Cole Holcomb stood at the 40-yard line waiting for Cowboys quarterback Andy Dalton to take the snap. He and safety Kamren Curl were poised for a blitz, and with the Cowboys facing a 3rd-and-9, Washington needed to get off the field.
Holcomb saw right guard Connor McGovern fan out to block Curl, so he knew he would have to get past Ezekiel Elliott to get to Dalton. He lowered his shoulder, barreled past Elliott and dove at Dalton's legs to force a fourth down.
"I saw [that] Andy Dalton was close, and I was like, 'Man, I can not get blocked by [Elliott],' so I tried to put hands on him and ended up finishing on the quarterback."
The play was part of a standout performance for Holcomb, who finished Washington's 25-3 win over the Cowboys with four tackles, two quarterback hits, a sack and an interception. After missing the past month due to injury, Holcomb has finally emerged as the player the new coaching staff was excited about entering his second season.
The expectations were high for Holcomb coming into the 2020 season. After all, the former North Carolina Tar Heel had 105 tackles in his rookie year, and Rivera as well as defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio were excited to use him in Washington's new 4-3 scheme. At the NFL Scouting Combine, Rivera said Holcomb possessed the position flexibility he desires in his players.
But after recording just one tackle in Week 1 against the Philadelphia Eagles, Holcomb was inactive for the next four weeks with a knee injury. During that time, Holcomb focused the mental side of the game so that he would be ready whenever he made a full recovery.
"I think it helps slow the game down a lot," Holcomb said. "I've gone into these past two games with complete confidence that I know our game plan, I know what [the offense is] trying to give us and what they could possibly give us. When you watch that film and then you get on the field and it's showing up and you know this is what's coming and I can anticipate what they're going to run, it makes it a lot easier to play the game."
Holcomb said he gained a different perspective watching film as he was recovering. On the field, he said, players are more focused on their responsibilities. But he was able to view the defense as a whole, which helped him get a better understanding of Washington's defense.
"I was able to pick up some habits in terms of breaking film down that really helped in the long run," he said.
Holcomb tied with safety Deshazor Everett to lead the team with six tackles against the Giants, and the production continued against the Cowboys. He and Ryan Kerrigan brought down Elliott for a one-yard gain on a 2nd-and-5, which contributed to Dallas settling for a 45-yard field goal. Then, prior to his nine-yard sack on Dalton, he forced an incompletion as Dallas was trying to rally from a 15-3 deficit.
Holcomb's biggest play, though, came with just 39 seconds left in the first half. Trailing 22-3, the Cowboys were pushing for points before the break and were in the middle of a 13-play drive that reached Washington's 12-yard line. Dalton fired a pass to Elliott, but the ball was slightly off-target and bounced off his shoulder. Holcomb wrapped his hands around the ball as it floated in midair and came down with his first-career interception. Holcomb flung the ball in the air as he ran off the field celebrating with his teammates.
"I knew I was getting an angle route on that play, and I knew if I got beat on this angle route my coaches would have me go sit on the sidelines," Holcomb said with a smile. "So, when he threw it behind him a little bit, I was very thankful.
"I was just very patient on the play," Holcomb added. "I was waiting for it to come to me."
It was a good feeling, Holcomb said, to have a game like Sunday's heading into the bye week. When the team is playing complimentary football, he thinks it can be a good group as it prepares for the second half of the season. Holcomb was part of that success, and Rivera said after the game his production has been missed.
"It's good to have him back on the field," Rivera said, "being productive and making things happen."