- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 8, 2020

As the Pittsburgh Steelers lined up to go for it on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line, Chase Young analyzed the setup. The Washington Football Team edge rusher saw tight end Eric Ebron motion across to his side, and he knew Ebron would have to choose between blocking Young or safety Deshazor Everett beside him.

“He ain’t block me,” Young said.Young didn’t give Ebron any time to decide. When Ben Roethlisberger snapped the ball, Young jumped the gap, and a moment’s hesitation from Ebron allowed the rookie to slip into the backfield. Young dove for Benny Snell, hooked a strong left arm around him and hauled the running back to the turf short of the end zone.

The play was just another example of Washington’s defense — ripe with young stars such as Young — shining bright.

Throughout the season, but especially so over the course of the last seven games, Washington’s defensive prowess has been on full display. And while they didn’t sack Roethlisberger, the line impacted the quarterback enough in key moments to seal the 23-17 upset victory.

“We’re defending every blade of grass. We’re not trying to let nothing get by,” defensive end Montez Sweat said. “Situations like this, like fourth down, fourth-and-1, we take that stuff personal. And we’re going to continue to do that.”

The 310.9 yards per game this unit allows on average is the fourth-fewest total in the league this year, and that tally drops to just 278.43 over the last seven contests. During Washington’s three-game winning streak, which puts postseason aspirations within the realm of possibility, the team has produced five takeaways, too.

Much of Washington’s success comes from its pass rush; the team averaged four per game in the previous five matchups entering Monday. They didn’t get to Roethlisberger on Monday night, and only officially recorded two quarterback hits — which isn’t a shock considering Pittsburgh’s quick passing game.

But they still disrupted Roethlisberger, with the defensive line throwing their arms into throwing lanes and making him move within the pocket.

Before Young’s fourth-down stop, pressure in Roethlisberger’s face led to an incompletion. Late in the fourth quarter, Sweat’s tipped pass led to a Jon Bostic interception, virtually sealing the game. Those efforts might not show up in the stat sheet, but they can impact a game almost as much as a sack.

“We’ve got a whole bunch of edge rushers, a great defense, a defensive line that can apply a lot of pressure,” offensive tackle Moses Morgan said. “Even when they don’t get to the quarterback, the quarterback still feels that pressure. You can see the quarterback shuffling his feet.

“I keep on telling Chase [Young], I say, ‘Chase, man, you don’t need to get to the quarterback every time, but if you make that quarterback feel you, he’ll shuffle his feet and that ball might be off by one yard, and that makes a difference.’”

If there’s been any major critique of this defense, it’s the big plays they’ve allowed. Shortly after Washington stopped Pittsburgh on fourth down at the goal line, James Washington broke off a 50-yard touchdown catch — helped by two missed tackles. Roethlisberger completed passes for 15 and 17 yards on the Steelers’ first touchdown drive, too.

Those chunk plays evaporated for the most part in the second half, though, allowing Washington’s offense to mount a comeback.

But much of Monday’s game — and the role the defense played to win it — goes back to that goal line stop in the second quarter, inheriting a short field after coach Ron Rivera gambled and failed on a fourth-down try of his own.

With their backs against the wall, that unit tends to play tougher. In the latest example, with five plays from the 1-yard line, Washington didn’t budge — and Rivera might be the most grateful.

“They saved their coach’s (butt),” Rivera said. “I thought we had a chance to run a play and sneak one in, and they had a guy make a heck of a play on that fourth down. But the defense bowed their neck and saved me, that’s for darn sure.”

• Andy Kostka can be reached at akostka@washingtontimes.com.

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