Playing Meaningful Ball in December and The Players that Made it Happen

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Being relevant in December in the NFL is something to be thankful for. It was only a short time ago that Washington was sitting at 2-7 after another let down loss to the Lions. Fast forward to Thanksgiving night and Washington has now won 2 in a row and is tied for the NFC East lead with NYG at 4-7 after sweeping Dallas (NYG holds the tiebreaker with the 2 wins vs WAS). Although Alex Smith is playing the role of game manager well (66 pass yards 1 td and 1 vs CIN and 149 pass yards 1 td and 1 int vs DAL) over the last two weeks his performance has been enough to sustain long offensive drives.

Over the last two weeks, one thing seems certain; these players on offense are thriving off of Smith’s energy. Although the NFC East is the worst division in football, Washington is a team that has it going at the right time with a path to the playoffs. In fact, over the last two games vs Dallas, Washington has outscored them 66-19. During the 3 game stretch a few players have emerged as valuable assets to build upon.

Moses and the O-line

The o-line in Washington has been in disarray since the Trent Williams holdout, which ultimately led to his trade to San Francisco. Since then, we’ve seen Geron Christian, Cornelius Lucas III and Saahdiq Charles (2 snap before injured) see time at LT with less than stellar results. After injuries during the 11/8 loss to the Giants, RT Morgan Moses was forced to switch to LT with David Sharpe taking over at RT. Since the switch, the run game has clearly improved and Smith has seen more time in the pocket.

The schedule helped for sure with Detroit, Cincinnati and Dallas providing more opportunities for the Washington offense to gain an identity. Although the passing numbers are below average, the run game has seen a big boost with tight end Logan Thomas contributing in all facets, as well. Pittsburgh will be the biggest test for this o-line and tight end group thus far, but the improved play Moses, should give fans some hope.

The Captain and Rookie

Second year receiver Terry McLaurin and rookie running back Antonio Gibson have put this offense on their back. In order to give some perspective, Alex Smith has thrown for 1,067 yards 3 td’s and 5 int thus far, while McLaurin (993 total yards 3 td’s) and Gibson (868 total yards 11 td’s) have combined for 1,861 total yards and 14 td’s. The duo has stepped up their game and been productive, regardless of who has been under center.

McLaurin has become one of the league’s top receivers  and his recent vote in as captain seems fitting. In less than two seasons, it’s becoming clear that McLaurin is the most talented receiver the team has had since HOF receiver Art Monk. That might be high praise, but McLaurin’s work ethic and hustle haven’t been seen from the position in the nation’s capital for decades.

Although the former OSU stats are impressive, the play he made against Dallas epitomizes what type of player he is and can be. Late in the 3rd quarter, leading 20-13, Alex Smith threw an ill timed interception with 04:17 remaining to Cowboys linebacker #54 Jaylon Smith. At that point, it seemed like another familiar Washington collapse was in the making. But Terry was having none of that. Smith hauled in the interception on the Washington 46 yard line and headed toward the end zone with a head of steam, only to have McLaurin bring him down on the 4 yard line.

This touchdown saving tackle, in combination with the goal line stand, only resulted in a field goal which kept the lead at 20-16. Although McLaurin’s clutch 1st down catches were key, leading to 92 yards on 7 receptions on the day, it was the touchdown saving tackle that would be the mark that he left on Washington’s Thanksgiving victory.

NFL: Super Bowl LIII-New England Patriots vs Los Angeles Rams
Feb 3, 2019; Atlanta, GA, USA; New England Patriots former player Ty Law before Super Bowl LIII against the Los Angeles Rams at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

McLaurin helped the team in key situations against Dallas, which many fans expected. Another player on the offense also had a big day. Third round rookie Antonio Gibson put the division on notice with his best game as pro and tied a few Thanksgiving day records that previously stood for decades.

Gibson is still learning the nuances of running back after being utilized primarily as a pass catcher during his time at Memphis, but his vision and ability to create YAC are starting to come together. Gibson averaged 5.8 yards per rush vs Dallas on Thanksgiving, on his way to recording 115 rushing yards for 3 td’s along with 5 rec for 21 yards.

As mentioned, the rookie back has recorded 868 total yards 11 td’s through 11 games, but in multiple games only had a handful of carries. Offensive Coordinator Scott Turner has definitely opened up his playbook, while trying to stay committed to the run. Many will point to the level of competition in which Gibson shined, but there’s no denying that the rookie is electric with the ball in his hands. With a tough matchup on the horizon vs the undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers, Turner would be wise to utilize Gibson more as a receiver in order to keep the stout Steeler defense off balance. Getting the Best Out of Antonio Gibson

Young and the Defense 

Another rookie displayed how dominant he could be against the Cowboys and the the pass rusher nicknamed “The Predator” certainly didn’t disappoint. Only 1 week after forcing a fumble by quarterback Joe Burrow at the goal line, Chase Young continued to take the lead on defense against Dallas. Similar to the Cincinnati performance, Young’s teammates fed off his energy and didn’t let up against Dallas.

Per Next Gen Stats, Young set or tied career-best marks in several pass rush metrics vs Dallas on Thanksgiving. In that game, Young recorded 5 pressures with a 16.1% pressure rate, which led the team. However, his 0.74 second get-off average is what set him apart from the rest. Youngs stats don’t scream All Pro just yet (22 tak 4.5 sacks and 2 FF), but it’s been evident that his mere presence on the field has pushed offensive coordinators to adjust accordingly. Rhiannon Walker of The Athletic had the following to say about Young:

“Chase Young is doubled at a higher rate than T.J. Watt, Jason Pierre-Paul and Demarcus Lawrence. Youngs win rate? Higher than J.J. Watt, Khalil Mack and Cameron Jordan.”

The attention Young has drawn has led to opportunities for others such as Montez Sweat. The second year pass rusher has been reaping the benefits, which has led to Sweat recording 6 sacks 2 FF’s (leads the team) and his first career pick 6 on Thanksgiving. It’s not only Young’s presence on the field, but also the fire and confidence he inspires in the locker room. Similar to Sweat, the former Hokie DT Tim Settle has also seen a noticeable uptick in his performance after Youngs arrival. With the injury to Matt Ioannidis, Settle has been featured more in a rotational role with more snaps, but currently sits second on the team with 5 sacks. 

As a whole, the defense has had it’s best performance within the NFC East. Upcoming games against Pittsburgh, Seattle and San Francisco will go a long way in determining their playoff fate and what the offseason roster focus should be. In most cases, a 4-7 record would equal a bottom dweller spot within a teams respective division, no matter how bad the other teams are. However, this is 2020 and Rivera’s team has everything to play for.

The Alex Smith comeback story along with the Dwayne Haskins benching have been polarizing examples of the highs and lows under Rivera. One thing seems clear; Washington’s players have bought into what Rivera is selling. Although some fans view a division title as nothing more than a drop from the draft’s top 15, competing for a division title under any circumstances matters, especially with a new coach attempting to revitalize a once proud culture. Playing meaningful football in December is a great scenario for a team only a year removed from a regime that had featured Bruce Allen calling the shots and Jay Gruden getting the early season hook with Bill Callahan taking over as the Interim HC. The continued focus on development and the week to week improvement from a play-calling standpoint is also notable, which should go a long way for Washington making their bid for the NFC East crown. In the end though, Washington will only go as far as their playmakers take them.

By Adam Aniba

#Burgundyandgoldreport #FightForOldDC #WashingtonFootball Follow on Twitter @TheBandGreport and on Facebook at ‪‬

⭐️Credit photos to and Elijah Walter Griffin Sr/Washington Football Team and Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

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