For several straight weeks, the Redskins couldn't assert themselves upon opposing offenses. But Sunday, against the Saints, the defense regained some of its tough-nosed identity.
After another frustrating loss that saw the defense unable to assert its will over the Patriots, the sentiment from the Redskins' locker room following the game, and what had been preached and believed the week prior, was that everyone needed to be perfect in order to win.
"I just know that the nature of when you go up against a team like that," cornerback Will Blackmon said. "Everybody tries way too hard to not make mistakes and do everything perfect."
So this week in practice, the Redskins made a change. Safety and team captain Dashon Goldson called a huddle prior to breaking for drills on Wednesday. He was frustrated with the way the defense had been playing the last several weeks and challenged them. Head coach Jay Gruden let them participate in in competitive 1-on-1's with first team players from the offense. In Blackmon's words, they were able to "truly just have fun."
If the booming music from the post-game locker room was any indication, the Redskins had achieved just that Sunday afternoon after a 47-14 victory over the Saints at FedExField.
For a defense that had established a physical brand of football in the early part of the season and then saw that identity begin to fade over the last four weeks – allowing more than 100 yards rushing in consecutive games – their matchup with the Saints, averaging 421.7 yards per game, seemed like another daunting task.
And early on, it also seemed as though a shootout would define the game, with the Redskins' offense bulldozing its way over a weak Saints' secondary. Running back Mark Ingram, thanks to some missed tackling, bolted down the sideline on the first New Orleans possession for 70 yards, which would set-up a touchdown.
Two Saints possessions later, Brandin Cooks erupted past the Redskins' secondary for a 60-yard touchdown, "just a breakdown in the defense," said cornerback Chris Culliver. Those two plays combined for 130 of the Saints' 350 yards of offense. The Saints wouldn't score again.
"We have great athletes across the board on our defense and we feel like if we just play sound defense and the basics, at the end of the day we'll have a good chance," Blackmon said. "I think in the second half we came out on both sides of the ball and were able to do that."
"I think [defensive coordinator Joe Barry], he dialed it up great today," defensive end Jason Hatcher said. "But at the end of the day, it's about the players. Winning 1-on-1's and just beat the man in front of you. That's what it's about. He did a great job dialing it up and we did great job responding, doing what we're supposed to do."
The resiliency shown, especially in the second half, made those two big plays outliers on an otherwise stout effort up front. The defense took down quarterback Drew Brees twice – a sack for Stephen Paea and a split-sack for Chris Baker and Trent Murphy – and picked him off twice in the second half.
"I think he felt pressure and had to hurry some throws. I think the tackling was better," head coach Jay Gruden said. "I keep telling them it's going to pay off for them in the long-run. We keep preparing, we keep practicing like we did last week, and the week before that, and the week before that, results will come."
The success in containing one of the more dynamic offenses in the league was aided by the score. The Redskins came out of the half ahead by 13 points, a lead that would only grow, which allowed the defensive line to go into full attack mode towards Brees.
"You up by two touchdowns, you definitely can do it," Hatcher said. "You don't really got to worry about the quarterback run, you can kind of pin your ear back and got to slow down… we did great up front."
Safety Dashon Goldson put an exclamation point on the effort when he caught a tipped pass off the hands of Marques Colston and high-stepped his way into the end zone in the third quarter, his first interception return for a touchdown since 2010 and first pick with the Redskins. The score put the Redskins ahead 44-14, effectively burying any hopes of a comeback.
"The pick is good," Goldson said. "It's the icing on the cake, but definitely this win speaks volumes."
Then it was linebacker Perry Riley Jr.'s turn, making an acrobatic interception with time winding down in the fourth quarter in front of tight end Benjamin Watson, who was penalized for pass interference.
"I still have a lot of confidence in my ability," Riley said. "I just go out there and play football. Sometimes I'm going to make plays sometimes they might make plays on me. I have to keep fighting and keep my confidence high and keep my mind in the right place and everything else will handle itself."
Players kept returning to their week of practice as they reflected on the win, as if putting the puzzle pieces together. For the first time in several weeks, the defense bore down, recaptured their identity and inflicted the brand of football they had come to define them in September.
"Once you got that chemistry there, it's hard to beat eleven guys on the field at one time," Culliver said. "Today we had that chemistry, we felt good about it, and all the coaches did all phases of coaching. We just came out, competed, and got that W."