapped and re-entered on the next series, continuing to lock down the edge against running back Ezekiel Elliott, who managed just 33 yards on the ground.
"We just played sound football," Smith said. "Guys stayed in their gap, guys didn't try to do nothing extra to sacrifice the team. Guys just played sound football, execute their assignment. We just executed better than they did."
Kerrigan recorded his first sack in the third quarter, taking down Prescott on first down for a loss of six yards that set up a three-and-out. He finished with five combined tackles, the last of which won the game.
The performance was testament for defensive lineman Jonathan Allen, who has continued to stay in Kerrigan's ear, that persistence wins. "It's only a matter of time," he told him over the last few weeks.
"Something my D-line coach in college always told me," Allen said. "Jared Allen, the year he had 21 sacks, the first four games had nothing. The thing that he always said, just continue to do your job and they'll come. Sacks come in waves and you see that tonight."
"It is gratifying to get to him, that's for sure," Kerrigan said. "It was tough at times, I stayed positive throughout the first couple of weeks when it didn't seem to be going my way in terms of sacks. It's the game, you got to keep playing and keep working."
The play helped the Redskins reverse several trends – losing four straight to the Cowboys, following a victory with a defeat – and gave both outside linebackers more confidence that their patience and hard work would eventually be rewarded.
"It lets you know that we're always around the ball even though people statistically might not feel like we don't got enough sacks or we might do a good enough job rushing, we're always around the ball," Smith said. "It was just a great look to show them that we're always around the ball regardless of what they think."