*After a strong start, the Redskins defense started to bend against the San Francisco 49ers. But when it mattered most, a banged up secondary made the necessary plays to win the game.
A win is a win, and as safety D.J. Swearinger will tell you, despite inconsistent play, a banged up roster and near devastation, that's all that really matters. And, indeed that's what the Redskins came away with on Sunday afternoon at FedExField, beating the San Francisco 49ers, 26-24, in a game that fluctuated in momentum and emotion.
Washington began strong, lost its grip midway through, hung on long enough and then re-established its hard-nosed play with the game on the line and a losing streak to end.
With less than a minute left and up by two points, the Redskins -- needing the entire list of defensive players to step in and contribute, thanks to numerous injuries affecting the secondary once again -- kept the 49ers from field goal distance in the waning seconds to close out a victory.
San Francisco's final play – a heave towards the sideline with nine seconds left – was grabbed by cornerback Kendall Fuller, who returned his second career interception a few yards before being mobbed by teammates in celebration, solidifying the team's third win after another gutsy performance with a depleted depth chart.
"We know the depth that we have in this secondary," Fuller said. "Everybody can come out there, everybody can make plays, everybody's smart. That's just how we've got to do it as a group."
"We bend, but we don't break," Swearinger offered. "And I told the guys this week, in Kansas City we broke. We broke. [I was] just putting that out there so that we can't fail again. Anytime it is in our hands to win the game, we've got to win the game if we want to be a championship defense. And we won the game."
The Redskins entered Sunday's contest well-aware of the challenges they were facing. Even though the 49ers had begun the year without a victory, their talent and late-game energy showed up on tape. Washington was also without its star cornerback in Josh Norman and safety Deshazor Everett, needing its backups to play well and stay healthy.
Much like the team's game against the Chiefs, the Redskins' preparedness to fill the voids was tested early when Swearinger had to leave the game for a potential stinger. The very next play, his backup, Stefan McClure, collided with safety Montae Nicholson and injured his knee and ankle.
Both eventually returned, but it forecasted the kind of day it would be. In the third quarter, trying to defend a run play, 49ers running back Joe Staley made a cut block on cornerback Bashaud Breeland's knee that forced the training staff to help him off the field and he remained sidelined for the game (head coach Jay Gruden said afterward he would receive an MRI on MCL on Monday), forcing rookie cornerback Fabian Moreau to take over full-time.
Without its two best cornerbacks, and with San Francisco's offense beginning to find a rhythm with quarterback C.J. Beathard, who replaced Brian Hoyer in the first half, the Redskins had to rely upon a handful of first and second-year players in the secondary. The defense mostly weathered the storm.
"When people go down, we still fight," Breeland said. "No matter the changing of the game, we're still going to fight, man. I feel like we carry that over next week. It'd be good for us."
Cornerback Quinton Dunbar, filling in for Norman, led the team with eight tackles and two passes defensed playing tight coverage on wide receiver Pierre Garçon throughout and during the crucial waning seconds of the game. That was needed after a blown coverage led to a 49ers touchdown pass to Aldrick Robinson, which cut the lead to two points with just less than two minutes remaining.
Cornerback Fabian Moreau recovered San Francisco's onside kick but the Redskins offense, while it managed to waste the 49ers' timeouts, couldn't accomplish a first down, giving Beathard and co. an opportunity to take the lead.
Throughout the entire week, linebacker Zach Brown noted the team's focus on practicing two-minute drills and playing under pressure. With confidence in a young group of players, knowing exactly what it needed to do, the defense began to clamp down as the 49ers approached midfield. On third down, Dunbar batted a pass up in the air that Garçon managed to still collect while keeping his knee in bound, which was confirmed after review, putting the ball at the Redskins' 40-yard line.
After an incompletion, Beathard targeted Garçon again on a slant route that fell incomplete when Brown ran into Garçon in coverage. That induced a penalty for offensive pass interference, a flag that Brown and the defense had anticipated from watching previous games and recognizing the route combination taking shape before the snap.
"I knew the play before it was going to happen," Brown said. "I told D.J. [Swearinger], I said 'Hey, look, they may throw it to Pierre [Garcon], because whenever the tight end is there…Pierre was cut split, so I knew they were going to run a pick and try to give it to [Carlos Hyde] outside and [Garçon] ran right into me, so already knew it was going to be a flag on him, because I was guarding my guy, I got to have my right of way too."
"I don't blink," Dunbar said. "Like I was saying during the week, football is pleasure for me. What I went through, growing up, it's fun. I just live and play. That's all."
The play backed up San Francisco to the 50-yard line, where the defense gained more confidence and stood its ground, forcing two consecutive incompletions before Fuller came down with the interception.
"I think they all stepped up," Gruden said. "You're talking about not a lot of experience back there. With Montae [Nicholson] playing safety, Fabian [Moreau], and you saw [Joshua] Holsey back there and Kendall [Fuller]. Obviously, [Quinton] Dunbar had a big day today. Very impressed with all of them. There was a coverage mix-up there that gave them a touchdown to get it back to a one or two-point game, but overall, I liked the way they competed, covered and played."
"It just shows you that even when a star player or a good player goes down, we've got the young guys to come in, they know what they're doing, they're going to fill the role," Brown said.
Fuller made a play. The defense stood up when it needed to. The Redskins kept pace in the division. As Swearinger said, parts of the game were ugly, but the outcome wasn't. In a game that needed everyone, the Redskins proved everyone was capable.
"I'm very confident in all of them," linebacker Mason Foster said. "I practice with them every day. I know that if I tell them something, if D.J. [Swearinger] tells them something, if Zach [Brown] tells them something, they're going to be on the same page with us like clockwork. Of course, you're going to have little things messing that up and mistakes, but you've just got to keep playing through it, and that's what we did. I think guys showed their resiliency today."