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Commanders aspire for improvement after mistakes in Week 1 win


Ron Rivera normally jumps right into answering questions during his press conferences, but things started off a little differently on Sunday after the Washington Commanders' 20-16 win over the Arizona Cardinals. 

He had a message for the reporters in the room and the fans watching live: winning is great, but the four-point victory was neither good enough nor up to the team's standards. 

"I want to thank the fans for coming out. We really do appreciate them coming out," Rivera said. "We've got to be a better football team for them, though." 

That was the sentiment the players shared in the locker room. A win is a win, and the Commanders did enough to secure a Week 1 victory for the third time in four seasons. Enough is all they did, though, as early struggles from the offense, plus the occasional miscue in an otherwise exceptional defensive performance, led to Washington having to put together a come-from-behind win in the fourth quarter. 

The players are determined to show that Sunday was an outlier and not the start of a pattern. 

"Definitely a lot to clean up on the offensive side of the ball," Sam Howell said during his press conference. "We're excited to go back in this week and watch the film and try to learn from it."

Check out the best photos from the Washington Commanders' Week 1 matchup against the Arizona Cardinals. (Photos by Emilee Fails and Kourtney Carroll/Washington Commanders)

Howell believes the offense kept "shooting ourselves in the foot," and that's exactly what it felt like as the unit struggled to find its footing during the rainy Sunday afternoon. Of the Commanders' seven offensive possessions in the first half, five ended in either a punt or a turnover, and three times the unit failed to move the ball 30 yards downfield.

Adding to frustration was that Washington actually was moving the ball at times. It moved the ball 91 yards on its second possession, helped by three Arizona turnovers, with Howell hitting Brian Robinson Jr. with a sidearm throw for a seven-yard touchdown. Later in the second quarter, Washington marched down to the Cardinals' 19-yard line on a 59-yard drive, highlighted by a 19-yard catch-and-run from Terry McLaurin.

The positives, however, were spoiled by frustrating, and avoidable, mistakes. Howell tossed his first-career interception after the defense held Arizona to a field goal. That 59-yard drive in the second half? It was stopped short by a fumble from Antonio Gibson. Right before halftime, when the team was clinging to a 7-6 lead, Howell was strip-sacked with Arizona recovering the ball for a touchdown.

There were also drops, head-scratching penalties like the offensive pass interference on John Bates and six sacks, five of which came in the first half. It felt like Washington was consistently in its own way, which doesn't help when facing off against a defense that was playing fast and physical.

After the game, Howell said "everyone was taking their turn of different mistakes," and that included himself.

"I just think I could have played cleaner football," he said. "Obviously, the turnover, trying to do too much in the pocket. I think I could have thrown the ball away, sometimes I took too many sacks."

Gibson put the offense's first-half performance in harsher terms.

"Horrible. That was not us today and we know that."

Had it not been for the defense, the Commanders would have been in a much bigger hole. The unit was not without its faults; it allowed back-to-back explosive plays in the first quarter, which led to a field goal, and while the secondary put itself in position to make plays, players like Percy Butler and Emmanuel Forbes Jr. dropped what seemed like interceptions.

The defense wants to fix those mistakes. Jonathan Allen said there is "room for improvement" and acknowledged the unit needs to be better going forward. But the mistakes were rare as the Cardinals had just 12 plays on the Commanders' side of the field. The defense forced either a sack or a tackle for loss on 10 of the Cardinals' 11 drives and limited Arizona to less than 100 yards in the second half.

"They played lights out," Robinson said. "They got some key stops when we needed them the most. That's just part of being a team. They saw we were struggling on offense, and they knew they had to make a play, step up on defense. That's exactly what they did, and we applaud them for that too."

The defense also provided the biggest plays of the game: two forced fumbles that gave Washington the ball with ideal field position, and that's where the offense started to show signs of life. Washington ran the ball on six of the seven plays it took to get into the end zone, the last of which was a six-yard scramble by Howell. After the second forced fumble, Washington moved the ball enough to let Joey Slye attempt a 33-yard chip shot field goal.

It wasn't pretty, but Washington was able to stay competitive enough to put itself in position to win, and for what it's worth, they executed during the opportunities.

For Andrew Wylie, it's a testament to the coaching and the players' resiliency.

"Overcoming adversity, we've got a one-play-at-a-time mentality," Wylie said. "Being able to flush the bad plays, playing through the elements and just grind out a win."

As disappointing as the team was in how it played, it's important to remember that the Commanders still managed to win, and that obviously makes Rivera "happy as hell." He and the rest of the players should be, because as Charles Leno Jr. said in the locker room, there were times in previous years where the Commanders didn't finish in similar situations.

It doesn't change the fact that Washington could and should have played better.

"We really do, because again, we've worked hard, we've done things the right way," Rivera said. "But details, we've got to be better with those."

If the Commanders can do that, Week 1 will be a blip on an otherwise successful season.

"If we take away those plays," Leno said, "we can move the ball up and down the field against anybody."

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