Early in his career, Davis played slowly. His brain couldn’t develop his body, the elite athleticism Washington wanted when it drafted him in the first round in 2021. But on Sunday afternoon in Denver, with the Commanders badly outnumbered, Davis showed finishing speed rare for a 6-foot-4, 234-pound linebacker. And he was particularly motivated because he had previously been charged with gross assault on the passer in what he considered an unfair penalty.
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“I was a little [mad],” he said.
Near the sideline, Wilson saw Davis and tried to transfer the ball from his right hand to his left hand. Davis noticed the looseness and struck the ball with his right hand.
If Davis hadn’t forced a fumble at that point, it’s unlikely Washington would have staged a comeback that would have resulted in a 35-33 win. The Commanders’ offense ended in two straight drives for three wins. Special teams had just completed a huge punt return. The defense had allowed three touchdowns on three possessions. But instead of Denver effectively putting the game away, Davis put the ball on the ground, linebacker Cody Barton picked it up and everything changed. The offense erased a 21-3 deficit, the defense won another turnover battle (2-0) and the team completed the second-largest comeback in franchise history.
“A spark?” “Safety,” Darrick Forrest said, chuckling at the word’s inability to capture the meaning of the forced fumble. “That was a game changer.”
Sean Payton: “The biggest key in this game with this team, and we looked at it – every single one of their losses – every one of their games last year where they didn’t have a takeaway, they lost the game. We give them the ball in midfield, and that momentum shifts with the…
— Nicki Jhabvala (@NickiJhabvala) September 18, 2023
Several defenders admitted that despite the unit’s disastrous start, it was easier to maintain hope because they believed the offense could catch up. In his second game against Washington, coordinator Eric Bieniemy posted a higher total offensive points (35) than his predecessor, Scott Turner, did in his 50 games (34).
“The last two years … it was very difficult to score more than 21 points,” cornerback Benjamin St-Juste said, adding:[The offense] kept us motivated as a defense and said, ‘Okay, we’re a stop or two away.'”
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Denver attacked Washington early on with perimeter runs and deep passes. The Broncos added a one-play, 60-yard scoring drive between two hard-hitting touchdown drives. With that quick score, Commanders defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio called a corner blitz, so the coverage was what’s known as a “2-man”: two deep safeties splitting the field, with a man-against -Man cover underneath. Denver called a great counterattack with two vertical routes, one down the seam and one down the left sideline, challenging the safeties’ picks. Forrest, the safety on the left, hovered over the sideline receiver as Marvin Mims Jr. flew up the seam and away from safety Percy Butler for an easy touchdown. After the play, Butler looked at Forrest, seemingly exasperated.
“It was just a great call for that coverage,” Forrest said later, although he was quick to admit that he could have done better: “I played it terribly.”
After the fumble, the secondary kept the roof on their covers and the line began to dominate. Del Rio began using more five-line fronts, and the penetration prevented Denver from getting to the rim as consistently. On the first drive of the second half, defensive tackle Daron Payne made it a three-and-out with a sack (minus-11), a tackle-for-loss (minus-2) and a batted screen pass at the line of scrimmage.
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The defenders took turns for the rest of the game. Rookie cornerback Emmanuel Forbes grabbed his first interception. End Montez Sweat set the edge to force runs inside or pressure the quarterback. End Chase Young stopped a red zone drive with a sack on third-and-2 – matching his sack total in nine games in 2021 (1½) in his season debut. At one point, Sweat and Young met in the backfield to tackle Wilson.
“It’s like a g—— race for the Olympic gold medal,” Sweat said of racing with the quarterback’s linemates. “It’s alarming. But I love it because it shakes up the next man and shows the next man that you can’t lack for anything. You can’t rest.”
After Young’s sack, Denver kicked a field goal to cut the deficit to 35-27, and after forcing a punt, it got the ball back at its own 13-yard line with 48 seconds left. The Broncos couldn’t move the ball, and on fourth-and-3, safety Kam Curl recognized Wilson tucking the ball to run and ran the length of the field to make a critical tackle. Wilson had converted the first down, but Curl kept him at bay and fired with about 10 seconds left.
From the 50, with three seconds left, Wilson threw a Hail Mary toward the end zone. In 2021, Del Rio’s unit allowed the New Orleans Saints to hit a Hail Mary just before halftime, but at the time it looked like a performance issue as defenders didn’t jump. This time it was different; The ball bounced off helmets and outstretched hands until it miraculously landed in the arms of rookie receiver Brandon Johnson.
As Denver lined up for the two-point conversion, St-Juste looked across the tight formation and saw a receiver and a tight end lined up next to each other. He said he recognized the play from Wilson’s days in Seattle. He knew the receivers were about to run crossing routes.
After the snap, St-Juste dropped down, pointed at Forbes and yelled for him to “cut” or switch assignments, meaning St-Juste would pick up Broncos receiver Courtland Sutton, who was in the back right corner ran into the end zone. St-Juste got to Sutton just before the ball, forcing an incompletion and could have been called for pass interference since the Denver crowd was screaming for him to do that.
Later, St-Juste just grinned.
“I just did a play,” he said. “The friendly neighborhood Spider-Man saves the day.”
The defenders then enjoyed the climax of the miracle comeback in the locker room. They praised Davis, Forbes and St-Juste for their goal-line stops. Sweat celebrated the return of Young, his close friend.
“Do you feel like you reminded the NFL world exactly what you are as a player today?” a reporter asked Young.
Young grinned and then, without meaning to, noted what it felt like on a rollercoaster day for the defense.
“If you stand up, they will praise you,” he said. “If you’re down, they’ll hate you. I’m in the middle of it.”
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