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Redskins finally learn to protect lead

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Knowing that the St. Louis Rams had rallied from 21 points down to defeat Houston in overtime a week earlier, the Washington Redskins' defense was committed to playing a strong second half Sunday.

And knowing what had happened the previous three weeks when opponents increased their yardage production by 31.2 percent, the defense also knew it had no choice because another second-half meltdown would have guaranteed another season out of the playoffs for the Redskins.

With that sense of urgency in mind, the Redskins played perhaps their best defensive game since Week 1, holding St. Louis to a season-low 191 yards in a 24-9 victory, and showed they could finish what they started. And for the first time in 28 games since Joe Gibbs' return, they did not allow a play of 20 yards.

The Rams entered with the NFL's fourth-rated offense but left their home field to a cascade of boos after getting physically whipped.

"The type of offense they are, you've got to be physical with them because they're more of a finesse, throw-the-ball-type offense," Redskins defensive end Renaldo Wynn said. "We always start fast in the first half; this time, we wanted to make sure we didn't let it slip away in the second half."

With a 10-point lead for the third straight week, the Redskins' defense didn't let up, pressuring quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and negating the Rams' running game.

"We had watched the Rams come back against Houston to win, and a team like that is very explosive and has the potential to go right down the field," defensive go right down the field," defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin said yesterday. "We couldn't let up."

Because they didn't let up, the Redskins' playoff hopes are still alive. At 6-6, they trail the NFC East-leading New York Giants and wild-card leader Tampa Bay by two games with four remaining heading into Sunday's game at woeful Arizona (4-8).

Among the Redskins' problems during their three-game losing streak, an inability to stop opponents in the second half rated high.

In the first half of losses to Tampa Bay, Oakland and San Diego, the defense allowed averages of 123 yards, 4.1 yards a play and 10.3 points. The three teams were 6-for-21 on third-down conversions.

In the second half, when the Bucs, Raiders and Chargers rallied, the numbers swelled to an average of 234.7 yards, 6.6 yards a snap, 14.7 points and 11-for-21 on third down.

The end result was squandered leads of seven points against Tampa Bay and 10 points against Oakland and San Diego. Against the Rams, though, the defense buckled down when staked to a 17-7 lead two minutes into the fourth quarter. Following a Rams safety, Wynn recovered a fumble that led to a Redskins touchdown.

"That one turnover was huge," coach Joe Gibbs said. "We were still in the sway of what was going to happen. But we got a turnover, we had a short field and took it right in for the touchdown. Had they punted that to us, we would have been backed up."

Rookie cornerback Carlos Rogers sealed any hopes for another Rams comeback with an interception at the 2:47 mark.

"We've got a good team, but we had to learn how to finish games off," middle linebacker Lemar Marshall said. "They got close with the safety, and it went through the players' minds, all of the losses that we had before. But we came together and finished."

St. Louis was a dismal 4-for-13 on third down and saw its production drop from 97 first-half yards to 94 in the second half. Only three times in 12 games -- Sunday, Week 1 against Chicago and Week 5 in Denver -- have the Redskins held an opponent to fewer yards after the break.

"Losing wasn't an option yesterday, so we had to pick it up and get off the field on third down," Griffin said. "Losing three in a row hurt, but when you're down, you don't want to stay down. Guys were like, 'Let's go.' Nobody was uptight or nervous in the locker room, and they played well."

The Redskins allowed 49 rushing yards, their second-best performance of the season against the run (41 against Chicago). And it came without starting tackle Joe Salave'a and backup Cedric Killings, who missed the game with injuries. Replacements Demetric Evans, a natural end, and second-year player Ryan Boschetti, a second-year player, made only two tackles but took up space in the line for the linebackers to swoop in. Marshall, LaVar Arrington and Marcus Washington combined for 15 tackles and one sack.

"[At halftime], we talked about things we had success with, and we talked about how last week we didn't execute in the second half," Griffin said. "It's about making plays, getting off the field and not making stupid penalties to keep drives alive."

The only questionable penalty kept alive St. Louis' only scoring drive. On a fourth-and-2 from the Redskins 33, Fitzpatrick threw incomplete to Isaac Bruce, but Sean Taylor was flagged for a 15-yard face mask call. Three plays later, Fitzpatrick scrambled up the middle for a 7-yard touchdown.

"We put a lot of emphasis on finishing every day in practice, and that's why it was so disappointing [in the past] because we want to win every fourth quarter," Boschetti said. "We wanted to make sure that happened this week. We came up with some big plays with turnovers, and the offense did a heck of a job pounding them."

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