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Rookie Morris, pressure defense lift Redskins to NFC East title

by | Senior NFL Columnist

LANDOVER, Md. -- We know how tough the Washington Redskins can be when rookie Robert Griffin III is on. But now we know how tough they can be when he's not.

Because it wasn't RG3 who beat Dallas on Sunday night and clinched the NFC East for Washington. It was another rookie, running back Alfred Morris, and a relentless defense that prevented Dallas from launching another of those fourth-quarter comebacks that carried the Cowboys this month.

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All Morris did was run for a career-best 200 yards and score three times. And all Jim Haslett's defense did was suffocate Tony Romo, forcing three interceptions to send Dallas to another crushing season-ending defeat.

For the record, Romo had six interceptions in his last nine games -- with five of them by Washington. That should tell you something, and what it tells me is that the Redskins are more than just RG3.

But they had to be in their 28-18 defeat of the Cowboys, Washington's seventh straight triumph, because it was clear from the beginning that Griffin was, as coach Mike Shanahan so carefully put it, "limited." What that meant was that RG3 wasn't RG3, and someone had to pick up the slack.

That someone was Morris, with the sixth-round draft pick setting a single-season franchise record and producing four of Washington's five longest plays -- runs of 32, 22, 19 and 17 yards -- to shred a Dallas defense that held Griffin to 100 yards passing, his second-lowest total of the season. But, hey, you go with what works, and what worked against a Dallas defense that was missing its top five run defenders was Morris.

"The guy who separated himself today from the rest of the pack was Alfred," coach Mike Shanahan said. "For him to play at that level for a full 60 minutes and get 200 yards with over six yards per carry is really a testament to not only him but the guys blocking for him. I'm very happy for him."

He should be. Morris not only clinched the Redskins' first division title since 1999; he put Shanahan back in the playoffs for the first time since 2005 when he was with Denver.

The Redskins meet Seattle next weekend in the wild-card round of the playoffs, and Morris' latest performance could be just the pick-me-up these guys need -- especially with RG3's uncertain health. I don't know how seriously Griffin is hurt, but I do know he didn't run with explosion, and he wasn't especially sharp passing.

Basically, he was just good enough to win, which won't cut it against the Seahawks ... unless, of course, he has the help he did Sunday. In fact, he had so much from Morris that it was he, not RG3, whom people wanted to talk about afterward.

"I'm not a star," Morris said sheepishly. "Other people may think I'm a star, but I'm just Alfred ... and I'm not going to change. When I walked in nobody knew who I was, and I'm still going to be that guy. I couldn't change even if I tried."

I guarantee you Seattle knows who he is. The Seahawks have one of the league's top defenses, and they'll be keyed on stopping the running of Morris and Griffin -- determined to make RG3 try to beat them by solving one of the league's top secondaries ... and good luck. But there's another element at play here, and that's the defense the Redskins sprung on Romo.

It intercepted him on the Cowboys' first two series, and it intercepted him on a crucial fourth-quarter possession when Dallas threatened to make a run. Granted, Romo was playing with a dwindling corps of injured receivers, but he seemed flummoxed by Washington's constant pressure -- with the Redskins attacking him again and again with outside and inside blitzes.

"We knew Romo doesn't like pressure in his face," said linebacker Ryan Kerrigan, "so that was our big thing. We had to get pressure up the middle, and not so much outside to be able to keep him in the pocket. And that's what we were able to do."

The Redskins sacked him only twice, but they hit him repeatedly and often forced Romo into hurried throws. The results speak for themselves: The Cowboys produced their lowest output since a 19-13 loss to Atlanta in early November and dropped to 8-8 for a second straight season.

Blame it on Alfred Morris, or blame it on a sound Redskins' defensive plan. It doesn't matter. The Redskins found the right people at the right time.

"Offense gets the glory," cornerback DeAngelo Hall said. "Defense wins championships. Everyone in this locker room knows that; everyone in this world knows that. We don't have a problem at all playing back burner to some of these guys on offense because they are superstars in their own right. So we don't mind it all."

They shouldn't. They're in the playoffs, and given the uncertain NFC field they have a chance. Of course, they'd have a better one if RG3 were healthy, but he's not. So Washington must find someone or something else ... and the Redskins just did.

"We have everything it takes to do something special," said Morris. "It all comes down to how badly we want it."


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