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WFT Daily: The Key To The NFL's Best Red Zone Defense

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Thomas Davis Sr., Tim Settle and Cole Holcomb go through practice for the Washington Football Team on Nov. 24, 2020. (Elijah Walter Griffin Sr./Washington Football Team)

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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The Washington Football Team has a lot of pride in how its defense has played this season, and it has a right to feel that way; the unit is performing at or near the top of several statistical categories. That is especially true for the team's red zone defense, as offenses have found little success when it comes to finishing drives in the end zone.

"I know [defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio] and his staff most certainly do emphasize," head coach Ron Rivera said after Thursday's practice. "When you do get down in the red zone, you've got to make plays. You've got to hold them to field goals, and that's one of the things the guys really worked on."

Washington's defense, which ranks seventh in points allowed per game, gives up touchdowns on a league-low 48.4% of red zone trips . It's performed even better in the past three games by allowing touchdowns on just 25% of such trips, and according to Del Rio, that is a result of every player on defense playing in sync with one another.

"When you're playing good defense, it's always a combination of [the defensive] front and coverage working hand-in-hand," Del Rio said. "When you're fitting runs, it takes everyone. It's not about any one segment [or] one position. It's a team effort."

Washington's performance in the red zone is a stark turnaround from the way it played last year; Washington allowed touchdowns on about 61% of such trips in 2019. That played a factor in the unit allowing 27.2 points per game, which ranked 27th in the NFL.

This year, Washington is allowing just 22.1 points per game, and it can thank the defense's stinginess in the red zone for that. It kept the Dallas Cowboys out of the end zone on three red zone trips, including a stand at the 4-yard line after Terry McLaurin made a touchdown-saving tackle on linebacker Jaylon Smith, who had just intercepted a pass from Alex Smith.

Defensive end Montez Sweat said the defense has put an emphasis on playing well in the red zone, and the unit tries to embrace those situations.

"We call it, 'Putting out the fire,'" Sweat said. "As a defense, that's really what you play for. You can put the fire out, have your offense [back on the field]. Getting back to complementary football is really what it's all about."

The improvements, Del Rio said, come from the effort his players put into improving, and they believe in the system he and the other coaches are teaching them. That's why the unit ranks first against the pass (193.2), 10th on third downs (37.9%) and fourth overall.

"We'll continue to push," he said. "We've got a high standard; I've said that all year. We have a high standard. We expect to be ranked amongst the best in the league because we feel like we are. We're working hard at it. It takes everybody. Everybody contributes to it. Like I said earlier, we don't dwell on mistakes. We don't dwell on negative things, but we certainly address them.

Washington will face another tough challenge against the Pittsburgh Steelers, who score touchdowns on 65% of their trips, which ranks 11th in the NFL.

"They're one of the better teams in the red zone," Del Rio said. "They're one of the better teams on third down. They're one of the better teams in turnover ratio. Those are the three things that we focus on...and this is a team that is outstanding in all three of those areas. So we've got a challenge in front of us."

Del Rio still believes the unit still has "a way to go" before being a finished product, but the players have worked hard and are making progress. Monday's game against the Steelers will be another chance to grade their growth.

"We move on and build on the positive things we're doing and play with great energy," Del Rio said. "We're building confidence and trust. I think you're seeing the result of those efforts."

QUICK HITS

-- Del Rio has an appreciation for Ben Roethlisberger: Pittsburgh had a tough quarterback situation last year, Del Rio said, once Ben Roethlisberger went down with season-ending elbow surgery. The Steelers' signal-callers included Mason Rudolph, Devlin Hodges and Jaylen Samuels. Despite those struggles, the Steelers finished the year 8-8 and fought for playoff contention all year. Now that Roethlisberger is back and playing well, Del Rio knows Pittsburgh is thankful to have the veteran back in the starting lineup.

"He brings that calmness, that experience, that accuracy, that talent. He's a really good football player. Obviously, add that to the defense they play and it's a pretty dangerous combination. A lot of respect for Ben. We've played against him over the years. I think he's a heck of a football player."

-- Carrying momentum simply involves "going out and doing your job": Washington is on a two-game winning streak that it hopes to extend Monday against the Steelers. There are a lot of things coaches can try to keep momentum high. Rivera would know; he tried a few of those methods with the Carolina Panthers. But what he has found is sometimes, the key to playing well is "just about going out and doing your job."

"That's really the thing we've been talking about right now is going out and doing your job, preparing yourself and doing the best you can. We'll see what happens. It's hard to say what motivates guys as we're trying to find out who we have. We're doing some different things this week. We'll see how that all pans out for us."

-- Rivera has respect for Chase Claypool: Rookie Chase Claypool has emerged as Pittsburgh's best receiving option and one of the best young receivers in the league. He leads the team with 611 yards and 10 total touchdowns, and he has caught 60.8% of his targets as well averages 13.6 yards per catch. Rivera said Claypool has the speed and quickness to make explosive plays downfield.

"I don't see him much different than what we saw him coming out [of the draft], other than he's a little more polished. That's probably the biggest thing you see about him is that he's a more polished player."

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