Washington Commanders' defense must do more to help explosive offense

DETROIT -- The first two games of 2022 revealed what the Washington Commanders’ offense can do. It features numerous playmakers, a quarterback with an arm to threaten every part of the field and the ability to score quickly. It has shown why the Commanders are optimistic this season.

It just needs the defense to do its part.

If the Commanders (1-1) want to challenge for a playoff spot this season, they will need more help from a defense that struggled in 2021 as well. After two games -- and facing a potent Philadelphia Eagles’ offense Sunday (1 p.m. ET, Fox) -- Washington’s defense has continued to surrender big plays and too many points.

It nearly cost the team in the opener against the Jacksonville Jaguars. It did cost them in Sunday’s 36-27 loss versus the Detroit Lions. And if they don’t fix their issues, it’ll cost them in the future as well.

“We’ve got to lock it in and not panic, figure it out,” Washington linebacker Cole Holcomb said.

Yes, they do. After two games, the Commanders rank 27th in yards and points allowed. No team has allowed more plays of 40 yards or more (four) through the first two games. They also gave up a 59-yard return off a free kick following a safety. Last season, the Commanders ranked 25th in points and 22nd in yards.

The Commanders have played without starting strong safety Kamren Curl, still recovering from a right thumb injury that required surgery in late August, and defensive end Chase Young, who is on injured reserve as he recovers from a torn ACL last November. They also have three second-year players in key spots at linebacker (Jamin Davis), corner (Benjamin St-Juste) and safety (Darrick Forrest); they’re an experienced defense in some parts but developing in others.

They’ve also lost depth along the defensive line. Commanders rookie backup Phidarian Mathis suffered a season-ending knee injury in the first quarter of the opener. Backup Daniel Wise exited with an ankle injury Sunday, leaving Donovan Jeter, a rookie undrafted free agent signed earlier in the week, to play 18 snaps, according to Next Gen Stats. And reserve end Casey Toohill, a key sub with Young missing, suffered a concussion in the first quarter.

That’s why head coach Ron Rivera said after the game that he had “a lot of concern” about the defensive line depth, especially after tackle Jonathan Allen played 52 snaps with a sore groin. He was supposed to be on a snap count, Rivera said, but they abandoned that plan due to the injuries.

The secondary must also play more consistent. There was a blown coverage on Amo-Ra St-Brown’s 49-yard pass reception in the first quarter in which he was wide open in the middle of the field. There was a lack of awareness in the secondary on St. Brown’s 58-yard jet sweep run in the fourth quarter. That play occurred right after Washington had cut the lead to 22-15. Three plays later it was 29-15.

“No one even knew I had the ball,” St. Brown told reporters afterward. “I don’t even think the safety that was looking at me knew I had the ball, and all I hear from the defense is, ‘Oh s--- ,’ from everyone. And I knew -- I knew at that point it was going to be a big play.”

Washington’s secondary struggled early last season with communication, stemming in part from having three new players among its top five defensive backs. The Commanders say communication is no longer the issue.

“We communicate very well; nothing has changed in that aspect,” safety Bobby McCain said. “We have to be better on the little things, be more detailed in practice and understand everyone has to do their job. We’ll get it done.”

When asked what happened in the first half Sunday, Forrest, starting in place of Curl, cited the scheme.

“It felt like they knew exactly what we were in,” Forrest said of the first half. “It was great offensive playcalling.”

Allen, though, refuted that claim on Monday afternoon, saying the players deserved the blame.

“I’m not a fan of putting a lot of things on the coaches. We’ve got to be the ones executing,” he said.

Rivera said the breakdowns are typically about one player not executing. Indeed, of Detroit’s 425 yards, 227 came on six plays. For example, he said, on a 22-yard touchdown catch by D'Andre Swift in the third quarter, a defensive back failed to rotate onto the Detroit back. Swift fell down, got back up and ran into the end zone -- all untouched. Ten players did their job; one didn’t -- and it cost them.

“It's not a group. It's not schematics. It is failure to put ourselves in position to force things to happen,” Rivera said. “There were six plays they made on that really gave us trouble. I'm not sure if I would put that much as much on schematics as much as I was some of the things that we’ve got to do better.”

Washington’s offense features explosive talent. Quarterback Carson Wentz has thrown seven touchdown passes in two games. The Commanders rank sixth in points and seventh in yards per game and are tied for second in most plays of 25 yards or more with seven -- a quarter of what they did all of last season. And they can score fast, with all of their points Sunday occurred after halftime.

Washington must correct its mistakes and knows it. The Commanders also will focus on the fact they have improved on third downs (fifth in the NFL) and that they stopped Detroit on its first two red zone trips -- forcing a field goal, then stopping them on downs. But the Lions then scored touchdowns on their next four trips in the scoring area. The defense looks good in moments and spurts -- but lacks consistency. And the inconsistency leads to points. The Commanders allow an NFL-worst 8.47 yards on first down -- a stat boosted by two plays that gained a combined 108 yards.

But they remain upbeat.

“If we keep putting our best foot forward,” McCain said, “it’ll happen for us.”

It has to. Otherwise, a season with the potential to be fun will be spoiled. Again.