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Instant Analysis: Washington's Defense Propels Team To 4th-Straight Win

Chase Young celebrates his fumble recovery returned for a touchdown against the San Francisco 49ers on Dec. 13, 2020. (Riley Trujillo/NFL)
Chase Young celebrates his fumble recovery returned for a touchdown against the San Francisco 49ers on Dec. 13, 2020. (Riley Trujillo/NFL)

There was a minute left in the first half of the Washington Football Team's matchup with the San Francisco 49ers when Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne collapsed on Nick Mullens to pop the ball loose from the quarterback's grasp.

As the ball rolled on the ground at the 49ers' 47-yard line, Chase Young scooped it up and started sprinting down the sideline with a convoy of blockers in front of him. Young breezed past the red-and-gold-clad defenders for his first-career touchdown, giving Washington its first lead of the game.

Under normal circumstances, it would have been a big story that Alex Smith, who struggled in the first half, was dealing with a leg injury and replaced by Dwayne Haskins Jr. However, it was the defense, which has been playing solid football for the past month, that put on a show with 12 points -- Young's fumble and a 76-yard pick-six from Kamren Curl -- and four sacks in a 23-15 win that gives Washington (6-7) sole possession of first place in the NFC East.

Washington's offense, which had put up at least 300 yards in the past seven games, was struggling from the opening drive. Smith missed on an open pass to Terry Mclaurin, who finished the day with 24 yards to secure his first 1,000-yard season, and could not consistently connect with his receivers. Smith finished the game 8-of-19 for 57 yards and an interception.

It looked as if the 49ers, who rushed for 64 yards on 16 carries in the first half, were going to use its innovative running scheme to dominate the game. After punting on their first two drives, the 49ers put together a seven-play, 57-yard drive that ended with Jeff Wilson plowing through the goal line for a one-yard score.

But that's when Washington's defense, which forced a three-and-out on San Francisco's ensuing drive with a nine-yard sack from Kevin Pierre-Louis, started to clamp down on the 49ers. After Dustin Hopkins kicked a 51-yard field goal to make the score, 7-3, Young forced a fumble that set Washington up at the 49ers' 26-yard line. Dustin ended that drive with another field goal -- this time a 31-yarder -- to cut San Francisco's lead to one point.

Young's touchdown helped Washington end the first half with a 13-7 lead. The 49ers had 148 yards of offense, but after its touchdown drive, the defense allowed just 37 yards.

From there, the defense was able to impose its will on Mullens and the 49ers' offense. After Haskins directed an 11-play, 72-yard drive that ended in another field goal from Hopkins, Montez Sweat forced a three-and-out with a five-yard sack on Mullens. Sweat leads the team with 7.0 sacks on the season.

After forcing another punt from Washington, it looked as if the 49ers were starting to regain some ground by moving down to Washington's 24-yard line with help from two third-down conversions. But Curl was quick to spoil those hopes after he intercepted Mullen's pass intended for Kyle Juszczyk and returned it 76 yards to the end zone, giving Washington a 23-7 lead. It marked the first time since 1997 that Washington had scored a defensive touchdown on a fumble and an interception in the same game.

The 49ers were not going to go away easily, though. Juszczyk caught a six-yard touchdown pass and Mullens completed a pass to Kendrick Bourne for a two-point conversion to make the score 23-15, while San Francisco's defense limited Washington to -8 yards on its final four drives. Still, Washington's defense came through one final time by stopping Bourne just short of the first-down marker, which allowed Haskins and the offense to run out the clock.