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Washington’s ‘weak link’ withstands without wilting in latest nail-biter

redskins_eaglesBy DERON SNYDER

PHILADELPHIA – Confidence was shaky, at best, Sunday as Philadelphia began a would-be game-winning touchdown drive. Washington’s defense had been less-than-inspiring most of the afternoon at Lincoln Financial Field, and now the Eagles were poised to deliver a crushing blow to the Skins’ playoff hopes.

Faith was hard to come by. But by now we should know better than to trust our gut and lying eyes. Because while it felt like the Eagles were having their way on offense – dominating the clock, converting third downs and racking up the yardage – the scoreboard told a different story. It said one crucial stop was the only thing standing between victory and defeat.

Most fans would rather see Kirk Cousins and his multiple weapons take the field for a final, decisive drive. But when linebacker Ryan Kerrigan roared in for a strip-sack that was recovered by linebacker Trent Murphy with 12 seconds remaining, Washington’s defense held up its end of the bargain in 27-22 victory.

There’s no denying that the Skins’ strength reside on the other side of the ball, where Cousins ranks among the league’s leading passers while orchestrating a Top-10 unit. Conversely, Washington’s D ranked as a middling unit in points allowed, among the NFL’s lower-third in yards allowed and dead-last in third-down conversion percentage.

The Skins hurt their cause in two of the three categories against the Eagles, but came out ahead when it mattered most.

That has become a trend, albeit easy to overlook. This was the fourth game in which the defense took the field in a one-possession game with time winding down. They failed to secure the victory just once – when Detroit’s Matthew Stafford hit Anquan Boldin for a touchdown with 16 seconds remaining.

Otherwise, against the New York Giants (Su’a Cravens interception with 1:02 remaining), Baltimore (turnover on downs with 20 seconds left), and now Philadelphia, (forced fumble) Washington has withstood deep forays into its own territory without yielding the go-ahead score.

“It helps that we’ve had a couple, that (defensive players) know how to reach and how to respond,” Washington coach Jay Gruden said. “It’s just guys stepping up and making plays and not blinking.”

It seemed like you couldn’t blink without the Eagles converting another third down. They were 9-of-18 just about the average for Washington’s opponents entering the game (48 percent). But the Skins are putting the ‘B’ in Bend But Don’t Break this season. They allowed only 16 of the 22 points as Cousins threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown (Philly’s two-point attempt failed).

The Eagles pulled off a perfect impression of the Skins early on, dominating the game everywhere but the scoreboard. Philly had only a 6-0 lead after its first three drives, thanks to Washington stiffening for two field goals and cornerback DeShazor Everett’s interception in the end zone. For the day, the Eagles gained 383 yards, thanks largely to their success on third down.

“You get frustrated about it, but at end of day got off the field when needed to,” said Compton, who left with a knee injury in the third quarter. “We kept them in advantageous field goal range and did a pretty good job, but we still have to correct third downs and play better in that area.”

When Washington doesn’t get off the field, Cousins & Co. can’t get off the bench. But they proved that a lot of time with the ball isn’t totally necessary, especially with a home-run hitter like DeSean Jackson.

The former Eagle hauled in an 80-yard touchdown to cap a two-play drive early in the third quarter.  Washington demonstrated an ability to strike from distance on the ground as well: Rob Kelley ran in from 22 yards out and Chris Thompson scored the go-ahead touchdown on a 25-yard toss in the final two minutes – with newly-reinstated tackle Trent Williams providing a downfield escort.

Afterward, Gruden conceded that the wiser play might’ve been Thompson taking a knee so Washington could run down the clock before attempting a game-winning kick. That would’ve kept the defense out of a hero/goat scenario. But the coach acknowledged the flip side of playing it “safe,” a lesson the team brought from London. “There’s no guarantee on those field goals,” he said. “We learned the hard way.”

Apparently, the Skins don’t know any other way to play. Whether the offense shines or the defense struggles, this team seems destined to be in nailbiters that ride on the last possession. But instead of being nervous when victory depends on a stop, everyone can breathe a little easier thanks to results thus far.

“We have been tested in every area that should be tested in situational football,” defensive end Chris Baker said. “I think this game helped us and let us realize that no matter the situation, if we continue to stick together we can find a way to make the play and win the game.”

Maybe Cousins will take a page from Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers and deliver this message the next time Washington’s defense is on the spot:


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