The Washington Commanders have won their third straight game with a 19-13 victory over the Atlanta Falcons. Here are five takeaways from the game, presented by the Washington Commanders Inaugural Fan Cruise.
1. Washington set the tone early.
For nearly three months, Washington has found little success on its opening drives. After Week 1, the offense has become accustomed to trotting off the field in frustration to start games, often leading to the team playing catch up for the rest of the way.
That changed against the Falcons with a seven-play, 74-yard drive that set the physical tone Washington needed for the rest of the afternoon.
The Commanders, who have tried to get Terry McLaurin more involved in the first half, did exactly that on their first play of the game. The wideout gashed the Falcons' secondary for a 26-yard gain, putting the offense in Atlanta territory. Heinicke, who was a perfect 4-of-4 on the drive was not done yet, as a 17-yard grab by Dyami Brown put Washington inside the 25-yard line.
Three plays later, Brian Robinson was in the end zone after bowling past a Falcons defensive back and stretching the ball over the goal line.
"It's you versus a defensive back," Robinson said. "You've gotta win at least eighty, ninety percent of the time, so I pulled the trigger and it worked out well."
While the game was back-and-forth all afternoon, the momentum was in Washington's favor for most of it. And with Washington's playoff push still rolling, it will need more of that for the next five games.
2. Brian Robinson carried the load on the ground.
Speaking of Robinson, the rookie running back was the fuel for a running game that put up 176 yards with 105 of that on 18 carries. The fact that Atlanta was dedicating much of its defense to stopping him mattered little to Robinson, as he plowed forward through one defender after the next.
Ron Rivera called the performance "outstanding."
"He's running with more confidence. He's starting to get a little bit better feel as to cutbacks and running with his vision."
That much was clear on the Commanders' second touchdown drive. Robinson carried the ball on six of the 11 plays and accounted for 29 of the 60 yards it took to get into the end zone, and that includes a three-yard gain on fourth-and-1 to keep the offense on the field.
What's more, Robinson was efficient with his carries; he averaged 5.8 yards per carry. And Robinson has the right mentality as he continues to get more comfortable running the ball: "it's me versus me everyday."
"I wake up and I'm feeling some type of way based off of a situation in the past, but I got to continue and work and get better and help my team," Robinson said.
3. The defense came up with a big fourth-down stop.
Prior to the stop that saved the game for the Commanders (more on that later), the defense came up with another critical play that made life much easier for the team in the second half.
The situation was fourth-and-1 at the Falcons' 47-yard line with 29 seconds left in the second quarter. Atlanta, which boasts one of the best running attacks in the league, decided to keep its offense on the field. A conversion meant that the Falcons could stay on the field and potentially take a lead right before halftime.
The Falcons decided to give the ball to Cordarrelle Patterson, which makes sense considering how impressive the pro is at being a versatile weapon. There was one problem, though: he ran straight at Jonathan Allen, who is having a Pro Bowl-caliber season in his own right. Patterson was stopped dead in his tracks for no gain.
While Washington gave the ball back one play later, the turnover on downs did disrupt the rhythm of the Falcons' offense, which had managed to move to around midfield in just four plays. But of course, it was not nearly as big a play as what happened in the fourth quarter.
4. "When I eat, you eat."
Washington was four yards away from seeing its win streak dwindle away. It had no timeouts left, and the Falcons had moved into position to tie the score with a touchdown and take the lead with an extra point.
The defense, particularly Daron Payne and Kendall Fuller, made sure that did not happen.
Marcus Mariota surveyed his options and delivered a pass in the direction of Patterson. Payne, however, had other plans in mind, as he reached his hand up and swatted the ball, which tumbled in the air towards the end zone.
Fuller saw the ball floating towards him, and he hoped that he hoped Darrick Forrest did not knock him off his track to making a play for the ball.
"I was just thinking, 'get my hands under the ball and get my elbows tight,'" Fuller said. "Just trying to make a play on the ball."
That is exactly what Fuller did, and it all but sealed the game for the Burgundy & Gold.
The play was an example of the defensive line and secondary working in sync, which has been a point of emphasis for weeks. The rush and coverage go hand-in-hand, Fuller said, and after the play was over, Payne went to Fuller and said, "When I eat, you eat."
"When those guys are hunting, we're able to make plays on the ball," Fuller said. "And when we're able to play good coverage, they're able to get sacks."
5. Playoff hopes are still alive.
Think back to Week 5 after an interception ended the game against the Tennessee Titans at the 1-yard line and dropped the Commanders to 1-4. While the team is still far from perfect, it is not the same group that left the field nearly two months ago.
The biggest questions surrounding the team have been somewhat abated as it has won six of its last seven games. The defense, which was the subject of much frustration to start the season, is playing closer to the form it showed in 2020. It is rushing the passer more effectively, and the unit as a whole has created at least one turnover in every game since Week 6.
The offense, meanwhile, has found its identity behind a ground game that has gotten stronger every week and key explosive plays from weapons like Terry McLaurin. The unit has embodied Taylor Heinicke's mentality of giving everything it has on every play, and that has resulted in it being more consistent and being able to stay on the field.
It is not always pretty, but it is a winning formula. That matters with five games left to play, and as long as the Commanders continue to rely on the factors that have gotten them to this point, they have a good shot at keeping their postseason hopes alive.