Commanders’ defense struggling with issues familiar from 2021

Commanders' defense struggling with issues familiar from 2021 originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

The Washington Commanders’ defense was among the best in the NFL in 2020, as Jack Del Rio’s group played an integral role in the club’s unexpected NFC East title. That same group, with a few free agent signings, returned in 2021 with sky-high expectations that ultimately fell well short en route to a 7-10 season.

Entering the 2022 campaign, Washington doubled down on its personnel from the season prior. Ten of 11 starters returned, with almost all of the team’s offseason acquisitions on the defensive side were depth purposes. With an easier schedule that doesn’t feature several future Hall of Fame QBs this season, the thinking was that the Commanders’ defense could look a lot closer to its 2020 form than the 2021 version.

Through two games, that’s hardly been the case. Busted coverages, poor communication and several other defensive shortcomings were on display during Washington’s 36-27 loss to the Detroit Lions on Sunday, an overall disappointing showing from a club that was hoping to build off its Week 1 victory over Jacksonville.

“We’re competitive. I’m a competitive person. So, yeah, [I’m] pissed,” linebacker Cole Holcomb told reporters present in the locker room postgame. “I hate losing.”

Initially, Washington’s defense showed promise. The Commanders forced a three-and-out on Detroit’s opening possession, with second-year linebacker Jamin Davis — whom Del Rio publicly called out earlier in the week — recording a sack on third down.

Then on the Commanders’ next defense possession, Washington forced Detroit into another third-down situation with the chance to get off the field. Lions quarterback Jared Goff found a wide-open Amon-Ra St. Brown for 49 yards on the play, putting Detroit just outside the red zone.

“We blew a coverage,” head coach Ron Rivera said postgame when asked about that specific play.

Safety Darrick Forrest offered a different point of view.

“I feel like it was a great play call,” Forrest said postgame. “They schemed us right. They knew exactly what coverage we were in.”

Although Washington held Detroit to just a field goal on that possession, the 49-yard reception from St. Brown was just the first of several explosive plays Detroit’s offense would convert throughout the afternoon.

On the Lions’ next offensive drive, running back D’Andre Swift broke off for a 50-yard run to begin the possession. The Commanders would ultimately force a turnover on downs later in the series, but a strip sack on Carson Wentz two plays later resulted in a safety. On the ensuing free kick, Lions returner Kalif Raymond took Tress Way’s punt 52 yards down all the way to Washington’s 31-yard line. The Lions found the end zone four plays later.

Detroit carried that positive momentum into their next offensive possession. After another Commanders three-and-out, the Lions marched down the field with ease. Nine plays and 77 yards later, Detroit was back in the end zone once again and took a 22-0 lead into the halftime break.

“We didn’t play very well. … If you look at this in every phase of the game, we got beat in the first half,” Rivera said. “That’s the truth of the matter.”

Washington showed life to begin the second half, as they found the end zone on two of their first three offensive possessions. On defense, Washington forced punts on Detroit’s first two second-half possessions. All of a sudden, Detroit’s 22-point lead had been trimmed to seven.

But just as momentum was starting to turn in Washington’s favor, another defensive breakdown took place. St-Brown took a jet sweep 58 yards on the opening play of the ensuing Lions’ drive, completely flipping the field.

Three plays later, Detroit was faced with a third-and-15 when Goff found Swift on a screen pass. Swift fell to the floor when he caught the pass, but no Commanders player was even close to the running back to touch him down. Swift jumped back to his feet, made multiple Washington defenders miss and scampered untouched into the end zone.

Swift, who was playing on a bad ankle, seemed to be on a snap count Sunday but still made Washington’s defense look foolish almost every time he touched the football.

“Swift, he is real crafty,” said defensive tackle Daron Payne. “You might think you’ve got him, but he’ll get up out of there and do his thing. It’s just about everybody swarming and getting him down.”

That touchdown from Swift was just another big play from Detroit’s offense, a common theme throughout the entire afternoon. It’s not a new development for the Commanders’ defense, either, as they’ve struggled to prevent home run plays in each of the past two seasons.

“We gave up big plays, explosive plays. You can’t give those plays up,” Rivera said. “You allow an explosive play, it throws you off. You look at most of their scoring drives, I believe there’s at least one play over 25 yards.”

After the Commanders offense scored a six-pointer to trim Detroit’s lead to just one possession, the Lions responded with another methodical touchdown drive. This one was perhaps the easiest of the day for Detroit, as it traveled 70 yards in just six plays, highlighted by a 25-yard play to tight end Brock Wright.

The Commanders scored another touchdown late, but a missed extra point by kicker Joey Slye kept the game a two-possession contest. Washington was then unable to recover the onside kick. The two teams traded turnovers on downs before the Lions ran out the remainder of the clock for their first victory of the season.

For as poor of a showing as Washington’s offense had in the first half, the group came alive over the final 30 minutes and gave the team a real chance to win the game. The defense, however, struggled for almost the entirety of the contest and could not get off the field when it mattered most.

Yes, it’s still early in the season, something Rivera made clear during his postgame press conference. But if the Commanders’ defense is going to continue trending in its current direction, the 2022 campaign will be a long year for Del Rio’s group.

Confidence remains intact heading into an NFC East rivalry game with the Philadelphia Eagles, but Washington leaves Detroit with an all-too-familiar bitter taste.

“It’s early in the season. We have a great group of guys,” Forrest said. “We’re learning how to play with each other. We’re out there making our plays, but it’s just a certain plays that we want to need to make, that we’re going to correct and we’re going to make.”

This article was written by WTOP’s news partner, NBC Sports Washington. Sign up for NBC Sports Washington’s free email subscription today.

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