EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Washington Redskins linebacker Zach Brown wasn’t about to get caught up in any hype about New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley. He was just another running back getting in the way of what needed to be done.
“He’s a rookie. 'Come here, rook, we’re gonna introduce you to this game real quick,'” Brown said. “We don’t care what round you go in. You could be an All-Pro running back; we don’t care.”
In the past three weeks, they’ve stopped one talented young running back after another -- a big reason why they’ve won three straight games and, at 5-2, lead the NFC East.
It started three games ago, when they held Carolina’s Christian McCaffrey to 20 rushing yards. Then it was Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott, who managed just 33 rushing yards. And Barkley had the most, um, success: He managed 38 rushing yards in Washington’s 20-13 win Sunday.
Added up, the three top young running backs managed a combined 91 yards on 36 carries.
“It is unbelievable,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said. “These are three really, really good backs.”
Elliott had season lows vs. the Redskins in yards, yards per carry (2.2) and yards after contact (0.87). McCaffrey had season lows in yards (20) and yards per carry (2.5). For Barkley, it was his worst showing in yards after contact (0.77). At least Barkley managed 73 receiving yards.
“When you’ve got the ball, you got to deal with us,” Brown said. “We’re gonna make you get out of that running game. We want you to sit back and throw the ball.”
McCaffrey, Elliott and Barkley each have at least one 40-yard run this season. None of them could manage a double-digit carry vs. Washington. In fact, the Redskins haven’t given up a run longer than 10 yards to a running back since Week 3. Last year, they allowed a run of 10 yards or longer in each of the final 15 games.
Even in their 24-point loss at New Orleans four games ago, the Redskins held Alvin Kamara to 24 yards and Mark Ingram to 53.
When a team stops the run, it goes beyond just having a good defensive line. It means they’re doing a good job in the backfield, as well. Indeed, in the past three games, the Redskins have allowed just 0.92 yards after contact to running backs.
“It starts with the scheme, and then the players have to buy in and they have to perform,” Gruden said. “They have to get off blocks, they have to continuously pursue, play with great leverage and hustle, and they are doing that.”
The Redskins' defensive line has been terrific, especially ends Matt Ioannidis and Jonathan Allen and nose tackle Daron Payne. They’ve received a lot of credit, and certainly the base for stopping the run begins with them.
“We’re just letting them go play their ball,” Brown said. “We don’t like them to think too much. Just go ahead, and we’ll make it all right if you mess up.”
They don’t mess up much.
Good health factors in, too. The Redskins have had only one defensive starter miss a game this season: cornerback Quinton Dunbar. His absence with nerve damage in his shin could have a bigger impact when they play pass-heavy teams such as Atlanta and Tampa Bay in the coming weeks. But it’s also easier when you can make teams one-dimensional; that’s what Washington is doing.
Last year, the Redskins suffered injuries all over, with two of their top three inside linebackers ending up on injured reserve, as well as safety Montae Nicholson and Allen. Ioannidis was slowed by a broken hand.
“I got my dogs back,” said Brown, who missed the last three games in 2017. “Last year, I didn’t have my dogs with me. This year, I have my dogs with me.”
With Nicholson playing every game, Swearinger can stay at his more natural strong safety spot most of the game. That helps against the run, too. This group tackles well, which is why Washington ranks second in fewest yards after contact.
It’s also the second year in Greg Manusky’s system. Brown calls it a “complicated defense. There’s so many calls and checks for one play.” So the more experience they have in it -- combined with the line and a healthy roster -- the better they can play.
“We’re disciplined in our gaps,” Brown said. “You can try to run the ball, but at the end of the day, you have to deal with our front seven.”
That’s what McCaffrey, Elliott and Barkley discovered. Outside of another game against both Elliott and Barkley, the Redskins face just one more back currently ranked among the top 15 in rushing yards: Houston’s Lamar Miller. Their hot stretch should continue.
"We didn’t do nothing yet," Swearinger said, speaking about the team in general. "We’re just getting started. We’re just turning the stove on; we didn’t even put the grease in yet, so we’ve just got to keep it rolling."