- The Washington Times - Monday, September 19, 2022

Six plays.

There were six plays, in particular, that seemed to really bother Commanders coach Ron Rivera from Sunday’s 36-27 loss to the Detroit Lions. All six went for more than 20 yards, and half of those went for at least 49. Not even a full 24 hours after the defeat, Rivera still stewed over the breakdowns. He told reporters that the errors boiled down to individual mistakes, rather than an entire group or scheme. 

“Those plays should have been kept to a minimal gain and because we were out of position, they were able to exploit it,” Rivera said.

That’s hardly a new problem for the Commanders. 

Like last year, Washington’s defense is again struggling by allowing what Rivera dubs “explosive plays.” Through two games, the Commanders have allowed plays of at least 20 yards 11 times — the most in the NFL entering Monday’s action, according to Pro Football Reference. In 2021, Washington was tied for 18th in that category — but the issue was especially prevalent to begin the season when almost half of those plays (26 of 58) came in the first six weeks. The Commanders ranked 10th worst in that span. 

Perhaps Washington will limit the issue as the year progresses, just like last year. Rivera’s teams, in general, tend to close the season strong after starting slow. But it can’t be taken for granted — not when there are so many issues at the forefront. 

This season, the Commanders (1-1) have allowed opponents to score on 44% of their drives, the sixth-highest rate in the league. The sample size may be small, but last year wasn’t much better (42.4%, seventh).

The tendency to give up big plays has contributed to those percentages. 

On Sunday, the Lions scored — two touchdowns, two field goals — on all but one of their five drives that had a gain of at least 20 yards.

“If you’re going to allow them in this type of game,” Rivera said, “we’re going to end up paying.” 

After the loss, Rivera mentioned that he had to make sure his staff was putting players in a position to succeed. Safety Darrick Forrest, too, told reporters that it felt like the Lions “knew exactly” what type of defense Washington was playing. Detroit wideout Amon-Ra St. Brown, who ripped off gains of 58 and 49 yards, said that his team knew the Commanders struggled against bunch formations. 

But on Monday, Rivera defended the coverages defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio called. Instead, Rivera pointed to specific breakdowns, like the errors on running back D’Andre Swift’s 22-yard touchdown in the third quarter.

On the play, Washington sent a blitz on third-and-15 in an attempt to generate a stop and perhaps knock Detroit out of field goal range. But, Rivera said, a player forgot to “hug up” Swift out of the flat — allowing quarterback Jared Goff to find the open running back on the checkdown. 

To make matters worse, Swift was able to score even after falling down while making the catch. No one from Washington was there to touch him, and defenders like Bobby McCain and Kendall Fuller each missed tackles after Swift got up.  

“We could have sat there and played a safe coverage — a zone coverage underneath — or we could have been aggressive, tried to knock them back a little further,” Rivera said, “which we did and, unfortunately, we had one guy who did not do his job.” 

Rivera did not specify which player was to blame on the play.

Last season, Washington was able to adjust in part because of a personnel change. The team stopped relying on Landon Collins as a pure safety and moved him more into a hybrid linebacker-safety role. The shift allowed Collins to play closer to the line of scrimmage, where the former Pro Bowler was able to disrupt quarterbacks.

It’s unclear if there will be a similar adjustment this year. The Commanders have been without safety Kam Curl (thumb) for two games, but it would be wrong to pin the blame solely on his replacement (Forrest).

Perhaps the most dramatic changes Rivera could make would be to either fire Del Rio or take over play-calling duties on defense, but the coach has shown no indication he’s willing to do that. 

Rather, Rivera seems to be banking on improvement from within.

“If I didn’t think we could stop big plays, explosive plays, then we definitely would be in trouble,” Rivera said.

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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