After allowing at least 30 points in the past two games, the Redskins defense kept the Cardinals out of the end zone on Sunday and earned a victory in the process.
Following the Redskins' loss to the Los Angeles Chargers last Sunday, safety D.J. Swearinger made it clear that the team's lack of execution was a direct result of their preparation the previous week. It was, simply, unsatisfactory he said, and the results showed on the field.
A week later, Swearinger wore a smile on his face -- along with a gold necklace, sunglasses and hat – an indication of his sunnier disposition after the Redskins' hard-fought, sometimes sloppy and persistently resilient 20-15 victory over the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday at FedExField.
From the very first defensive series, which ended with an Anthony Lanier strip sack that linebacker Preston Smith landed on at the Arizona six-yard line, the re-dedicated focus and preparation from the practice week translated early and set the tone for the rest of the game. The defense didn't allow a touchdown, played well during critical downs and erased some of the demons that have plagued them this year at the end of halves.
"It felt good because you've got the whole team out there and we're jumping around and actually communicating with each other," Lanier said. "The energy that was just vibing between all of us, nobody had their head down, everybody was held high and confident."
Insistent on a quicker start, the defense produced, starting with the defensive line in both its pass rush and pass-swatting abilities. The Redskins sacked quarterback Blaine Gabbert five times throughout the game, held the offense to 286 total yards and batted down several passes at the line of scrimmage on key downs. The Cardinals, hurt by dropped passes and costly indecision, converted just 4-of-19 third downs and turned the ball over twice.
The first one, a forced fumble, kick-started the Redskins offensive momentum and led to an easy touchdown. Lanier maneuvered his way past the center and bulldozed Gabbert on the third play of the game. Gabbert lost the football on the way down and Smith was there to fall on it.
Check out images from the Washington Redskins in their 2017 Week 15 matchup against the Arizona Cardinals Dec. 17, 2017, at FedExField.
"It's a great way to get the momentum going," Smith said. "We got the turnover early, scooped the fumble, it was great to get the turnover and get the touchdown early to put us back on the field and try to get the ball back for our offense again."
On the next drive, the Cardinals worked methodically down the field but back-to-back sacks from Lanier and linebacker Junior Galette forced the first of five field goals on the day. Creating crucial stops when necessary became the theme of the game.
Every time the Cardinals knocked on the door, emerging into Redskins territory or the red zone, the defense held its ground despite various adverse circumstances.
"Story of the day," head coach Jay Gruden said. "[The Cardinals'] red-zone offense against our red-zone defense, the ability for us not to give up the big play and keep them out of the end zone."
Near the end of the first half, with the Redskins ahead 14-6, the Cardinals drove inside the Redskins' 20-yard line. Gabbert threw a pass behind Ricky Seals-Jones and Smith made an athletic interception before running the other way. On the ensuing play, tight end Vernon Davis fumbled and the defense marched right back onto the field.
The Cardinals, without any more timeouts, reached the one-yard line and spiked the ball with 10 seconds left. Forced to pass, Gabbert threw an incompletion and Lanier batted down a second pass, sending on the field goal unit before the half and showing up strong in the waning seconds. The defense played with the same grit to start the third quarter when they were once again thrust onto the field after Arizona recovered its own kickoff. The defense held the Cardinals to three plays and limited the damage to another field goal.
"When things are not going your way, you just kind of want to bend but not break," Galette said. "Anytime they go down there, they went down there five times and only put up three points. That's 15 points, so we're in good shape with the quarterback and a good offense. We just helped each other today."
With the Redskins offense struggling to put the game out of reach, the defense took on its burdens – namely battling through a lopsided time of possession battle. The Cardinals were on the field for 80 plays that took up more than 36 minutes, but the Redskins managed to preserve energy when it counted.
"We were out there a long time," Kerrigan said. "We were just playing ball, I don't think any of us really thought, 'Man, we've been out here forever.' We were just like 'Ok, now we're up and now we've got to go play.' I think that mentality can take you a long way."
It took them to the Cardinals' last effort with less than two minutes remaining. Threatening with no timeouts, Gabbert led the offense just outside of the red zone but couldn't connect with his receivers. His tight end Troy Niklas dropped a potential touchdown pass, Lanier batted down a throw along the line, cornerback Kendall Fuller defended a pass to Larry Fitzgerald and safety D.J. Swearinger, with Fuller covering, punched the ball out Fitzgerald's hands on a fourth down heave to close the game.
"Anytime you put on the pads, you want to win," Swearinger said. "Last two weeks were bad, but we don't look in the past, we move forward. That's what we did today, we got the job done today and that's all that matters today, moving forward."