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Top defensive highlights from Washington's 2021 season

Bobby McCain celebrates with his teammates after grabbing an interception during the Washington Football Team's game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. (Karlee Sell/Washington Football Team)
Bobby McCain celebrates with his teammates after grabbing an interception during the Washington Football Team's game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. (Karlee Sell/Washington Football Team)

Any opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the team.

The 2021 season is over for the Washington Football Team, and while things didn't go as planned, there were a few noteworthy moments that came from Ron Rivera’s second season.

Linebacker Cole Holcomb had a colorful way to describe the defense's performance: "We left some meat on the bone." It's not the most conventional way to sum up the season, but it does fit. There were moments where the unit looked similar to the way it did in 2020. There were also head-scratching mistakes that showed some room for growth.

However the highs from the defense were evidence that there is still potential on that side of the ball. So, here's a look at some of the top defensive highlights from the season.

Washington gets to Tom Brady early

It was a daunting challenge that Washington faced after its bye week. Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers made the trip to FedExField boasting the third-ranked offense. While it had lost a division matchup against the New Orleans Saints, the expectation was that the No. 1 scoring unit was going to run away with the contest.

It turned out that Washington had other plans.

The Burgundy & Gold jumped out to a 13-0 lead, which is partly credited to how well the defense was stifling Brady. The Buccaneers could only move 13 combined yards downfield on their first three drives, two of which were abruptly halted by interceptions from Brady. The second, which came from Bobby McCain, set Washington up at the Buccaneers' 31-yard line. Taylor Heinicke then took advantage of the short field by completing a 20-yard shot to DeAndre Carter.

The Buccaneers settled in after that, but the early turnovers created a hole that Brady could never quite climb out of for the rest of the afternoon.

Daron Payne and James Smith-Williams take down Cam Newton

There was plenty of hype surrounding Washington's Week 11 game against the Carolina Panthers. Not only did it mark Rivera's return to Bank of America Stadium, but Cam Newton -- Rivera's first pick as a head coach -- had rejoined the franchise two weeks beforehand.

It started out as a back-and-forth affair. Fueled by Newton, who finished the game completing 77% of his passes, the Panthers jumped out to a 7-0 lead, only for Washington to respond in the second quarter. The score was tied in the fourth quarter, but back-to-back field goals had given Washington a six-point edge.

With less than two minutes left to play, Newton had one more shot to take down his former head coach, and it looked like he was en route to doing that as he moved the Panthers into Washington territory. That's where things stopped, though, and on a fourth-and-3 at Washington's 49-yard line, Daron Payne and James Smith-Williams converged on Newton to take him down for a three-yard sack.

From there, Heinicke was able to take a knee and let the clock run. It was Rivera's first win over the Panthers, and more importantly, it moved Washington closer to .500.

Kendall Fuller picks off Russell Wilson

Washington was in a dire situation in the closing seconds of its Monday Night Football matchup with the Seattle Seahawks. It had done enough to keep Russell Wilson at bay for most of the night, but the quarterback came alive in the fourth quarter with hopes of tying the game.

After starting at the 4-yard line, Wilson efficiently moved the Seahawks downfield and ended the 10-play drive with a 32-yard touchdown. With 15 seconds left, all that stood between a victory and taking the game into overtime was a two-point conversion.

Wilson surveyed his options and tried to force a pass to Freddie Swain in the back of the end zone, but Kendall Fuller, who was covering Swain on the play, jumped in front of the receiver and came down with the ball in his hands.

The play secured Washington's third-straight win, and it snapped a seven-game losing streak on Monday Night Football in addition to securing an undefeated record in November for the first time since 2001.

Bobby McCain picks off Patrick Mahomes.

Washington had put Patrick Mahomes under duress throughout the first half in its matchup against the Kansas City Chiefs. It led to the Chiefs turning over the ball two times and Washington taking a 13-10 lead.

With 23 seconds left in the first half, Washington had one last surprise for the former MVP.

The Chiefs were lined up at Washington's 20-yard line and looking to retake the lead, but Mahomes fumbled the ball and heaved up a desperate throw to avoid taking a sack from Chase Young and Khaleke Hudson. It was an easy grab for McCain, who got his first pick of the season and kept Washington on top.

There were multiple reasons why the play was a success, but it all stemmed from the pass-rush taking advantage of Mahomes' mistake and McCain being in the right place at the right time.

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