Why has the Commanders’ defense lost a step lately?

Washington Post photo by John McDonnell.
The Commanders’ defense has struggled in recent weeks against less dynamic offenses. In the game against the San Francisco 49ers, shown here, it allowed 37 points.

For a stretch, the Washington Commanders defense was dominant. The ball-control offense gave defenders plenty of rest, and when they were on the field, they were tenacious, stopping the run with a light box and using more defenders in coverage to limit explosive plays.

But in the past few weeks, the unit has wavered.

There have been obvious problems – persistent struggles against a New York Giants offense with limited talent, five explosive plays allowed to the San Francisco 49ers – but the subtle faltering is best captured by expected points added (EPA), a statistic that gives yards context by measuring how well a team performs relative to expectation.

For a time, the Commanders’ defense brought out the worst in its opponents: Minnesota’s offensive EPA against Washington ranked sixth out of its eight games at the time, Philadelphia’s eighth of nine, Houston’s 10th of 10, Atlanta’s 10th of 12 and the Giants’ 10th of 12, according to TruMedia. But in the past two weeks, the Giants and 49ers have produced average offensive outputs, which, combined with a sputtering Commanders offense, has led to two Washington losses.

In the locker room after the loss to San Francisco, the mood was dark. Several players, including linebacker David Mayo and tackle John Ridgeway, suggested the 49ers were simply more talented.

Luckily for Washington (7-7-1), which needs a win Sunday to keep pace in the playoff race, Cleveland (6-9) looks like an opportune matchup for the defense to get back on track. Cleveland’s offense was once a juggernaut, with one of the league’s best run games, but since quarterback Deshaun Watson returned from a suspension in Week 13, it has become pass-happy and putrid. In the past four games, Watson has struggled, and the Browns have averaged the fewest offensive points per game in the NFL (9.75), according to TruMedia.

Coach Ron Rivera said he expects the defense to bounce back. In his news conference Wednesday, he pointed out that, apart from the 49ers game, the Commanders hadn’t allowed explosive plays – defined as runs of 12 or more yards and passes of 16 or more – as frequently in recent weeks. He also insisted the mistakes that led to those plays against San Francisco are “very correctable.” Defensive end Chase Young, who played 30 snaps in his debut Saturday, should continue to progress Sunday, and versatile safety Kam Curl (ankle), who missed the 49ers game, said he likes his chances to play. Curl emphasized that the Commanders won’t underestimate the Browns, despite Watson’s struggles so far.

“He a good, mobile quarterback, so you got to take care of his legs and his arm,” Curl said, adding, “[We need to] limit the explosives.”

Under defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, Washington has bounced up and down in allowed explosives. In 2021, it allowed 120 such plays, which ranked 13th in the NFL, and this season, it’s allowed only 85, which is tied for third-lowest. The defense hadn’t allowed many for weeks until San Francisco.

Against the 49ers, Rivera said, the explosive plays were a result of small problems. In the second quarter, 49ers receiver Ray-Ray McCloud housed a 71-yard jet sweep because, Rivera said, the Commanders’ defense “didn’t set the edge as tight as we needed to force it to stay inside.”

“We got stretched a little bit,” he added, pointing out that a linebacker got cut-off blocked and a safety ended up in the same crease as a cornerback. “That’s a recipe for disaster.”

In the third quarter, second-year safety Darrick Forrest tried to undercut a throw and left the deep middle of the field open for 49ers tight end George Kittle, who reeled in a touchdown.

Rivera considered those uncharacteristic mistakes.

“We know we can do better than that,” he said.

Cleveland has an excellent offensive line and talent at receiver (Amari Cooper, Donovan Peoples-Jones), running back (Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt) and tight end (David Njoku). But Coach Kevin Stefanski doesn’t seem to be calling plays to maximize his team’s chances of winning, as he did when he was running the ball early in the year. Instead, Stefanski seems focused on helping knock the rust off Watson, whom the team gave a five-year, $230 million fully guaranteed contract this offseason. This might help Del Rio as he prepares his unit for the Browns.

If Curl returns, it’d be a big boost for the Commanders. Rivera called him “an air traffic controller” who can play multiple positions on consecutive plays and help line up teammates. The matchup nightmares Curl would normally cover, including Kittle and 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey, excelled Saturday, and Rivera conceded the team felt his absence.

“We tried to match it through substitutions,” Rivera added, but it was clear that, though safeties Percy Butler and Jeremy Reaves played hard, it wasn’t the same.

After the lull, Curl said, he and the defense have something to prove. The final two games will make or break the Commanders season.

“We hold our own destiny, so we just got to handle our business,” he said.