LANDOVER, Md. -- Early last week, Washington Redskins defensive tackle Daron Payne sat at his locker and discussed what must be done Sunday. For Payne, drafted to play in games like Sunday's against the Dallas Cowboys, it was simple. There was one guy on Dallas’ side they must control: Running back Ezekiel Elliott.
“Dominate up front and stop the run,” Payne said, “and make them one-dimensional.”
Making them one-dimensional led to plays such as Ryan Kerrigan stripping Dak Prescott deep in Dallas territory. Preston Smith picked up the fumble at the 1-yard line and stepped into the end zone for a touchdown. The Redskins still needed some late good fortune, as the Cowboys' last-second, 52-yard field goal attempt that would have forced overtime bounced off the left upright.
But the defensive effort is a big reason why Washington is now 4-2 and leading the NFC East by a game and a half after Sunday’s 20-17 win over the Cowboys. Both Dallas and Philadelphia are 3-4.
Running back Adrian Peterson controlled the game for Washington’s offense, topping 90 yards for a fourth time this season -- all wins. Peterson rushed for 99 yards on 24 carries. He’s now 26 yards shy of passing Tony Dorsett for ninth place on the all-time rushing list.
The key was stopping Elliott, something they hadn’t done in their first three games against the Cowboys' All-Pro running back. Elliott had rushed for 330 yards in those three games, leading Dallas to three wins.
“Whenever you go against a good back like Ezekiel Elliott, it’s always about controlling the line of scrimmage,” Allen said. “We did that today.”
On Sunday, Elliott's longest run was 6 yards, and he managed 31 yards overall on 14 carries. The Redskins’ defensive front, with Payne, Jonathan Allen and Matt Ioannidis, controlled Dallas’ offensive line. When the Cowboys’ run game works, their line is moving defenders off the ball. That wasn’t happening Sunday, and that helped clog run lanes and let the linebackers fill gaps for stops. At times, the Redskins used three safeties with their base defense to help against the run.
But Payne and Allen were the big keys. The Redskins admitted they drafted Payne in the first round this year in part because of Elliott. Their power has helped solidify the front and provide optimism for the entire defense. Allen drew a holding penalty that wiped out a first down on the play before Smith’s touchdown, setting up a third-and-14.
“They want to play big guys up front like this,” linebacker Mason Foster said. “The way those guys have been playing together, it definitely makes you feel better playing a back like Elliott. It definitely gives you more confidence.”
The Redskins ranked last in the NFL defending the run last season; they were sixth entering Sunday’s game. Thank you, Payne and Allen.
“They draft for the opponents we face, and if you don’t win in the trenches in this division, you’re not winning many football games,” Redskins corner Josh Norman said. “That’s just the end of the story.
“They won the battle today … and now we’re starting to whoop some tail.”
The Redskins’ defense should have plenty of confidence. It entered the game ranked fifth in yards allowed per game and eighth in points. It stopped Carolina in the last seconds to win a week ago. Outside of a bad loss in New Orleans, they defense has played as well as the front office had hoped. For the Redskins to stay in the hunt for an NFC East title, it will need the formula they used Sunday: powerful runs by Peterson and an improving defense.
The Redskins held Dallas to 3.4 yards per carry and the Cowboys were 5-of-14 on third down. Washington forced two turnovers. The Redskins needed to finish stronger after allowing 10 points in the fourth quarter.
But that’s a topic for another day. Sunday, it was about an improving front and the impact it had on others. Safety D.J. Swearinger said they allow him and the linebackers to play more freely.
“It’s a great feeling when your front seven plays like that,” Swearinger said. “Those guys in the middle are doing a great job being disruptive.
“It’s great when you play strong safety and have a couple tackles. That’s great because our front seven is balling.”