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5 Takeaways: How Washington Beat The 49ers To Take Control Of The NFC East

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Washington Football Team strong safety Kamren Curl (31) celebrates his interception for a touchdown against the San Francisco 49ers with cornerback Jimmy Moreland (20), and defensive back Jeremy Reaves (39) during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 13, 2020, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

The Washington Football Team held on for a 23-15 win over the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday to earn its fourth straight win and move into first place in the NFC East.

Here are five takeaways from the victory.

1. Rookie defenders Chase Young and Kam Curl both found the end zone.

No. 2 overall pick Chase Young and seventh-round selection Kamren Curl have been two of the better defensive rookies in the NFL this season. And that was before each of them found the end zone against the 49ers.

With the 49ers threatening to extend their 7-6 advantage before halftime, defensive tackle Daron Payne combined with Jon Allen for a strip sack of quarterback Nick Mullens. Young saw the loose ball, scooped it up and rumbled 47 yards for his first-career touchdown to give Washington a lead it would never relinquish.

Curl has been a tackling machine since he filled in for the injured Landon Collins in Week 9, but he was still waiting to record his first interception.

That came on the last play of the third quarter as the 49ers were in position to cut the deficit to one score. But on a 2nd-and-2 from the 29-yard line, Curl broke on a pass near the left sideline for the easy interception. From there, he was off to the races for a 76-yard touchdown that he punctuated with a flip into the end zone.

"I really just knew he was going to throw it to the flat," Curl said. "He was padding it too long, and he threw it to me, so I appreciate him for that. And then I saw green grass, so I had to go."

The duo's first-career touchdowns punctuated the best performances of their first rookie seasons. In addition to his fumble return for a touchdown, Young recorded six tackles (one for loss), two quarterback hits, two passes defensed and a sack. Curl, meanwhile, broke up his first two passes of the year while adding seven solo tackles and a quarterback hit.

Young's mom, Carla, is a particularly tough grader when it comes to her son, but she had nothing but love for him after this game. Speaking to the media via FaceTime on Young's phone, Carla gave her thoughts on the fumble return for a touchdown.

"Oh my gosh, I'm just so worn out. It was just so outstanding, I couldn't even believe it. I was in shock. And I said, 'He knows how to pick that ball up and not fall on it.' And he got it and kept trucking."

2. The rest of the defense was dominant, too.

Washington has been by far the best rushing defense the past three games (50.3 yards allowed), but for the first three drives Sunday, the San Francisco 49ers were running the ball like they did during their Super Bowl run last season. They gained 54 yards on their first 10 carries, the last of which was a one-yard touchdown from Jeff Wilson to open the scoring late in the first quarter.

But for the rest of the game, Washington reverted to its recent dominance by holding the 49ers to 54 yards on 17 carries and forcing a fumble on Wilson that Young returned for a score. When Mullens dropped back to throw, the pass-rush harassed him by way of 12 quarterback hits and four sacks. That led to two turnovers and Curl's interception return.

Washington's defense, who entered Sunday in the top 10 of every major statistical category, has allowed fewer than 20 points in four straight games.

"We just don't want to give up anything," Payne said of the unit's approach. "When we give up yards, we're frustrated about it. And I know on the [defensive] line, we just try to go out there and hunt every play, and I'm trying to get there before Chase get there or [Montez] Sweat get there or Ryan Kerrigan. It's like a big competition."

3. Dwayne Haskins relieved injured Alex Smith.

The quarterback carousel came full circle late in the first half Sunday when Dwayne Haskins Jr. replaced starting quarterback Alex Smith.

Head coach Ron Rivera said afterwards that Smith was dealing with tightness and soreness in his surgically repaired leg, which hindered him from pushing off when he threw. That factored into Smith being uncharacteristically inaccurate Sunday; he completed just eight of his 19 passes for 57 yards and an interception before heading to the locker room before the rest of the team.

Rivera said "there was no issue" with Smith's halftime X-rays, but the soreness and tightness remained, so the team decided to keep him on the sideline. Rivera said he could have been used in an emergency situation.

While Smith spent the second half trying to stay loose, Haskins, seeing his first game action since Week 4, completed seven of his 12 passes for 51 yards. The second-year quarterback was at his best during Washington's first possession of the second half, when an 11-play, 72-yard drive ended with a Dustin Hopkins field goal that put the visitors ahead, 16-7.

"He's showing growth, and that's the thing we're looking for," Rivera said of Haskins. "We'll continue to work it and we'll see what happens. We'll see how Alex is as this week progresses, and we will prepare accordingly."

4. No Antonio Gibson, no problem for Washington's running game.

Offensive coordinator Scott Turner insisted earlier this week that the attack would not change much without rookie Antonio Gibson, who missed Sunday's game with a toe injury. He was right.

With J.D. McKissic leading the way (career-high 68 yards on 11 attempts), Washington's running backs combined for 105 yards and 4.6 yards per carry against the 49ers' ninth-ranked rushing defense. Washington entered the game averaging 101.5 yards on the ground.

And while neither McKissic or Peyton Barber (12 rushes for 37 yards) found the end zone, they did enough to help Washington squeak out a road victory.

"We ran the wide zone pretty good," McKissic said. "The [run-pass option] game, I think it played a factor in our success in the run game."

5. Washington controls its own destiny with three games to play.

A win is a win in the NFL, even if it comes without an offensive touchdown. In fact, that's the first time Washington has secured such a victory on the road since Oct. 25, 1992, against the Minnesota Vikings.

Regardless, Washington (6-7) has its first four-game winning streak since 2016 and is now in sole possession of first place in the NFC East. With three games left against the Seattle Seahawks, Carolina Panthers and Philadelphia Eagles, Washington controls its own destiny as it attempts to make the playoffs for the first time since 2015.

That works just fine for Rivera, who has been preaching a "control what you can control" philosophy all season long.

"It's about what we do and how we do it," Rivera said. "We're relevant, we're in the conversation -- people are talking about us -- and we have to maintain and be humble. Like I told them about last week's victory and then this week's victory, this thing will carry us to the game, but it won't mean anything once we play the game, so we just have to enjoy it and then get ourselves prepared for the next game we play."

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