Secondary keeps Dallas offense in check
The play of its secondary has been a concern all season for the Redskins. Entering Sunday night's winner-take-all game against the explosive Dallas Cowboys, that issue loomed large.
But the Cowboys never took advantage of the much-maligned unit, which entered the game ranked 30th in passing defense this season. Instead, cornerback DeAngelo Hall played his best game of the season in coverage, and Washington held Dallas quarterback Tony Romo to 218 passing yards on 37 attempts in a 28-18 victory at FedEx Field that clinched the NFC East title and a playoff berth.
"Those guys had to really stand up, and they did it today. All those guys played well," veteran linebacker London Fletcher said of his team's defensive backs. "Because you think about those pressures that we were running, a lot of times they were in zero coverage. It takes a man to be out there in zero coverage, and those guys stood up."
The Cowboys moved the ball some, but they never hit a deep play downfield to expose the secondary. The longest pass play of the game was a 25-yarder to Dwayne Harris.
Hall finished with three pass breakups, including a key one on second down from the 37-yard line on a fourth-quarter Dallas drive. That one was intended for Harris. A sack of Romo on the ensuing play led to a Cowboys punt and killed a promising drive.
The coaching staff thought the Redskins spent too much of the second half of the Thanksgiving Day win in Dallas playing coverage and that allowed the Cowboys back into that game. This time the coaches challenged Hall and his fellow defensive backs. Hall would follow star wide receiver Dez Bryant everywhere -- a change from the normal plan against Dallas -- while Josh Wilson would take wide receiver Miles Austin. An ankle injury in the first half, however, helped render Austin ineffective.
"It was fun. I was kind of joking with [NBC reporter] Michele Tafoya the other day," Hall said. "I said if we win the game, it's going to be because of me. If we lose, it's going to be because of me because Dez had been going on a tear these last couple weeks. But like I said, we were able to be successful. Not just myself, but the front was able to get after them. Other guys were out there covering, getting picks. Our linebackers got more picks than the secondary. That linebacker corps really stepped it up for us."
Romo did hit Bryant with a 23-yard pass. And tight end Jason Witten caught a touchdown from 9 yards out over the middle in the second quarter. But the Redskins were able to generate serious pressure on Romo throughout the game with a variety of blitzes and stunts. He was hit hard twice in the first half and was intercepted by cornerback Richard Crawford and Wilson.
"Today was all about the secondary and the coaching," defensive tackle Barry Cofield said. "To me [defensive coordinator Jim Haslett] and the staff had a great plan. Especially up front, we were pawns. He was directing us, and the secondary played great. They made a lot of plays. They were in a lot of zero coverages, and they made a lot of plays for us."
On the decisive drive late in the fourth quarter, Romo faltered again. He hit Witten over the middle for 14 yards to set up a first down at the 29 and generate some momentum with his team down 21-18 and time running short. But the next pass was a disaster. Redskins linebacker Perry Riley came through on a blitz, and Romo's throw was short of running back DeMarco Murray. Linebacker Rob Jackson was there for his team's third interception of the game.
Bryant was of greatest concern after he had 224 receiving yards and a pair of touchdowns last week against New Orleans. He had eight catches for 145 yards and two touchdowns in that first meeting with Washington. But Bryant's string of seven consecutive games with a touchdown catch was snapped as the Redskins' secondary held up in their biggest game of the season.
"Offense gets the glory; defense wins championships," Hall said. "Everybody in this locker room knows that. Everybody in the world knows that. And we don't have a problem at all playing the back burner to some of these guys on offense because they are superstars in their own right."