- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 27, 2022

LANDOVER — As Marcus Mariota drove the Atlanta Falcons downfield late in the fourth quarter Sunday, it looked as if the dam had finally broken on Washington’s stretch of excellent defensive performances.

Then Daron Payne and Kendall Fuller combined to make the biggest play of the game, giving the defensive-minded Commanders their sixth win in seven games. 

“We’re having a lot of fun. Winning cures all,” Commanders defensive leader Jonathan Allen said after the 19-13 home win. “We understand that we have to play better to get to where we want to get to. But at the end of the day, winning in the NFL is tough enough, so you don’t take any win for granted.”

Four yards away from a game-winning touchdown, Mariota dropped back with just over a minute remaining and targeted an open Cordarrelle Patterson near the end zone. But Payne stuck his arm in the air at just the right time to deflect the pass, redirecting it into the sky and into Fuller’s diving, outstretched arms. 

“I went up to Payne after the play, and he said, ‘I eat, you eat,’” Fuller, a cornerback, said when asked about the synergy between the defensive line and the secondary. “It always goes hand in hand. When [the defensive line] is hunting, we’re able to make plays on the ball. When we’re able to play good coverage, they’re able to get sacks.”

While quarterback Taylor Heinicke has been receiving the love of the fanbase since he took over as the starter for Carson Wentz, the defense is what’s been different about the Commanders since the plucky signal-caller stepped under center. During Washington’s 1-4 start to the season, the offense was scoring an underwhelming 17.6 points per game. In the seven contests since, six of which with Heinicke at the helm, that number has only increased to 18.6. 

What’s changed? The defense.

After allowing an average of 25.2 points across the first five games, defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio’s unit has allowed just 14.4 over the last seven contests. 

“When you have a defense like that, for us, it’s [about] not having any turnovers, converting third downs, and when you get in the red zone, let’s try and score touchdowns,” Heinicke said. “That’s kind of the secret formula for us. If we stick to it, with the way our defense is playing, we’re going to win a lot of games.”

Fuller, a seven-year veteran, believes all NFL defenses struggle at the beginning of the season as offenses come out with new gadgets and gizmos to light up the scoreboard. He said the key is the unit didn’t panic after the slow start. 

“Even when we had a tough stretch in the beginning of the season, we all just stayed together,” Fuller said. “We didn’t look at the outside. We just knew it would come together, and we always just kept faith.”

However, the 13-point performance from the defense wasn’t as clean as others during the seven-game stretch. 

The Commanders, quietly becoming one of the most stout run defenses in the NFL, actually struggled against the Falcons’ dedicated rush offense. Atlanta averaged 5.8 yards per rush on 29 attempts, with all four ball carriers tallying a rush over 10 yards. 

However, the defense — especially the star-studded defensive line — bent but didn’t break, coming up clutch in multiple crucial moments before the Fuller interception. 

On the first drive of the game, Commanders linebacker Jamin Davis snuffed out a screen to Patterson on third down to force a field goal. At the end of the first half, Allen stuffed Patterson on a fourth-and-1 dive at midfield. Then, on Atlanta’s first drive of the fourth quarter with a chance to take the lead, the Commanders forced a three-and-out. Payne and veteran linebacker Jon Bostic combined to take down Patterson in the backfield, and then defensive ends Montez Sweat and Casey Toohill combined for a sack on Mariota. 

“Every now and then, somebody has to step up and make a play,” Commanders coach Ron Rivera said. “Defensively, we hammer away, we hammer away, and eventually somebody pops through and makes a huge play. We saw Daron do that a couple times, we saw Montez and Casey come up with one. Then at the end, the clincher being Kendall getting the interception.

“It’s all part of it: You work hard, you play hard, and good things will happen.”

• Jacob Calvin Meyer can be reached at jmeyer@washingtontimes.com.

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