Finding consolation in the Redskins' season opening loss to the Dolphins, the defense limited a versatile Miami attack and can see their own potential.
At the beginning of training camp, general manager Scot McCloughan didn't want to put a number on the amount of wins the Redskins would achieve this season. He was sure of only one thing.
"When you play the Redskins this year, you're going to know you played us," McCloughan said. "You're going to feel us from the standpoint of being physical. The next morning, you're going to be sore."
That McCloughan can be confident in his statement after a 17-10 loss to the Dolphins in the season opener is a testament to the team's commitment to playing that tougher, more physical brand of football, which showed throughout the game's entirety Sunday, especially on defense.
Check out these top photos from the Washington Redskins' 2015 Week 1 matchup against the Miami Dolphins Sept. 13, 2015, at FedExField.
The loss – the difference coming from a Dolphins punt return touchdown that broke a 10-10 tie -- masked some encouraging steps taken by the defense under new defensive coordinator Joe Barry.
"It was very disappointing. We just got to hone in on the small details. That's what beat us," said defensive end Jason Hatcher, who recorded a sack. "A lot of penalties -- we dropped two interceptions on defense. We just got to hone in on the small things. We do that, we are going to be a happy football team."
Knowing the Dolphins would throw out a versatile offensive attack, with a progressing quarterback in Ryan Tannehill and a dynamic running back in Lamar Miller, the Redskins' defense proved more than worthy against their opponent right from the start. Washington shut down Miami in their first three drives, forcing two punts and a turnover on downs in Redskins territory.
The latter came on a fourth-and-1 situation at the Redskins' 12-yard line. Linebacker Ryan Kerrigan accelerated untouched off the left side of the line and chased down running back Damien Williams at the line of scrimmage.
It highlighted a first half that saw many defenders propel into the backfield (the key attribute Barry and his staff have emphasized), which led to 3 sacks and 2 total rushing yards for the Dolphins in the first half.
In total the Redskins allowed 74 rushing yards and 226 passing yards, the majority of them coming in the second half.
"Overall, we stopped the run," said linebacker Keenan Robinson, who finished with five tackles. "There were some plays where we were bending a little bit too much in the second-half, and that's where we can be better."
At least for the opening of the third quarter, the defense's momentum continued. After the Dolphins pushed the ball down the field, they faced a third-and-4 at the Redskins' 22-yard line. Jason Hatcher blew through the Dolphins' left side and pushed Tannehill off balance. Linebacker Preston Smith followed behind, sacking the quarterback and punching the ball loose.
Kerrigan pounced first with a Dolphins lineman and the ball squirted out and bounced several times back into Redskins territory before Smith, who started the comedy of errors, recovered the football.
"That's a first for me, where no one falls on the ball the first time it comes out and it pops down field about 30 times," Smith said. " It's kind of crazy to see the ball kept going and as I was going to the pile and it kept going and I see it popping out of guys hands and guys trying to rally to the ball. It felt good to fall on it."
The opportunities for more turnovers presented themselves -- cornerback Chris Culliver had a touchdown awaiting him in the third quarter but the ball bounced off his chest and into the arms of wide receiver Greg Jennings, and Robinson couldn't handle a rocket from Tannehill to start the fourth quarter.
But the defense, even after missing opportunities, remained strong in the red zone, forcing Tannehill out of the pocket where he had few options but to throw the ball away or run into the arms of waiting defenders.
As Miami's run game opened up in the second half – Hatcher alluded to the Dolphins spreading out the defense with some sweep runs – and Tannehill took advantage of some openings down the middle of the field, the keys for the defense became more mental than physical.
"We've got a lot of fight in us," said safety and defensive captain Dashon Goldson. "We've just got to limit some of the big plays. We just need to get some more of the mental toughness, I think. As far as the physical part, we're there. We've just got to get the mental toughness part down."
That will take time, especially for a defense that is still learning to gel together with a lot of new faces and one that hadn't seen its starters play four full quarters for the first time since last season.
"I think our defense competed," said head coach Jay Gruden. "I think they played hard to compete and they all stayed together, which is a good thing right now."
That's something nose tackle Terrance Knighton was proud to say he and his teammates will do every time they take the field. "It's all about execution in this league," he said. "We need to execute at the end."
It's also something Hatcher can see continuing to get better.
"We don't want to lose," Hatcher said. "But there is a light at the end of the tunnel when you look at this football team. We've just got to go in on Wednesday and be hard on ourselves and get better."