LANDOVER — Keenan Allen took his time to gloat. Fresh off a 20-16 victory, the Chargers wide receiver recalled an on-field exchange he had with Washington defensive end Chase Young for the audience watching at home.
According to Allen, the moment came on third down in the fourth quarter, right by Washington’s end zone. Allen said he warned Young that if Washington came out in man coverage, “they were going home.”
Sure enough …
“And they were in man coverage,” Allen said on CBS. “Bye-bye.”
Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert honed in on receiver Mike Williams matched up on rookie cornerback Benjamin St-Juste — finding the easy touchdown for the go-ahead score. Washington couldn’t make up the difference, though the sequence represented a much larger problem for the Burgundy and Gold: Once again, the team failed to make a stop on third down.
Washington’s defense tied a franchise record Sunday when it allowed 14 third-down conversions — the most in any game for the team since 1994. For that Washington squad, the Philadelphia Eagles went 14 of 21 on third down.
This year’s team? It was even worse in terms of getting off the field. The Chargers were 14 of 19 on third down, including one attempt that was a kneel down.
The poor defense was especially striking given that the unit had one of the best percentages (37.8%, seventh) in that category last season. On Sunday, Herbert and Los Angeles’ offense carved up Washington with ease.
“It was probably the biggest disappointment,” coach Ron Rivera said of the conversions.
Washington’s problems on third down didn’t boil down to one specific area. The team gave up both short and long plays. Though Williams’ score in the fourth came on third-and-three, there were other damaging plays like Allen’s 17-yard reception on third-and-16. Of Los Angeles’ 19 chances on third down, nine came within a distance of 3-and-5 or shorter.
Entering Sunday’s game, Washington knew the Chargers were effective at sustaining drives. As a rookie in 2020, Herbert completed 62% of his passes on the down and the Chargers ranked 10th (44%) in the NFL. Washington understood the dangerous personnel the Chargers had in Allen, Williams and running back Austin Ekeler — the latter of whom had 57 yards and a touchdown.
Allen, in particular, was a nightmare matchup for Washington. The four-time Pro Bowler is regarded as one of the league’s best route runners and on Sunday, he twisted and turned his way to break free in the middle of the field. He finished with a game-high nine catches for 100 yards.
Washington cornerback William Jackson III said what made Allen tricky was that he doesn’t run “an actual route.” From play-to-play, Allen will freelance — run where his instincts tell him to go — based on the leverage the defense is giving him, Jackson said.
“It’s definitely different because you’re not running a concept,” Jackson said. “You’re just running what you want off leverage. We just got to do better.”
Still, after the loss, many of Washington’s players said the team’s failure to get off the field was a reflection of its mistakes rather than the Chargers’ potent offense. Rivera said there were many missed assignments and players not being where they’re supposed to be.
A lack of pressure generated upfront also hurt. While Washington’s offense was under duress for most of the afternoon, the team’s defensive line failed to consistently force Herbert to throw the ball away. Herbert was sacked only twice, though one of those resulted in a fumble on third down.
Safety Kam Curl said he was surprised by Washington’s inability to force stops.
“We’ve just got to make plays,” Curl said. “I feel like we’ve got to tighten our belt. That’s what it is. Third down is money down. You’ve got to make plays and get off the field.”