Before Sunday’s game against the 49ers, I published, as I try to do each week, my Four Keys to the Game article.
This week, I identified the following four keys as being critical against the 49ers:
- Run the ball successfully
- Plan on Terry McLaurin seeing double coverage all game long
- Shut down the 49ers run game
- Win the turnover battle (+2)
Let’s take a quick look at these and see how the Football Team did.
No. 1 - Run the ball successfully
The idea here wasn’t that Washington would be able to dominate the impressive Niners defense on the ground, but that the run game would be “good enough” without Antonio Gibson. It was clear that Scott Turner wouldn’t be able to follow the same strategy that he had used against the Steelers after Gibson’s injury, in which Alex Smith passed the ball repeatedly to JD McKissic for catch & run plays near the line of scrimmage.
Well, Scott Turner is every bit as clever as I thought he was. Against the 49ers, McKissic was used primarily as a runner, rushing 11 times for 68 yards (over 6 years per carry) while catching only two passes for 18 yards. This isn’t gonna win you a fantasy football game, but it was certainly the kind of performance that I had in mind when I wrote the article. The offense ran often enough and successfully enough not to become a one-dimensional offense.
While Peyton Barber’s stats were not impressive (12 rushes, 37 yards) he ran the ball effectively as a situational runner. He broke a couple of longer gains and mostly picked up short yardage when needed and protected the ball.
While I wouldn’t rate the rushing performance as wildly successful, I do think it was ‘good enough’ for a team that was missing its lead running back due to injury and facing a top-ten rushing defense.
No. 2 - Plan on Terry McLaurin seeing double coverage all game long
Terry finished with 2 catches on 6 targets for 24 yards, meaning that he was effectively neutralized as a receiving weapon for the second week in a row.
The key was for other receivers to stand up and deliver against a defense that would likely be trying to stop the ball from getting to Terry McLaurin.
Logan Thomas didn’t disappoint, catching 6 balls on 7 targets for 43 yards.
The rest of the receivers, however, were not productive, though that may have had more to do with quarterback issues than the receivers themselves.
Alex Smith seemed uncharacteristically inaccurate early, and left the game due to pain in his right (re-constructed) leg. Haskins replaced him and struggled to get the ball to receivers consistently.
I probably need to go back and re-watch the game, but I only remember one ‘bad’ drop, and that was a Steven Sims ball that was a bit low, but which he should have pulled in.
Note: I rewatched the game after I published this article, and I have to say that Dwayne Haskins was not as inconsistent as I had thought. He had one really bad pass (the one that was first called an interception but overturned on replay) and a couple of balls that could have been better, but the issue was less accuracy and more simply having issues sustaining drives after the first drive of the third quarter.
All in all, the offense wasn’t good enough in the passing game, though the fault seemed to lie more with the passers than the catchers [see note above]. Even Terry only pulled in 33% of his targets.
No. 3 - Shut down the 49ers run game
San Fransisco ran for 108 yards and a touchdown, which was basically right on the average that Washington has been giving up this season (107 yards per game), so I can’t say that they “shut down” the Niners, but, like the Washington offense’s own rushing performance, Washington’s defense against the run was probably “good enough”.
On the 49ers touchdown drive in the 1st quarter, 6 of the Niner’s 7 plays on the drive were runs. I thought, then, that they were going to run the ball all day. They might’ve had more success if they had, but when has Kyle Shanahan ever stayed with the running game when it’s working?
Seriously, though, I think they actually got away from the run because of penalties and turnovers.
- On the drive following the TD run, a false start penalty got the SF offense off-schedule, and they tried to pass without success and punted.
- A false start and a sack on the first two plays of the next drive led to a punt.
- On the third drive after the TD run, the SF offense opened up with runs on 1st & 2nd downs, but on the latter run the RB fumbled and Daron Payne recovered.
The Niners never really got back to a consistent run game after that. They ran the ball pretty effectively when they did give it to their backs, but they went to a rough 70:30 split on the pass:run ratio, which is exactly what Jack Del Rio wanted, allowing the Washington defense to take over.
No. 4 - Win the turnover battle (+2)
This is exactly what happened. Alex Smith threw one bad interception, but the 49ers and Nick Mullens were right on-brand with 3 turnovers. Washington ended up +2 on the day, bringing them to a combined 3 giveaways and 12 takeaways for +9 in the team’s six wins.
That compares to -10 in the team’s seven losses.
The fact that the defense scored touchdowns on two of the takeaways (one pick-six and one scoop-and-score) made this the most significant factor in the game.
The first turnover came with 5:19 remaining in the second quarter. SF running back Wilson was hit by Chase Young, fumbled and the ball was recovered by Daron Payne. Washington kicked a field goal six plays later to make the score 6-7.
Of course, with 00:58 left in the half, Chase Young picked up a fumble and rumbled 49 yards for a touchdown to give Washington a 13-7 lead going into halftime.
Chase Young’s stat line today:— Trevor Sikkema (@TampaBayTre) December 14, 2020
2 QB Hits
2 Passes Defended
1 Forced Fumble
1 Fumble Recovery
Kamren Curl sealed the victory with a 76-yard interception return for a touchdown as the clock ran out on the third quarter. There were still 15 minutes left to play in the game, but San Fran never fully recovered from this body blow, though they did reply with a touchdown of their own on the next drive.
Yes he KAM@budlight | #BudLightCelly pic.twitter.com/inznDABwqs— Washington Football Team (@WashingtonNFL) December 13, 2020
Without a doubt, this was a game that was won by the defense, who took the ball away from the 49ers three times, scoring twice themselves and setting up the offense to put another 3 points on the board.
On a day when the offense was without Antonio Gibson and when Alex Smith and Dwayne Haskins both struggled to pass effectively, the best defense in the NFL stepped up and won the game to move Washington into first place in the NFC East with three games to play.
If Washington wants to stay there, they will need better offensive performance in the coming weeks, but football is a team sport, and this week against the 49ers, it was the defense that saved the day.
Week 15 Seattle Seahawks (home)
Week 16 Carolina Panthers (home)
Week 17 Philadelphia Eagles (road)