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Defenders freeze Dragons with big plays

Brandon Sylve celebrates in the end zone with his Defenders teammates after returning an interception for a touchdown in Saturday's victory over the Dragons.

WASHINGTON -- The first XFL game of 2020 was packed with big hits, big plays and big attitudes Saturday at Audi Field.

Playing in-front of a home crowd estimated at 17,000, the DC Defenders lived up to their name to edge the Seattle Dragons, 31-19.

Although both teams leaned heavily on their running games, with a total of 49 carries between them, the defenses made their mark for the Defenders, with 43 combined tackles, two interceptions, a sack and a blocked punt.

With the secondary leading the way -- it tallied nine pass deflections and two interceptions -- DC head coach Pep Hamilton also was pleased with his defensive line and special teams.

The all-around effort from the Defenders’ defense persuaded Hamilton to give them a much-needed break until Monday.

“I feel great about that defense, they took the ball away three times,” he said. “That’s what you want in your defense, you want them to turn the ball over.

“The coaches (also) play a big role in the win -- with their play calling -- but players ultimately make the plays to win games.”

Despite a slow start for Washington that saw Seattle take an early 6-3 lead, safety Rahim Moore made a decisive read to intercept Dragons quarterback Brandon Silvers with 10:30 left in the second quarter.

“We had a good week of practice, great film study, our calls were on-point from the defensive coordinator,” Moore said. “The good thing about it though was that … we were able to see who we were going up against. Our D-line was on point tonight ... Our linebackers were communicating, flying around, making tackles.

“And the secondary, we just kind of pulled it on what they did.”

Players enjoyed the ability to get advanced scouting on Seattle with last week’s exhibition in Houston.

Moore followed Hamilton with praise for defensive coordinator Louie Cioffi and his help with film study and calling plays.

Moore, a former player in the Alliance of American Football league, noted the difference in speed and intensity between the AAF and XFL.

“To be honest with you, this pace is way faster than the AAF,” Moore said. “The pace was like an NFL game. It was up-tempo. And they had a great game plan, they have a great NFL coaching staff over there. They have an NFL offense, so it was good to see. With my experiences, you couldn’t even tell it was the XFL, it looked like an NFL game.”

DC continued to live up to the team name with a blocked punt by cornerback Elijah Campbell later in the second quarter that was scooped up for a score by Jonathan Celestin to give the Defenders a 9-6 lead.

It also spurred the offense to loosen up and start moving the ball consistently.

“It feels great to get this win, it has been a long-time coming,” Celestin said. “I haven’t played a game in about a year-and-a-half, just to be able to compete and fly around again, it feels great.”

Seattle went ahead 13-9 after a 13-yard touchdown pass from Silvers to running back Trey Williams and the subsequent 1-point conversion with 20 seconds left in the half, but the Defenders got back within a point on a 55-yard field goal from Ty Rausa with five seconds left in the half to make it 13-12.

DC quarterback Cardale Jones helped the Defenders keep pace with the up-tempo Dragons with two third-quarter touchdown passes to carve out a 25-19 lead.

Seattle was driving early in the fourth quarter, but former Alabama cornerback Brandon Sylve stepped in front of a Silvers pass intended for Austin Proehl and returned it for a 69-yard touchdown to give the Defenders some breathing room.

“You practice how you play,” he said. “It was the same exact play as in practice, so the moment I saw the quarterback’s shoulders turn my way, I’m like, ‘Man, this all she wrote right here.’ It’s nothing but dog work man.

“I knew the ball was coming out high. They thought I was in ‘Cover 2’ but I disguised it; I was in man. When I saw him about to let loose, I broke on the ball.”

DC clamped down on the Dragons’ last two offensive drives for the victory.

The Defenders welcome the New York Guardians to Audi Field next Saturday, Feb. 15, with kickoff scheduled for 2 p.m. ET on ABC.

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