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WFT Daily: Dustin Hopkins Has Found His Footing At The Perfect Time

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Washington Football Team kicker Dustin Hopkins (3) kicks a field goal during the first half of an NFL football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Pittsburgh, Monday, Dec. 7, 2020. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)

The 2020 season is here, and we have you covered as the Washington Football Team progresses through its inaugural campaign under head coach Ron Rivera. Stay up to date with "WFT Daily," which comes out every weekday evening.

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It would have been easy for head coach Ron Rivera to explore other kicking options two-and-a-half months into the season.

Dustin Hopkins -- the Washington Football Team's placekicker since 2015 -- missed five field goals and an extra point over the first 10 weeks. Two misfires were particularly detrimental: in the first quarter against the New York Giants in Week 6 and in the second quarter versus the Detroit Lions in Week 10. Washington lost those games by a combined four points.

While Rivera talked about potentially bringing in competition for Hopkins, he never did so because he believes in Hopkins' ability. A career 85% field goal kicker entering 2020, Hopkins needed to kick himself out of a slump, just like Graham Gano did for the Carolina Panthers after missing eight field goals and three extra points in 2016. A year later, Gano posted the highest field goal percentage of his career (96.7) and made the Pro Bowl.

"If you're patient with these guys and trust them, they're going to reward you," Rivera told NBC Sports Washington's JP Finlay.

Hopkins rewarded Rivera in a big way during Washington's season-defining win over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday night. Hopkins made all three of his field goals from at least 45 yards out, the second of which gave Washington the lead right before the two-minute warning. With 17 seconds to play, Hopkins all but sealed the 23-17 victory when his 45-yarder sailed through the uprights.

"Sometimes you get into a little bit of a slump," Rivera said of Hopkins, the reigning NFC Special Teams Player of the Week. "He worked his way out of it and he's been solid, he really has. And just really happy with what he did, again, working himself through his situation, and it was a tough field to kick off of today, too."

Hopkins admitted his struggles after the game -- "Obviously, this hasn't been the year I wanted to have" -- but he trusted the process and focused on what had gotten him to this point. After all, he has never finished a season hitting fewer than 81% of his field goals.

His three-game turnaround began when he made his first 50-yarder of the season against the Cincinnati Bengals on Nov. 22. Four days later, he converted both of his attempts and all five of his extra points against the Dallas Cowboys.

In Pittsburgh, he was as good as he's ever been. It was the first time he made three field goals of at least 45 yards, and he became the first Washington kicker to make three or more 45-plus-yard field goals in a single game since Gano in 2010.

"We were fortunate tonight because there was some breeze, but honestly, if you struck a pure ball, it was flying pretty true," Hopkins said Monday. "I didn't have to try and do some crazy stuff with it, so that's fortunate for Pittsburgh in December. So yeah, it felt good, man."

Having made eight of his past nine field goals, Hopkins has found his footing at the perfect time. With Washington battling the Giants for the NFC East and in contention for the final wild card berth, every kick will be crucial as the franchise looks to make the playoffs for the first time since 2015.

That exciting responsibility will fall on Hopkins, who has Rivera to thank.

"I've been so impressed with the way Coach handles himself," Hopkins said. "And it's easy for me to say because in this circumstance, I'm the beneficiary. But even had he made a change, I'm just really impressed with the way [he] handles himself in a number of different ways; just the way he talks to guys, the way he addresses the team, the way he bounces back from tough losses or the way he reacts to wins. I've just been really impressed with him as a coach and as a man."

QUICK HITS

-- A tale of two halves: Any non-Washington fan watching Monday night would have thought the game was over at halftime. Pittsburgh held a 14-3 lead, and Washington did hardly anything against the Steelers' top-ranked defense.

But those who know this team have seen slow starts turn into furious comebacks, and that is exactly what happened against the NFL's last undefeated squad. Washington went on to outscore its opponent, 20-3, over the final two quarters to secure the biggest win of Rivera's tenure.

Through 12 games, Washington ranks 31st in point differential in the first half (-85) and first in the second (+89).

"I would love to have fast starts where you're up 14-nothing and you feel a little better so you're comfortable and enjoy watching the game a little bit better," Rivera said. "But as of right now, we'll take it as it comes. It seems to be working for us, so I guess it might be a part of our strategy going forward [laughs]."

-- Linebackers respond to Rivera's criticism: Rivera did not hold back when asked about the linebackers following the Giants' 166-yard rushing performance Nov. 8.

"I'd like them to play better," Rivera said bluntly. "Be more productive."

The unit has responded over the past three games. Opponents are only averaging three yards per attempt, and the Steelers managed just 21 yards on 14 carries. A large amount of that success can be attributed to the linebackers.

"The play of the linebackers has gotten better," Rivera said Monday. "About three or four weeks ago, I was a little bit critical about them and they took it to heart, I believe, and went out and did the things they needed to do to improve. They're still getting better. They're still growing. They're a young group, and those things will show as we continue to play."

-- Alex Smith's comeback astonishes 49ers head coach: Kyle Shanahan was "very surprised" about Alex Smith's return to football, and that's not even considering how he's played since becoming the starter in Week 10.

"Anyone who's had the career that he's had and then had that serious of an injury, you would think that they're good not playing again," Shanahan told the Washington media Wednesday. "When you see him coming back, it just explains why he's been so successful in his career. The guy loves football. He's determined to do some pretty special things."

Smith is coming off a 296-yard outing against the Steelers -- the third time he has reached that mark over the past five games. He combined for 315 passing yards in the other two contests yet won both, helping Washington remain in playoff contention.

"He knows where to go with the ball," Shanahan said. "He doesn't get caught with it. Even if the pass rush is bad and if they've got guys out and stuff, he can dink and dunk you. If you get aggressive, he'll hang in there. He's as tough as anybody. He'll make that throw if you're aggressive and you give him some shots down the field. Anytime you have a guy where no matter what the protection's like or what the situation is like, the game's not too big for, those guys find a way not to lose it for you. If you pair a guy like that with the good defense, now he can win it for you because he can get the ball to the right place, which is a huge deal. He can still at his age and with his injuries, he can still make plays with his legs."

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