Washington Football Team's defensive rise goes beyond Chase Young

ASHBURN, Va. -- The Washington Football Team's rookie defensive standout settled into his spot and did what he's done all season: He got to the right place at the right time. When the ball came his way, he pounced, using instincts honed by film study. Then the young starter sprinted for a touchdown, adding to a long list of positive plays.

The twist: It wasn't end Chase Young who made that play. It was seventh-round safety Kamren Curl. And while Young's big plays -- and little ones -- have keyed this defense, the contributions of numerous others have helped sustain their success.

It's a big reason Washington has won four consecutive games to take a one-game lead in the NFC East. Washington ranks fourth in yards allowed and sixth in points; it has not finished in the top 10 in either category since 2009. Washington (6-7) hosts the Seattle Seahawks (9-4) Sunday (1 p.m. ET, Fox) -- the first opponent Washington will have faced with a top-10 offense since the Los Angeles Rams in Week 4, making this a good test for an improving defense.

The group is playing with confidence, making big plays and, for a change, the team is winning.

"There's a little bit of swagger," Washington coach Ron Rivera said.

Just look at Young's first half of Sunday's 23-15 win against San Francisco. He recorded one sack, forced a fumble, deflected a pass and returned a fumble 47 yards for a touchdown. He has 5.5 sacks this season, but it's everything else he does that has allowed Washington not to question taking him No. 2 overall in the 2020 NFL draft. Sometimes, it's a screen pass he prevents because of his instincts. Or a throw he alters because he read a play quickly and got in the throwing lane.

Against Cincinnati, he forced a fumble by quarterback Joe Burrow with a sprinting hit at the goal line. Against Pittsburgh, he flew off the edge to make a stop on fourth down inside the 1-yard line. Some of this coincides with his hip feeling better after bothering him most of the season, plus his devotion to film study.

He can be seen before and during games getting his teammates -- almost all of whom are older -- excited.

"It's an amazing thing," Rivera said, "because he's infectious with his teammates. That's the kind of thing we need from these young guys, because it really carries a lot of energy into the group."

It goes beyond Young. Washington switched from a 3-4 front that called for linemen to play a two-gap style, not focusing on getting upfield. Now it plays a 4-3 front and uses a one-gap style. That caused friction with the linemen for a while. In some games, one lineman would use a one-gap technique and another next to him would play the two-gap style. The linebackers weren't attacking and creases were created. Lately, that has changed.

Now, Washington's talent up front -- it has five first-round picks -- is in sync with the overall defense.

"Linebackers are beginning to trust what's happening in front of them and they can go faster to where they belong," Washington defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said. "The D-line[men] are trusting that the linebackers are going to show up there."

And the linebackers know that interior offensive linemen must often double-team either Washington's Daron Payne or Jonathan Allen or Tim Settle. They also must slide to handle one of the edge rushers, whether it's Young, Montez Sweat or Ryan Kerrigan.

Sweat also can make athletic plays, evidenced by his leaping interception and return for a touchdown against Dallas on Thanksgiving. Since Week 9, he ranks first among edge rushers with a 29.8% pass rush win rate -- two spots ahead of Young at 26.7 over that same span, according to ESPN Stats & Information. And since Week 9 Allen ranks second among interior rushers behind the Los Angeles Rams' Aaron Donald with a 24.0 pass rush win rate. Allen ranks fifth for the season.

"It makes my life real easy, I won't lie," said Cole Holcomb, a second-year linebacker who the staff believes can provide long-term help. "It opens stuff up for us. You can rush four and play coverage and still get pressure on quarterbacks. It's a good feeling."

Then there are contributions from players such as Curl. He was playing Washington's big nickel role until starting strong safety Landon Collins suffered an Achilles tear in Week 7 against Dallas. That thrust Curl into a starting role, and the rookie from Arkansas has flourished.

He emerged from the same draft as Young, and while the focus has been largely on the No. 2 pick, Curl epitomizes the contributions from the group.

"He's far exceeded expectations for a late-round pick to come in and have as big of an impact as he's had," Del Rio said. "He just goes about doing his job. He's really matter-of-fact about it. He understands what his assignment is and he goes out and competes."

On his 76-yard interception return for a touchdown, Curl dropped to the flat as fullback Kyle Juszczyk swung that way. As quarterback Nick Mullens slid from the pocket to the right, Juszczyk turned upfield. But Mullens was already in his throwing motion -- and Curl didn't budge, having kept his eyes on the quarterback. He stepped up, caught the pass and raced to the end zone.

Curl later said simply, "I was on my landmark for the play we had called."

Washington's defense has been helped by punter Tress Way, who is sixth in gross punting average and third in net.

"It feels good, man," Young said. "We're seeing flashes of what we talked about early in the season. That's real good for our confidence. The only thing we have to do is to keep going."