LANDOVER — Ryan Fitzpatrick crumpled to the ground. And suddenly, despite a packed FedEx Field crowd, Washington may as well have been playing again in an empty stadium. The silence spoke volumes.
Washington’s worst-case scenario unfolded in Sunday’s season-opening loss to the Chargers as just minutes into the second quarter the starting quarterback signed to jumpstart last year’s anemic offense left the game with a hip injury. He did not return, and though backup Taylor Heinicke played well in his absence, the Washington Football Team now has to bounce back from both a disappointing 20-16 loss and the possibility of a missing Fitzpatrick.
Washington had chances to beat Los Angeles, though a horrid third-down defense and a costly fumble in the fourth quarter sealed the game for the Chargers.
Behind second-year quarterback Justin Herbert, the Chargers went 14 of 19 on third down — a Washington franchise record for most third downs allowed, according to Pro Football Reference.
Fitzpatrick’s injury wasn’t the only low point of Washington’s wild first half.
For one, Washington’s defense didn’t much resemble the unit that ranked among the NFL’s best last season.
From the opening possession, the Chargers moved methodically through and around the Washington defense. Herbert completed his first six passes and running back Austin Ekeler punched in a three-yard rushing touchdown. Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio rotated personnel — swapping in linebackers and safeties — but the changes did little to slow Herbert.
Meanwhile, before he went down, Fitzpatrick and targets looked like they were still working out the kinks. The veteran’s three completions were mostly the result of short passes, averaging only 2.2 yards per attempt.
As disjointed as the offense was, the unit did have moments. In the first quarter, running back Antonio Gibson ripped off a 27-yard gain to get Washington into scoring territory. While Washington’s drive stalled out, Dustin Hopkins nailed a 37-yarder to get the team on the board.
Slowly, Washington’s defense started to adjust. The Chargers scored twice more in the first half, but were limited to only field goals. That shift was due to Washington cracking down in the red zone, with the defensive line, in particular, starting to generate pressure.
Hopkins, too, helped keep Washington afloat. The kicker made two more field goals — both from beyond 40 yards. That was especially notable because of Hopkins’ struggles in the preseason. Coach Ron Rivera, though, always backed Hopkins — and in Week 1, Hopkins rewarded him by drilling kicks from 43 and 48 yards, as Washington went into halftime trailing only 13-9.
After halftime, Heinicke led Washington on an impressive eight-play, 81-yard drive that included an eye-popping, 34-yard catch from Terry McLaurin down the sideline. That McLaurin catch paved the way for a Heinicke dime to tight end Logan Thomas in the end zone, giving Washington a 20-16 lead.
The defense bounced back, too. Edge rusher Montez Sweat forced a strip-sack fumble on Herbet that went out of the end zone, giving Washington the ball at the 20-yard line. Later in the game, cornerback William Jackson III picked off Herbert at Washington’s 4-yard line.
But Washington couldn’t capitalize on either turnover. On the first, Hopkins missed a 51-yarder — a distance normally outside his range. The miss, too, was set up by a costly false start from guard Brandon Scherff that pushed the offense back on the play before.
The second botched possession was much more costly. After Herbert’s interception, Gibson fumbled on the very next play — with the Chargers recovering in great field position. Herbert then found wide receiver Mike Williams in one-on-one coverage against rookie Benajmin St-Juste for an easy touchdown.
The team now has a short week to prepare for as it looks to face the New York Giants on Thursday night.