ARLINGTON, Texas -- Washington Redskins linebacker London Fletcher and his defensive teammates bore heavy criticism early in a 2013 season that has again come unmoored.
On Sunday night, when a win would have pushed the Redskins back into the thick of the NFC East title chase, Fletcher's crew did a credible job against one of the NFL's better offenses. And yet, in the end, that didn't matter at all in a 31-16 loss to the Cowboys that left the Redskins grasping for answers.
Washington held Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo to 170 passing yards with one gorgeous touchdown pass, but an interception, too. Dallas managed just 48 rushing yards and starting running back DeMarco Murray left the game in the first half with a knee injury.
It all should have added up to a Redskins win on the road against their NFC East rival. Instead, they were left pondering what went wrong at AT&T Stadium and if there is any way to recover from a 1-4 start.
"I think we played pretty good. I think we contained them," Washington defensive lineman Stephen Bowen said. "They weren't really able to stretch the run game, either. Just some things are out of your control."
That would be a disastrous night on special teams. The Cowboys scored on an 86-yard punt return by Dwayne Harris and the defense faced a short 15-yard field after a 90-yard kick return by Harris in the third quarter.
It was an obvious failing. Special teams ace Bryan Kehl, who injured his knee on the Harris punt return, said as much afterward, blaming his unit entirely for the loss. Fletcher was more diplomatic, but piling on was pointless.
"We win as a team, we lose as a team," Fletcher said. "There's times where one side of the ball may struggle a little bit, whether it's offensively, defensively, special teams. But at the end of the day we just didn't make enough plays collectively as a team."
Still, it's hard to pin blame on a unit that shook off a shaky first drive and kept the Redskins in the game. Romo orchestrated a 10-play, 80-yard drive on Dallas' first possession. That ended with a short Murray touchdown run. It was an inauspicious start reminiscent of blowout losses to Green Bay and Philadelphia the first two weeks of the season. But Washington adjusted and recovered.
"In order to win on the road you have to play a complete game," Redskins coach Mike Shanahan said. "I thought we did some great things on defense. Any time you're 0-for-3 in the red zone, you get a couple of turnovers to their one, a couple of big plays on special teams, you're not going to win."
After that early Cowboys touchdown, the defense made big plays. Defensive back Josh Wilson's leaping block of a Romo pass on a first-quarter blitz popped high into the air and into the arms of reserve linebacker Rob Jackson, who waited under it like an outfielder in a baseball game.
It was the first appearance for Jackson this season. He'd just finished serving a four-game suspension by the NFL and wasn't sure how many snaps he'd play, if any. Instead, he had his second interception of Romo in as many games against Dallas. Jackson had a critical pick in the decisive Dec. 30 win over the Cowboys at FedEx Field last season that clinched the NFC East title.
"I knew I had to go in there and start fast," Jackson said. "I didn't know how much reps I was going to get throughout the game so I just knew when I was in there I had to be productive. I couldn't just do my job. I had to cause a turnover, make a play."
He did exactly that – though the Redskins didn't take advantage of it by turning that turnover into points early in the second quarter. Later, corner DeAngelo Hall, who again battled all day with Dallas star wide receiver Dez Bryant, tipped a touchdown pass away from Miles Austin in the end zone early in the fourth quarter. That limited the Cowboys to a Dan Bailey field goal and kept it a one-possession game at 24-16 with 10:36 left in the game.
There was still hope thanks to the defense. But that was quickly extinguished after a pair of penalties pushed Washington back to the 11. Beleaguered quarterback Robert Griffin III then fumbled inside his own 5-yard line on a 2nd-and-19 play.
Murray was long gone by then, but reserve running back Joseph Randle punched home the dagger for Dallas with a 1-yard touchdown plunge to make it 31-16. The Redskins' defense, for the second time on a Cowboys touchdown, had little chance to stop it.
"Ain't no moral victories, man," Washington linebacker Bryan Orakpo said. "I don't believe in that. We lost. We played well defensively. We did this and that and still lost. And it hurts."
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