DETROIT — The Washington Commanders were rallying in Sunday’s 36-27 loss to the Detroit Lions when Ron Rivera made a curious decision. Down eight after his team scored with 10:39 left, the coach decided to go for two.
The attempt, if successful, would have made it a six-point game. Carson Wentz’s pass landed in the hands of a Lions defender instead.
“You guys should appreciate the analytics of it,” Rivera said, referring to the media.
Rivera said he listened to “the math” when asked why he decided to go for it. The coach didn’t break down the numbers in detail, but the logic can be followed. If Washington had been successful and then made another stop, the Commanders would have had the lead outright if they scored again and made the extra point on the following drive.
The tactic was part of an aggressive day from Rivera, who also went for two earlier in the contest and went for it twice on fourth down — including once from the Commanders’ own 26-yard line.
The coach, it seemed, was trying everything to help overcome Washington’s ugly start that led to a 22-0 Lions lead at halftime. It almost worked.
“I like the aggressive mindset,” Wentz said. “I think it instills confidence in us as players.”
Yet, the play in question came down to execution. And as Wentz rolled out of the pocket, his targets were covered. In a heap of desperation, Wentz tried to extend the play as long as he could before rifling a pass that was picked off. The throw technically did not count as an interception as stats aren’t tallied on two-point attempts.
“I’ve got to make a better throw,” Wentz said.
The first two-point attempt went much better for the Commanders. After hitting tight end Logan Thomas up the seam for a 20-yard touchdown, Wentz completed the sequence by finding rookie Jahan Dotson for the conversion in the end zone.
Through two games, Dotson has quickly emerged as a threat in the red zone. Following his two-touchdown performance in Week 1, the 16th overall pick finished with four catches for 49 yards and a touchdown. The Penn State product doesn’t create much separation, but he’s able to make up for it with an impressive catch radius.
Elsewhere, the Commanders’ first fourth-down decision was also a risky — but understandable — call. Down double-digits inside their own territory at the start of the fourth quarter, analytical models strongly suggested that Rivera go for it. For example, a fourth-down model created by The Athletic’s Ben Baldwin indicated that Washington’s chances of winning were 3.1% greater by going for it than if Rivera had chosen to punt. And while that may not seem like a whole lot, the model pegged Washington’s win probability at that point of the game at only 8%.
The play worked in part because of its creativity. Offensive coordinator Scott Turner called for Terry McLaurin to carry the ball on a jet sweep, and the wide receiver took it for a 7-yard gain. That helped keep Washington’s drive alive, leading to a 1-yard touchdown from running back Antonio Gibson.
Wentz’s failed two-point attempt followed, and Washington still trailed 29-21.
Later on, Rivera played it more conservatively when Washington scored again to trail by nine points. This time around, with only 1:56 left, the coach sent out kicker Joey Slye for the extra-point attempt.
“No,” Rivera said when asked if he has concerns about Slye, who also missed an attempt in the preseason. “No. That’s one kick.”