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How Washington Became NFL's Best Run Defense During Winning Streak

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Washington Football Team defensive end Chase Young #99 reacts following a 23-17 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers during an NFL football game, Monday, Dec. 7, 2020, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Justin Berl)

Pittsburgh Steelers running back Benny Snell took the handoff from Ben Roethlisberger and slammed into a swarm of white jerseys and burgundy helmets at the line of scrimmage.

Daron Payne, who stonewalled center J.C. Hassenauer, was the first to reach Snell. The rest of the defense followed, converging on the running back and pushing him back two yards before officials blew the play dead for no gain.

It was a common set of events for Pittsburgh. It ran the ball 14 times against Washington's defense for 21 yards and a measly 1.5 average.

Washington has won three straight games -- including a 23-17 upset over the Steelers -- for the first time since 2018, and one of the reasons for that success is its suffocating run defense. It has allowed an average of 50.3 rushing yards in that span, which is by far the best in the league. There is still room to grow, but head coach Ron Rivera is confident the group is ascending.

"That's the big thing is that you want to see that growth where they're going up because it bodes well for the future," Rivera said Tuesday. "That's the thing. We don't know what's going to happen in the next few weeks, but we're going to come out and play hard and give our best effort and see what happens."

Washington entered its matchup against the Cincinnati Bengals with the seventh-ranked defense, but it was clear it needed to improve in stopping the run. After limiting the Philadelphia Eagles to 57 rushing yards in Week 1, it allowed 126 yards per game (21st in the NFL) and gave up at least 130 yards to the Arizona Cardinals, Cleveland Browns, Baltimore Ravens and New York Giants.

That changed in a big way against the Bengals. Washington allowed 70 yards on the ground, and all five of the Bengals' ball-carriers were limited to fewer than 20 yards each.

Washington followed that up by allowing 60 yards to the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving and just 21 versus the Steelers. That success involves the players buying into what Rivera and his coaches are teaching them. It took time for the players to get used to the techniques, but now that they have, the results are coming to fruition. Washington is 5-0 when it allows fewer than 100 rushing yards.

"I think, in all honesty, it's the development over time," Rivera said. "You have to break habits and you have to get them to be more confident in what you're trying to do to get them to do it. It was a little bit of a struggle, to be honest. Some of our guys held onto the old techniques and old styles of play and getting them to understand what we're trying to teach I think was a big part of it."

Monday's game was the culmination of that effort, particularly during a goal line stand in the second quarter. Pittsburgh ran five plays at Washington's 1-yard line, three of which were runs, and gained nothing. On fourth down, Chase Young made a diving save to keep Snell out of the end zone and force a turnover on downs.

"In my head, I was like [the tight end] was gonna have to...choose me or the guy outside of me," Young said. "I was like, 'All right, I'm gonna shoot [the gap],' and he's just gonna have to pick. So I shot it, and he didn't know who to choose. He didn't block me, so that's why I feel like I made the play."

Linebacker Jon Bostic knows most people are going to be focused on Young and fellow defensive end Montez Sweat getting sacks, but the run-stopping plays like the one Young made have been even more impressive to him.

"You have a lot of defensive ends that are just pass-rush guys and just running up field," Bostic said. "They'll make plays here and there in the run game. But you've got two guys, even the ones that are rolling in, that are coming off, playing how [defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio] wants us to and stopping the run on the way to the quarterback."

The goal line plays, Bostic said, were a great defensive stand that shows how much fight the unit has. 

"Regardless of when we get put out on the field, you've got to get the ball back to the offense. We definitely wouldn't want to be in that situation, but it was a good stop by us. We just did what we practiced, and it turned out well for us."

Despite holding a 14-3 at the start of the second half, Pittsburgh abandoned the running game for the rest of the game; it ran the ball three times for eight yards in the final 30 minutes.

"If you can't get a yard you don't deserve to win," Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said after the game. "We had several sequences when we had an opportunity to gain a yard that could have helped us in winning the game, and we were unsuccessful."

Washington has four opponents left on the schedule, two of which rank in the bottom half of average rushing yards per game. It earned an upset over the Steelers, but with the race for the NFC East title heating up between it and the Giants, it will need to keep playing well to remain in playoff contention.

As long as the defense continues to stifle the ground game, the team has a shot to win.

"We really believe right now -- at least I do -- that the players have bought in," Rivera said, "and they're beginning to believe in what the potential in this unit can be, what this group of guys can accomplish."

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