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Commanders strive for sustainability after struggles with penalties


It was second-and-6 in the first quarter of the Washington Commanders' Week 4 game against the Dallas Cowboys, and Antonio Gibson had just broken into the second level of the defense. 

The play was an outside zone run to the left, and after planting his foot and turning up field, Gibson slipped through a crease made by Sam Cosmi and Andrew Norwell and barreled his way into Dallas territory for a 12-yard gain. 

A penalty wiped that away. Nick Martin had been called for a hold behind the line of scrimmage, backing the offense up to its own 32-yard line. Three plays later, Washington punted the ball away, and the Cowboys responded with their second field goal of the afternoon to take a 6-0 lead. 

Such was the story for the Commanders throughout their 25-10 defeat. Whether it was a penalty or lack of execution, Washington could not get out of its own way, which erased much of the improvements it made since the previous matchup. The flashes of positivity were not enough, resulting in the Commanders' third loss in as many weeks. 

The Commanders have shown they can be productive in short bursts. Their next priority is to prove they can sustain that. 

"Once you've got success going, you've got to sustain it, you've got to capitalize," head coach Ron Rivera said after the game. "You've got them back on their heels, put points on the board. That's how you discourage a team like this."

Washington's penalties were the biggest contributors to its struggles to stay on the field. The Commanders had 11 flags called against them, which was tied with the Seattle Seahawks for the most in Week 4. Prior to the matchup, the Commanders had the third lowest average penalties per game (4.0). After allowing almost as many penalties in one game as they did in the previous three combined, they are now 13th (5.8).

The effects were obvious. Carson Wentz’s intentional grounding call -- the first of two -- in the second quarter hamstrung a drive that started at the Commanders' 25-yard line and moved down to the Cowboys' 44. After the penalty, Washington was backed up at its own 44-yard line and punted three plays later.

"You can't get away with shooting yourself in the foot like that, and it definitely cost us," Wentz said.

Adding to that frustration was that the penalties undercut how well the Commanders were moving the ball on the ground. Led by Gibson, the offense put up 142 rushing yards, and it often put Washington in favorable situations. With the score 15-7 in Dallas' favor, Jonathan Williams broke loose for a 23-yard run that set up the offense at the Cowboys' 19-yard line.

But after a second intentional grounding from Wentz, followed by a false start, the Commanders faced a third-and-27, which left Washington settling for a field goal.

"It's one thing to be able to throw when it's third-and-7 or second-and-5 as opposed to being in second-and-20 or third-and-25," Rivera said Monday. "There's a huge difference...because of the routes you can run and how much time you have to hold the ball to let those routes develop."

Washington committed penalties on seven of its 13 drives. Six of those drives ended with either a punt or turnover on downs.

"Once we get in a position where we were going down on the ball and driving, it can be a drive killer for sure," offensive tackle Cosmi said in the locker room. "So, I think that killed us today. I feel like we were consistent and ran the ball real well. We've got to find a groove and work towards that."

On defense, there were several stats that point to a winning formula. The Cowboys were limited to 62 yards on the ground; their third-down efficiency was at 33%; and Dallas was held to one touchdown on three trips to the red zone.

And yet Dallas found ways to stay on the field, partially because of the mistakes from Washington. The most glaring errors were the calls that wiped away two interceptions, both of which would have given Washington the ball in Dallas territory. After the first pick was called back, Dallas wrapped up a 15-play drive with a touchdown to Michael Gallup.

"We know what kind of team we have," said defensive tackle Jonathan Allen. "We are the only ones who believe in us and what we can do. You are what you put on film. At this point, we are 1-3. It's a long season ahead. The one thing we are not going to do is turn on each other and start making excuses."

Another penalty -- a pass interference called on William Jackson III -- resulted in the Cowboys moving 38 yards downfield to the Commanders 35-yard line after Washinton's field goal had made the score 15-10. CeeDee Lamb found the end zone on a 30-yard reception two plays later.

"We just have to play better right now," Jackson said. "We are better than what we are showing. We just have to go out and show the world what we really can do."

Frustration continues to be a constant after the Commanders dropped a game they felt they could win, but neither the players nor the coaches are ready to give up on the season. They still believe they can right their mistakes from the previous three weeks, and they have two opportunities in the next nine days against the Tennessee Titans and Chicago Bears.

For now, the Commanders are focused on what is ahead of them.

"Just try to be 1-0 next week," said safety Kamren Curl. "We have the Titans coming up. We don't have time to feel sorry for ourselves, we have to keep playing football."

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