Football Team

Washington's big plays are fun, but the little ones are meaningful

Football Team

It's hard to take in a replay of Kam Curl's 75-yard interception return for touchdown from Sunday and not watch Curl. After all, the safety is the one who made the pick of Nick Mullens, found just enough grass down the left sideline and semi-flipped his way across the goal line.

Consume the highlight one more time, though, and on this loop, let your eyes divert from No. 31 and hone in on No. 96, James Smith Williams.

In the sequence, pay attention to how Smith Williams instantly transitions from rusher to blocker once Curl corrals the Mullens pass. Without his hit on the Niners quarterback, Curl gets stopped around midfield as opposed to scoring a TD for the visitors:

In that clip, you have the obvious and immensely important turnover and score from Curl, which helped Washington notch its fourth-consecutive victory and settle into first place atop the NFC East.

However, you also have the subtle yet admirable contribution from Smith Williams, which is the exact kind of focus on the details that Ron Rivera wants to instill in this franchise for the long term.

Look elsewhere and you'll find a host of other examples that match what Smith Williams did and illustrate that Rivera's rebuild has seriously progressed in recent weeks. 

In fact, the head coach himself starred in one. In the fourth quarter of the matchup with the 49ers, JD McKissic was tackled just short of the line to gain for what would've been a key first down. Rivera decided that he was going to challenge the spot — but he waited to throw the red flag until the last possible moment. 

 

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By doing so, Rivera drained precious seconds off the clock, seconds that San Francisco would've very much loved to have had in their comeback attempt. It was a professional way to handle that situation.

Scan back through the previous weeks as well. 

To beat Pittsburgh, Washington knew that they'd have to limit Ben Roethlisberger, but because he is so reliant on getting the ball out fast, the D-line needed to affect him outside of sacking him. So, they tipped throw after throw, and the last deflection ended up as the game-sealing INT. 

On Thanksgiving in Dallas, meanwhile, Terry McLaurin's best effort came not on a reception, but on a tackle. By hustling and tracking down Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith after he snared an Alex Smith toss, McLaurin put the Burgundy and Gold's defense in a place where they could try to put out a fire and force a field goal. That, of course, is what ultimately occurred. 

Those sorts of easy-to-overlook yet necessary-to-win moments are becoming more and more embedded as Washington learns more and more from Rivera. When Peyton Barber slides down to stay in bounds and keep the time moving on a late possession or Chase Young diagnoses an opponent's screen so rapidly that the signal caller has to totally abandon what should be a simple call, that's Rivera's influence. 

Turning around an organization like Rivera is hoping to do is like changing the temperature in a room: You may not feel it for quite a bit, but then all at once, you feel it. 

Curl's return, Chase Young's touchdown, Logan Thomas exploding in Pittsburgh, Antonio Gibson shining versus the Cowboys — those are all headline-grabbing developments. They're the plays that make a once-cold room suddenly hot. They're, to put it simply, fun.

They also aren't possible without a heavy emphasis on caring about the small, and even painfully small, aspects of football.

Right now, the thermostat shows that Washington is a contender, but Rivera's been slowly twisting the dial this whole season. Smith Williams occupying Mullens or McLaurin tripping up a linebacker speak to that. Because Washington is owning the little things, big things appear to be ahead of them.