Commanders Corner: Disappointing defeat leads to QB quandary

This game was out there. After having nine of their first 14 — and seven of nine — games be decided by one possession, the Commanders lost at San Francisco 37-20.

The most points allowed all season by a defense that had played very well after a few September hiccups. The largest margin of victory by a team that had kept its opponents close since a 1-3 start.

And instead of standing on the precipice of a playoff berth, Washington finds itself hanging in the postseason pack, still the No. 7 seed, thanks to losses by Detroit and Seattle. Buckle up for the final two weeks of potential scoreboard-watching.

Quarterback Carousel Fires Up: Taylor Heinicke completed 13-18 passes for 166 yards and two touchdowns while getting sacked three times. He also lost a fumble and tossed an interception in the fourth quarter that brought Carson Wentz off the bench and the starter for games one through six completed 12-16 passes for 123 yards and a score. He also wasn’t sacked once despite being in a must-pass situation. Now, Coach Ron Rivera has to choose who pilots this offense in a near-must-win game against Cleveland. Easy. Wentz has the higher ceiling but the lower floor, while Heinicke has more limitations but has been able to do more with less this season.

Ground Control to Major Brian: Running back Brian Robinson Jr. ran for 58 yards on 22 carries against the league’s stingiest rush defense while Jonathan Williams and Antonio Gibson combined for 23 yards on eight tries. The group also came up short when given four downs to get five yards in the first half in a goal-to-go situation. At least they’re facing a Cleveland D that, entering Monday’s game, ranks 25th at stopping the run.

Pass Catch Fever: All three prime receiving targets caught touchdown passes with Terry McLaurin making four receptions for 77 yards, Jahan Dotson making six grabs for 76 yards, and Curtis Samuel making five catches for 52 yards. With the talent stretching secondaries it’s imperative the franchise gets the right quarterback into the organization next season unless he’s already on this roster.

Third Down and Misleading: OK, so converting 7-13 looks good for a team that moved the chains 11 of 39 times in the previous three games. But three of those were in so-called “garbage time” with Carson Wentz at the controls and the Niners armed with a double-digit lead focused on killing the clock. Wentz completed 3-3 passes while Taylor Heinicke was 5-9 with four conversions. There was one running play called, and that saw Brian Robinson get stopped for no gain on third and goal from the one. The top option? Curtis Samuel saw four targets, making three catches for one conversion. Yardage breakdown: 1-2 on short yardage, 1-4 when needing four to six yards and 5-7 on long yardage. The problem is needing 7+ yards on over 50% of your third downs.

D Finally Breaks: Yes, the defense allowed a 99 yard touchdown drive that included a 71 yard end-around scamper for a score. But the defense was put on the field multiple times in the shadow of their red zone: two of San Francisco’s touchdown drives began inside the Washington 35 and two field goal possessions began at the Commanders’ 11 and 25-yard lines. While Chase Young played for the first time since 2021, logging two tackles plus a pass defended, the secondary was minus safety Kam Curl and while David Mayo led the team with nine tackles the defense allowed a season-high 37 points. Jamin Davis added eight stops to increase his team-high for the season to 95. Curl is 12 behind and has played three fewer games. The pass rush generated three sacks while Darrick Forrest notched an interception that set up Washington’s first touchdown of the game.

Special Situations: Pro Bowl punter Tress Way averaged 48 yards on four kicks with a long of 62, zero touchbacks and one punt landing inside the San Francisco 20. Joey Slye converted both of his extra-point attempts. There were no field goal tries while landing two of his three kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks. An onside kick was recovered by Washington but not five yards downfield. His lone kickoff returned went from the one to the 24. Punt coverage allowed a 13-yarder but also pushed the returner back one yard. Dax Milne had one punt return for four yards and three kickoff returns for 17, 18 and 19 yards. Antonio Gibson’s three returns were for 10, 11 and 18 yards with a muffed catch thrown in for good measure.

Flying Flags: Seven penalties, one offsetting, with six accepted for 51 yards. Four came on special teams, a delay of game and unnecessary roughness twice, and illegal touch on the onside kick. Three were on offense, two holds and a false start. After 15 games, the 18 offensive/special team holds are the most on the team with the 14 false starts a close second, defensive pass interference takes the bronze with 13. Rachad Wildgoose’s unnecessary roughness on a kick return gives him seven flags this season- more than anyone else on the team. And Saturday’s most costly penalty? Wildgoose’s unnecessary roughness infraction gave San Francisco the ball at their 40 and five plays later they kicked a field goal to give the Niners a double-digit lead for the rest of the day.

Digesting the Division: Philadelphia (13-2) stays atop the NFC East even with its 40-34 loss to Dallas (11-4). The Eagles own the No. 1 seed in the NFC while the Cowboys have locked up at least the No. 5 seed (they can still win the division with two more wins plus two losses by Philly). The New York Giants (8-6-1) are in third place and own the No. 6 seed while Washington (7-7-1) is in last place of the division and in the No. 7 seed. One half game back are Seattle, Detroit, and Green Bay at 7-8 while Carolina and New Orleans are 6-9 and on the fringe (they’re both one game behind Tampa Bay in the NFC South race).

East is the Beast: The Commanders at least can take consolation in the fact that they compete in the NFL’s best division as the NFC East is 39-19-2 with two weeks remaining in the regular season, with the slumping AFC East and surging AFC North (34-26) holding second place. The AFC South remains the worst quartet at 21-37-2 after Indianapolis’ win over the Los Angeles Chargers. 20-38-2 after Indianapolis’ loss to the Los Angeles Chargers. The AFC and NFC enter the final week of inter-conference competition tied at 37 wins apiece.

In and Out: Buffalo wrapped up the AFC East with their victory over Chicago while Baltimore’s win over Atlanta secured a playoff spot for the Ravens. The victory also eliminates Atlanta from the postseason while Cleveland’s loss puts the Browns out to pasture. Indianapolis is out thanks to Jacksonville’s victory that at worst would mean the Jaguars and Tennessee would finish 7-9-1 (the best-cast Colts’ scenario entering the weekend).

Dave Preston

Dave has been in the D.C. area for 10 years and in addition to working at WTOP since 2002 has also been on the air at Westwood One/CBS Radio as well as Red Zebra Broadcasting (Redskins Network).

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