DETROIT — D’Andre Swift said he saw “an opportunity.”
It didn’t matter to the Detroit Lions running back that he had tumbled to the ground after catching a checkdown from quarterback Jared Goff. Nor did it matter that he faced third-and-15 and a sea of defenders in front of him. Once the 23-year-old picked himself up, Swift knew there was a play to be made — juking past a diving Bobby McCain and Kendall Fuller to race all the way to the end zone for a 22-yard score.
As soon as Fuller hit the ground, the Washington Commanders cornerback started to bang his hands on the Ford Field turf. It was that kind of frustrating afternoon for Fuller and Washington’s defense in Sunday’s 36-27 loss to the Detroit Lions.
No matter how much potential Washington’s offense may have with quarterback Carson Wentz at the helm — it might not matter if the defense can’t stop anyone.
A week after giving up 383 yards to Jacksonville in their season debut, the Commanders were even worse against the Lions, allowing 425 yards. Unlike the opener, Washington’s offense wasn’t enough this time to overshadow the team’s defensive woes. Instead, the Commanders (1-1) were exploited in the secondary and carved up on the ground.
The Lions (1-1) finished with 191 rushing yards and had six plays that went for at least 20 yards, including gains of 58, 50 and 49.
“We gave them big plays, explosive plays,” Commanders coach Ron Rivera said. “You can’t give those plays up. You allow an explosive play, and it throws you off.”
This was the risk that Rivera and Co. faced by opting to bring back almost all the same starters for a unit that ranked 27th in defensive efficiency a year ago. The Commanders’ brass hoped the continuity would lead to improvement, but that hasn’t been the case through two games. Even in the areas in which Washington has made strides — it is noticeably better on third down, holding teams to just a 28% conversion rate — new issues (namely stopping the run) have popped up in their place.
At his postgame press conference, Rivera stressed the importance of making sure the Commanders were putting players in the right position to succeed. Asked if he felt his coaching staff had failed to do so, the coach deflected — saying the loss was on the team as a whole. “Don’t get it twisted,” Rivera said. But if the struggles continue to mount, the attention will shift to defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio.
Del Rio led the defense to a top five ranking in 2020, but his units have regressed since then. Notably against the Lions, the Commanders simply couldn’t get a stop when they needed to most.
Twice in the second half, Washington trimmed Detroit’s lead to a one-score game. But each time, the Lions’ offense responded.
After the Commanders cut it to 22-15, for instance, the Lions answered back in just four plays with a 75-yard drive. Swift’s 22-yard touchdown wasn’t the only dagger on that sequence, either: Wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown broke free for a 58-yard run.
Then when running back Antonio Gibson’s 1-yard score reduced Detroit’s lead to eight (29-21) in the fourth, the Lions responded with a six-play, 70-yard series. Goff (256 yards, four touchdowns) hit St. Brown for the 11-yard score.
“We just didn’t execute to our standard,” safety Darrick Forrest said. “We got our standard and we didn’t execute to that standard.”
Sunday’s game was lost arguably in the first two quarters — after which Washington faced a 22-0 deficit at halftime. There, it wasn’t just the defense that underwhelmed: All three phases were poor. Wentz, for instance, was sacked four times — one of which led to a fumble out of the end zone for a safety. Mediocre kick returns also put Washington’s offense in bad field position.
But the Commanders’ offense found a way to respond, which can’t be said as much for the defense. Against the Lions, Wentz still finished with 337 yards for three touchdowns and one interception on 30 of 46 passing.
Wentz led scoring drives on four of Washington’s six second-half series. That included impressive plays like a 40-yard bomb to rookie Jahan Dotson (four catches, 59 yards) and a 20-yard touchdown strike to tight end Logan Thomas. The Commanders even had another opportunity to narrow the Lions’ lead late to eight points after Wentz found Dotson for the score, but kicker Joey Slye missed the extra point attempt — effectively ending Washington’s comeback bid.
“We know what we’re capable of,” Wentz said. “I think we showed it again. But we’ve just got to be consistent.”
Inside the Commanders’ visiting locker room, players on the defense tried to take a similar optimistic approach. They stressed it’s still early in the season, and granted, that’s true. The Commanders host the Philadelphia Eagles next week in the third game of a 17-game slate.
But the unit continues to struggle. And so far, they haven’t been able to consistently fix it, no matter how much they try.
“We’ve got to be able to lock it in and not panic,” linebacker Cole Holcomb said. “And figure it out.”