Commanders endure nightmare in 20-12 loss to Giants: three takeaways
From a sack-fumble-touchdown in the first half to highly criticized officiating down the stretch, in their biggest game of the 2022 season and arguably Ron Rivera’s tenure as head coach, almost nothing went right for the Washington Commanders.
Rivera’s squad fell, 20-12, to the New York Giants on Sunday Night Football — the first at FedEx Field since 2017 — in a rematch of a 20-20 tie two weeks prior. The Commanders had a bye week in between, and are now 7-6-1 and last in the NFC East. According to FiveThirtyEight, the result drops Washington’s odds of making the playoffs to 35 percent.
“We had our opportunities,” Rivera said. “We missed opportunities and we can’t do that. We talked about that when we were off last week — that the red zone was something we’ve got to be better at, and we didn’t do that. If we had done it, that last series doesn’t matter.”
There’s quite a bit to unpack from this complicated contest, though three (non-officiating related) takeaways stand out ahead of the Commanders’ now-crucial Week 16 road matchup with the playoff-bound NFC West champion San Francisco 49ers:
Rivera’s O-Line negligence is haunting
In the week leading up to this matchup, the talk across all mediums was about whether or not the New York offensive line would be able to withstand the talented defensive line of Washington. By halftime, when the Giants led 14-3, it was evident that the opposite had become the concern: can the Commanders block Kayvon Thibodeaux and the New York defensive line?
The answer was a resounding no. All night, left tackle Charles Leno Jr. struggled with the 22-year-old rookie and left Washington quarterback Taylor Heinicke — who played alright given the circumstances — without much room to breathe in the pocket, leading to a strip-sack fumble that was scooped up for a touchdown in the second quarter to give the Giants the lead. Leno Jr. and the entire unit never got back on track from there.
In a way, the performance encapsulates one of the major concerns of Rivera’s tenure: the offensive line was objectively better in the coach’s first season in D.C. (2020) than it is now. The loss of Brandon Scherff obviously hurts, though it was likely Scherff wanted to leave the Commanders regardless. The staff then made a move for guard Andrew Norwell to replace Scherff’s replacement in Ereck Flowers, which is approaching disaster territory. Letting the offensive line decay — especially with uncertainty at quarterback — is alarming.
The staff needs answers quickly in a short week to keep playoff hopes alive.
Keep it simple, Scott
The game was a doozy for Washington offensively. There were times Offensive Coordinator Scott Turner stuck to the unit’s newfound identity in playing ‘smashmouth football’ with the running back duo of Brian Robinson Jr. and Antonio Gibson, and other times he seemingly overcomplicated and eventually stalled an efficient drive — such as calling for an inside run to wide receiver Curtis Samuel on what turned out to be a pivotal third-and-short.
In the entire second half, Robinson Jr. tallied four carries. Gibson had one. With talent limited at the quarterback position, an offensive line struggling in pass protection, and a divisional foe with the same record on the other sideline in the middle of December, like the O-Line situation, these numbers are inexcusable. Aside from a stellar opening third-quarter drive, Turner got away from the plan that got the Commanders to this point.
Now, with an upcoming game against one of the best defenses in football, it’ll be worth noting whether Turner makes a point of ensuring the backfield duo gets a symmetrical workload in the first and second halves. Dominating time of possession — which led the way to a win over the previously undefeated Philadelphia Eagles — will be a must if Rivera hopes to pull off another upset in Santa Clara.
The defense is (still) as advertised
From top to bottom, even with this loss, there’s still no doubt that Washington’s defense is one of the best in the NFL. It held quarterback Daniel Jones to 160 yards passing and the New York offense to 13 points. Even better, it kept star running back Saquon Barkley — who made the team’s lone offensive trip to paydirt — to 87 yards rushing.
This display should’ve been enough for a victory. But, alas, the Commanders’ offensive struggles to capitalize on its opportunities and play complementary football are reappearing at just the wrong time. At this rate, one can only wonder just how much longer Washington can continue putting this group on the field while playing from behind without expecting it to break, especially with two 10-win teams left to play over the final three weeks of the regular season.
Regardless, credit is due to Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio for turning around a defense that severely underperformed in 2021. Releasing cornerback William Jackson III and admitting fault was noble on the staff’s part and proved to be a turning point in terms of the unit’s chemistry and ceiling. A potential trip to the postseason will, once again, be led by Del Rio’s side of the ball, starting with a showdown with a top-five rushing attack in the 49ers.