WASHINGTON (AP) — The good news for Washington is that its young, Chase Young-led defense is terrific, propelling a four-game winning streak that put head coach Ron Rivera’s team alone in first place in the NFC East at 6-7 after a 1-5 start.
“What happens is, when you become relevant and a part of that conversation, now sometimes your reputation is going to proceed you and that’s going to help you,” Rivera said Monday. “For you personally, the confidence, the swagger, I think that’s helpful. Again, it can’t be false. You’ve got to earn that relevance. You’re not given the relevance.”
It’s been a while since this club mattered this much for what it did in a positive way on the field. It is drawing attention not just for victories, such as the 23-15 outcome against the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, but also for the sort of star power and league-takes-notice talent possessed by Young, the rookie from Ohio State who was the No. 2 overall pick in this year’s NFL draft.
The bad news? Washington’s offense — and the possibility that Alex Smith is not 100% healthy with a tough test coming up next Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks.
Smith left shortly before halftime against the Niners with a strained right calf and was replaced by Dwayne Haskins, the second-year player drafted No. 15 overall in 2019 and benched after four starts at the beginning of this season.
“He’s got some things still to learn,” Rivera said about Haskins, “but he’s working at it and doing things the right way.”
When Rivera did his video conference with reporters Monday, he did not yet have an update on Smith — the coach purposely avoids getting information from the medical staff until after his meeting with media.
“The thing about it is, if Alex can’t go, we know Dwayne will get all the work. He’ll get an opportunity to focus in, and the game plan will be directed toward Dwayne,” Rivera said. “We’ll see how that goes.”
The defense, particularly along a line stacked with first-round draft picks: Young, Daron Payne, Jonathan Allen and Montez Sweat. It was Payne who forced the fumble Young returned 47 yards for a touchdown Sunday — and who recovered the fumble Young forced. As a group, they harassed Nick Mullens all game, much as they did to Ben Roethlisberger during a win at previously unbeaten Pittsburgh.
“They all help each other be better, play better,” Rivera said.
With the help of active linebacker Jon Bostic and a secondary that produced points, too, with rookie Kamren Curl’s 76-yard pick-6 in the third quarter, Washington managed to win on the road without an offensive TD for the first time since 1992.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
The offense, particularly the passing game, which managed to produce a paltry total of 95 yards. And the first half is still a big failing, specifically the very first possession: Washington is the first team in the league to start a season without any points on its opening drives in any of the initial 13 games since the 2004 Saints. For the second game in a row, leading receiver Terry McLaurin was held to just two catches.
Young is the first player in team history with a fumble return for a TD, a forced fumble and a sack in one game — and he compiled those accomplishments in the first half alone Sunday. He even batted down a pass in the third quarter for good measure. He’s up to 5 1-2 sacks.
“I feel like that’s your goal, for any player, any position — to be just good in everything that you do. That’s what I strive to do,” Young said. “And that’s what I’m going to keep striving to do.”
The QB position is a real problem. Smith looked uncomfortable and was off-target from the outset Sunday, and left after going 8 for 19 for 57 yards and an interception. Haskins, playing for the first time since getting benched after going 1-3 as the starter at the outset of the season, was 7 for 12 for 51 yards.
Smith is the biggest — and most vital — question mark.
1997 — The last time Washington scored TDs off a fumble recovery and an interception in the same game.
Russell Wilson’s Seahawks are 9-4, tied with the Rams atop the NFC West. Wilson’s ability to extend plays could be a challenge for Young and Co.
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