With the Panthers looking to mount a fourth quarter comeback, the defense tallied two critical fourth down stops in the final five minutes that sealed Washington's second consecutive victory.
Those two stops are emblematic of the strides Washington's defense has made on third and fourth down since the bye week. Last week, Tampa Bay was successful on 4-of-10 third down opportunities. On Sunday, Washington sustained that improvement as Carolina combined to convert 3-of-12 third and fourth down opportunities and was unable to consistently keep drives alive.
Trailing 24-21 with 3:05 remaining, Carolina faced a fourth-and-3 situation from its 32-yard line. Cam Newton connected with Christian McCaffrey on an option route right near the first down marker. However, Kamren Curl quickly corralled the star running back, preventing him from extending for the first down. Curl's exceptional one-on-one tackle provided another indication of the improvements Washington's defense is making when it matters most.
"We were in a man coverage," Curl said of the fourth down play. "I had [McCaffrey] and he ran a little out route. I was just happy I made a play for my team. I'm just happy I made a play for my team."
Although the defense picked up one clutch stop, it wasn't finished, as Carolina's offense had one last opportunity to regain the lead. Driving near midfield, the Panthers looked to keep the game alive facing a 4th-and-3 situation with 1:11 remaining. Unable to find anyone open, Newton meandered around the pocket and was sacked by both Daron Payne and James Smith-Williams.
"When the game is on the line, it's put up or shut up," Jonathan Allen said of the clinching sack. "Payne made a great rush, it was a great rush collectively and Payne and James got there and made a big play for us, saved the day."
Payne displayed his combination of power and speed driving guard John Miller back towards Newton, collapsing the pocket. Looking to evade Payne and escape the pocket, Newton drifted towards Smith-Williams as the defensive line tandem swallowed him for the game-sealing sack.
The sack put the finishing touches on a strong afternoon from both defensive linemen as they combined for 10 total tackles and a sack. In order for Washington's defensive line to have sustained success moving forward both players will need to play an integral role.
"I think we played really hard together," Smith-Williams said of the defensive line. "It was so much fun. We had a blast out there playing together."
Smith-Williams has seen increased playing time recently on the edge with Young and Sweat's injuries. While the defensive line got home for the sack, the secondary and linebackers locked up on the backend. The play prior was similar, as William Jackson III delivered a perfectly timed pass breakup to set up the fourth down opportunity. Both plays where the defense operates as a collective unit represent another positive development for Washington's defense.
"The coverage guys stayed where they were supposed to," head coach Ron Rivera said of the play. "They had vision on their receivers. They matched their guys. I thought it was a great call by Jack Del Rio. Because of that the quarterback had to pump the ball, hold it and then try to step up through and just the rush guys were in their lanes. That again, I will tell the guys, the play doesn't care who makes it. The plays are there to be made. And that is what they did."
For Washington to have continued success moving forward, stepping up in critical moments defensively remains paramount.