For the first time in decades, Washington’s NFL franchise had genuine hope for a turnaround. Chants echoed throughout the stadium for former quarterback Robert Griffin III, who hadn’t been back in years. Former cornerback Champ Bailey, returning for the first time in nearly a decade, faced a round of cheers in the first quarter. And even former running back John Riggins, one of Daniel Snyder’s most ardent critics, sat with the new owner and had to take it all in stride.
The fans deserved it, said many former players.
What they got, however, was a chaotic, emotional roller coaster of a deficit that served as a stark reminder that defense still leads this team. A win is a win, and this one – a thrilling 20-16 victory – was still sweet given the pomp and fanfare. But the flaws on offense were undeniable after Washington overhauled its scheme under the leadership of play caller Eric Bieniemy and brought in 22-year-old quarterback Sam Howell.
“I really appreciate the fans coming out, but we have to become a better football team,” coach Ron Rivera said. “We had a few occasions where we didn’t handle the ball the way we should have. We will be better.”
For months, the new crime corresponded to the new ownership of unknowns and intrigue. Howell impressed throughout training camp and preseason, when it’s easy to ignore context and name a star before he really has a chance to shine.
Washington’s win over the Cardinals offered plenty of reasons to believe Howell can still be a good quarterback – the simplest being that he has only started two games in his young career – but a takeover by the Commanders’ defensive line decided the game .
Playing without defensive end Chase Young, who suffered a preseason stinger, Washington’s star trio of end Montez Sweat and tackles Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne sparked a turnaround in Washington’s favor in the second half the offensive could not achieve. It cannot be raised on its own.
“That’s what we pride ourselves on: the defense closing out games,” Sweat said. “I kept telling them, ‘Who’s going to be closer?’ ”
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It started on the Cardinals’ first drive of the third quarter, when the Commanders stopped Arizona on third-and-11 at the Washington 19-yard line and kept the ball for a field goal.
It continued on the Cardinals’ ensuing drive when Allen rushed toward quarterback Josh Dobbs and hit him just before firing a pass that flew over tight end Zach Ertz’s head on third-and-8. And then the fireworks: Allen tackled Dobbs for a loss of four yards on a run, then Sweat threw him a strip sack on the next play.
“See the ball, get the ball,” Sweat said.
Payne got it back, setting up a six-yard touchdown run from Howell.
The defensive spark ignited a crowd that had fallen silent in the second half after a series of poor offensive plays. Howell, who was intercepted early in the second quarter, was sacked six times, including a strip sack at the Washington 12-yard line just before halftime. Arizona recovered and took the lead with a goal.
Although Howell recovered and led Washington to a field goal just before halftime, the offense came back with a series of six terrible plays in two drives: sack, hold, sack, hold, dropped pass, pass thrown into the turf below pressure.
“Terrible,” said running back Antonio Gibson, who added a fumble in the red zone to the Commanders’ list of offensive mistakes. “It wasn’t us today. We know that.”
Howell’s day was fitting for a less experienced quarterback. He finished 19 for 31 for 202 yards with one touchdown and one interception for a passer rating of 77.6. He also ran the ball twice, for 11 yards and a touchdown. Some of his reads came late, but others were captivating, like a Terry McLaurin attempt from deep that he placed perfectly on the wide receiver’s outside shoulder, allowing him to draw a 37-yard pass interference penalty.
Responsibility for some of the sacks appeared to lie with Howell, while others were due to defensive failures. Some decisions made sense, like pocketing the ball and running with it for his six-yard score. Others led to trouble.
“To his credit, you never saw him shaken, you never saw him put his head down,” McLaurin said. “I know he took some tough hits out there. I know we want him to protect himself a little more, but he will learn and grow. … He is our man and we will support him. But as a whole and as a whole, we could do better at just staying on the right path and helping him.”
Howell said the offense, which totaled 248 yards and converted just four of 12 third-down attempts, “could have been better.”
“Just a credit to our defense,” he added. “Our defense played well all day and gave us a chance at the end to get some points and get us the win.”
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Sweat, playing in the final season of his contract, recovered a fumble in the fourth quarter and shared another sack with Abdullah Anderson in the second quarter. In doing so, he became the first Washington player to record 1.5 sacks and two forced fumbles in a game since Brandon Meriwetter in 2014.
Allen nearly sealed the game with a laundry bag on Arizona’s final drive, and rookie corner Emmanuel Forbes capped the game with a pass deflection on the Cardinals’ final drive: fourth-and-10 from their 37. Washington’s defense allowed the Cardinals to convert on just 4 of 14 third downs (28.6 percent). Additionally, Arizona’s last five drives were limited to seven plays or fewer and no more than 17 yards each.
“I think the way the unit played overall on defense, I thought was outstanding,” Rivera said. “…They made plays when they had to. They gave us the opportunity to create field position and put us in scoring position.”
The Commanders’ defense recorded a total of 11 tackles for loss, the third-most in a game since 2001, when tackles became an official statistic. Eight people took part in the series, including two each from Sweat, Allen and Payne.
For Sweat, taking over the defensive line should come as no surprise.
“At some point, hell yeah,” he said. “I mean, [shoot], you can see how the team has developed. There are only first-class players on the D-line. That’s what we expect.”
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