Robservations: Week 14

AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin

Well…well, well, well, well, look at what we’ve got here. The Washington Football Team’s stunning second half turnaround this season has built up to a four-game winning streak that’s now put them in sole possession of the NFC East lead with just three games to go. Who could have suspected that? 

With the Giants struggling against a Cardinals team that’s also trying to sneak into the playoffs, Washington’s 6-7 record is good enough to give them a one-game lead over Joe Judge’s team, who now has a tough two-game stretch against the Browns and Ravens before finishing the season off with a game against the Cowboys. That’s a much tougher finish to the season then for the Football Team, who has a tough game against the Seahawks before finishing with games against the 4-9 Panthers and the 4-8-1 Eagles. 

The ball appears to be in Washington’s court now after another statement game from Jack Del Rio’s defense against Kyle Shanahan and the San Francisco 49ers. The Niners, who are understandably struggling with a plethora of injuries, were still a respectable 5-7 team with minor playoff hopes heading into this Week 14 matchup. Those hopes are pretty much fantasies at this point, but this 100% had trap game written all over it for a Washington team that was riding high off of last Monday’s upset win over Pittsburgh. 

The 23-15 Football Team victory was a complete and utter defensive effort, with neither offensive units managing much of anything in terms of explosive playmaking or general excitement. Credit where credit’s due, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh and his defense played a damn good game against a banged up Washington offense that managed just 193 yards. Despite a strong effort from Saleh’s group, what truly decided this game was of course the performance of Del Rio’s defense that accounted for Washington’s only two touchdowns of the evening. The defense is a good place to start for this week’s Robservations 

Are we looking at the best defense in football right now? 

This isn’t meant to be hyperbolic or anything, this is a serious question now. Is this the best overall defense in football? I think there’s a legitimate argument to be made about it for the way this defense has played since Week 8. 

Now to be completely honest, I’d probably put the Saints, Steelers, Dolphins and maybe Rams ahead of them for a full season ranking, but in this four game stretch where Washington has forced eight turnovers and has allowed just 14.25 points per game, I’d say Washington’s defense is playing the best football right now. And considering this team is currently in position for a playoff game, that actually means a lot at the moment. 

This was the first win of the season where I’d honestly say that the defense 100% without a doubt won us the game. Even in our other low-scoring affairs, the offense managed to generate some kind of productivity. That wasn’t the case this week for a few reasons, so really it was on the defense to prevent Nick Mullens and the Niners offense from generating any semblance of an efficient offense this week. And boy did they. 

The entire defense was brilliant this week. There was not a single weak link on that field and it showed. Of course, it all starts up front with the defensive line’s dominance, but even the linebackers played better than usual. Jon Bostic and Kevin Pierre-Louis played great games this week, with Bostic making a few really nice plays in coverage and filling the gaps on the run, and KPL coming up with a really impressive sack after throwing Pro Bowl fullback Kyle Juszczyk like a ragdoll. 

This defense legitimately played so good that even on drives where it did look like the Niners were driving, I still never felt concerned about it. That’s a feeling I haven’t experienced as a fan of this team since Gregg Williams was our defensive coordinator. 

I could spend all day singling out every great play by every player on this defense because it felt like everyone made at least one significant play, but there are four home run plays that decided this game that I just have to mention. The first of which is Kam Curl’s game-sealing pick six. 

Curl has been mentioned in these blogs way more than your average seventh-round rookie should, but Curl is by no means an average rookie. I see him consistently make the right plays every single game this season. Whether it’s the little things like picking up the right receiver to track on pass plays or just making an open field tackle to prevent any YAC opportunities, Curl just doesn’t make a lot of mistakes. Rarely are they sexy plays, but they are the right plays. Not this week though because his 76-yard interception ended up being exactly what this team needed to pull away from a Niners offense that was in position to make it a one-score game with an entire fourth quarter left to play. That sounds like a pretty sexy play to me.

Sure the Niners did eventually make it a one-score game, but it wouldn’t be until deep into the fourth quarter that they got an opportunity to capitalize on it. Kurl’s masterful jump on a softly thrown Mullens sideline throw ended up giving Washington just enough leeway to hold off any sort of comeback from San Francisco. Credit goes to the pass rush as well for forcing that errant throw by Mullens, who didn’t even step into his pass and didn’t even seem aware that Juszczyk was continuing to run down the sideline. 

Kurl’s play wasn’t the only game-changing play. In fact there are two other turnovers that are crucial to this win, but they deserve a section entirely of their own. And that section is: 

The Chase Young section 

Yes that’s right, it’s officially “Fawn over Chase Young” hour. I know, I’m excited too. 

This guy continues to amaze me. Every week I see him make an impact on the field and just generally make everyone’s life easier. He was especially brilliant in this game, contributing a sack, a forced fumble, 2 defended passes and a fumble recovery for a touchdown. It felt like he was involved in every single play. 

The sack puts Young at 5.5 on the season, and this one was maybe his easiest of the year. He drops into coverage on this one and basically has no one to cover because Ronald Darby has his assignment locked up on the crossing route. Mullens hesitates on a pump fake which gives Young time to beeline right for the quarterback. This play was a great example of his closing speed. 

His forced fumble is also an example of just how quick Young is in open space. He’s left unblocked on an outside zone run to the opposite side, but Young hits the ballcarrier before he ever gets a chance to cut into a hole and the result is a turnover that gives the offense a very short field at the 49ers 26. 

And finally, the big play of the game: Young’s first career touchdown. This was just an incredible thing to witness live. This felt like a historic moment for this organization, almost like a play that symbolizes the changing of the guard and maybe the start of a dynamic future for this franchise. This was a great blitz dialed up by Del Rio, who has Bostic blitz right into the A gap while Young stunts to the left side of the line. Jon Allen, Da’Ron Payne and Bostic all won their battles and dog-pile Mullens, leaving Young to scoop up the ball and book it for the end zone for a 47-yard score. Props to Young for not just falling on it and turning the opportunity into six points. It’s a great heads up play, and one that fans will be remembering for years to come in the same vein as Sean Taylor’s legendary fumble recovery against Philly. 

I think this was the game that convinced me that I need a Chase Young jersey. I usually am not the type to buy a player’s jersey after one season, let alone a rookie season, but I’ve been sold on this guy since Day 1 and it just feels so obvious that he’s now the face of this franchise. 

Regardless of injuries, the offense needs to look better 

I know this offense had an uphill battle this week with Antonio Gibson out, and I know that losing Alex Smith for the entire second half wasn’t ideal, but Scott Turner’s offense has to be better than this if they want to have any chance at a playoff run. 

Even before leaving the game, Smith still wasn’t very good this week, with his accuracy all over the map on anything down the field. I’m not sure if it was the issues with that dreadful turf that was impacting his ability to set his feet and deliver a clean ball, but he did not look good. 

Despite a few nice runs by J.D. McKissic, it never felt like this offense was ever on its way to establishing any kind of rhythm this week. This is probably the worst they’ve looked since the Rams game, so I don’t want to worry too much just yet, but there’s a real possibility that both Gibson and Smith will not be available this week against the Seahawks in a pretty important game. We need to see more targets thrown Terry McLaurin’s way, we need to find a way to establish the run with McKissic and Peyton Barber and we have to give the defense as much rest as possible. There were far too many three-and-outs and stalled drives this week. Picking up just 12 first downs in an entire game just will not cut it. Yeah, the defense is great, but they can only carry the load so much, especially against an offense with Russell Wilson under center. 

Is Dwayne Haskins still a salvageable prospect? 

It’s been a while since we’ve seen meaningful minutes from Dwayne Haskins, eight games to be exact, but his second half performance really failed to answer the big question about his development as an NFL passer. 

Haskins fared a little better when he came into this game compared to Smith, but even he didn’t look very good down the stretch after a promising opening drive. I did see him drive the ball out of his hand better than the last time I’d seen him, and as a result I saw more catchable balls even on the incomplete ones, but it’s pretty clear he still has ways to go before he’s ready to be an NFL starter. 

There is one thing I did realize in this game about Haskins though, and it’s that he must really not know how to change pass protection at the line. I just don’t think he reads defenses pre-snap very well. Earlier in the season I would’ve pointed out that having Geron Christian and Wes Martin starting was the main culprit to his struggles under pressure, and to an extent it probably still is, but this line he had this week is significantly better than that one and he still looked like he was taking more pressure than he probably should have. 

And look, I will cut him some slack on this. He came into the NFL with just 14 starts in college and he’s only had 11 in the NFL. He’s still incredibly raw. 

I want to believe that there’s still belief in him as the future of this franchise though. I think in hindsight, the decision to bench him was the right move despite my initial disappointment in it. He’s a prospect that really needs to sit and learn, and I think he’s taken that decision in stride this year. He might have to do it again if he makes it through this offseason without being dealt to another organization. 

There’s a good chance we’ll see Haskins this week in a pretty massive game against a pretty terrible Seattle defense, and I’m curious to see what happens. A good-to-great performance might be enough to keep him onboard for another season as a developmental prospect, maybe it won’t. It’s too early to tell, but I think if we do in fact see him under center, there will be a lot more on the line than just a division lead. It might decide how this team approaches the quarterback position in the draft as well. I anticipate Ron Rivera wants to roll with Smith again while they figure out the future of the position behind him, and whether or not that’s Haskins or a new guy could be determined in Week 15. 

The off-topic section 

We’re back, baby. I didn’t do this section last week because I just wanted to keep talking football, but we’ve got a juicy story to dive into here. 

I was at dinner with a friend of mine recently, and we happened to get on the topic of the Zodiac Killer (good dinner convo, no?) and just talked about how insane it is that the guy never got caught. I’ve always found that story to be incredibly fascinating just because of the amount of resources there are that are readily available to anyone, yet no one even has an ounce of certainty in a primary suspect. It helps that the movie directed by David Fincher is also brilliant. The span of it all and the way it took hold of the Bay Area at that time is something that I don’t think will ever happen again. 

Why I’m bringing this up though is a news story that was shown to me right after that dinner. Apparently, three amateur codebreakers recently managed to crack a code sent to the San Francisco Chronicle in 1969 dubbed the “340 cipher.” 

What it says is obviously incredibly creepy so I won’t just throw it in here, but I think it’s worth taking a look at. Imagine if it had his name or something. God, an unsolved mystery just drives me nuts. Maybe it’s the journalist in me, but I am just desperate for answers even if the question being posed doesn’t really concern me. 

Anyway, check the story out because it’s really crazy, and then after that, give this 13-minute video from one of the codebreakers a look to see how something like this is even done. 

That’s all I have for you this week. I’ll check back for another edition of Robservations after Washington’s matchup with Seattle. We’re in the thick of it now, people. This team can actually be a playoff team this year. Imagine that? 

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