Sensational rookie Robert Griffin III got the headlines, but the Washington Redskins' eight-game home losing streak ended Sunday thanks in part to a much-maligned defense.
The Redskins' defense was stout inside the red zone early and added the coup to de grace with its fourth touchdown of the season late as Washington held on to beat Minnesota 38-26.
The Vikings had first downs on the Washington 10-, 14- and 16-yard lines on their first three possessions but settled for three field goals by rookie Blair Walsh. Even though the Redskins had been outgained 148-7, they were within reach, trailing 9-0. Griffin and the offense then found their stride, scoring the next 24 points while outgaining the Vikings by 224 yards during that span.
"They kept us in the game," Griffin said of the defense. "Our offense can be so potent at times, we want to make it all the time, and we have so many weapons that if we hold teams to just field goals, it's huge because we can come back. We had two or three bad drives there (early, but) we went into halftime winning 17-9."
After allowing 421 yards to Minnesota, 352 in the air, Washington's defense ranks 27th overall, last against the pass. But the Redskins certainly weren't hanging their heads after beating the Vikings, especially since 196 of those yards came in the final 12:40 after Washington had extended its lead to 31-12.
"With Buffalo, (I played for) a No. 2-ranked defense twice and never made the playoffs," said 15th-year inside linebacker London Fletcher. "Since I've been here, we had two defenses that were ranked top 10 ... only one time (did we make the postseason). At the end of the day, what really matters is winning and losing. You find ways to win. We gave up a lot of yardage today, but if you really look at that game, we played some great defense today. On the last drive, we kinda got to soft-type defenses, giving up some short catches to eat up the clock. They ended up with more yards, but we played some good red-zone defense and we got takeaways."
Minnesota was 2-for-7 in the red zone, with Walsh kicking four field goals under 38 yards. Washington was 3-of-3 in the red zone.
"That was the difference in the game, it could have been (21-0) and all of sudden it's pretty hard to catch up," said coach Mike Shanahan, whose Redskins are fourth in the league in red-zone offense, 16th in red-zone defense.
"I think we've been doing a pretty good job of holding guys to field goals in the red zone," free safety Madieu Williams said. "We've been playing pretty good in the red zone over the course of the year. It's just one of those things where we don't want them to get down there obviously, but when they do get there, we're limiting the damage to three points, so it gives us a chance to win the game at the end."
Despite playing all season without strong safety Brandon Meriweather (knee) and since the first quarter of Week 2 without two-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker Brian Orakpo (pectoral, injured reserve) and end Adam Carriker (quadriceps, injured reserve), Washington is tied for fourth with 14 takeaways and is tied for third with a plus-9 turnover ratio.
"The teams that win are teams that are good in the turnover area," said Shanahan, whose 2011 Redskins were tied for 30th in the NFL with a minus-14 turnover ratio.
Williams' 41-yard interception return for a touchdown with 12:40 remaining extended Washington's lead to 31-12. It was the defense's fourth touchdown of the season, three more than the unit produced in all of 2011. Cornerback Josh Wilson took a fumble back in Week 2 at St. Louis. Rob Jackson scored on an interception in Week 3 against Cincinnati, as did fellow linebacker Rob Jackson in Week 5 against Atlanta.
"I just saw the ball," Williams said. "I was keying the quarterback. I was able to dive and get on my knees and grab the ball and see if anybody was around me before I got up. I got up, saw my teammates doing a great job of blocking ... It felt like it was a pursuit drill with me with the ball. We have a lot of playmakers on this defense."