The Washington Commanders came out of Week 1 with a 20-16 victory over the Arizona Cardinals. Here are five takeaways from the win, presented by Maryland Lottery.
1. The defense played out of its mind.
The Commanders were expected to have one of the best defenses in the league this season, and they did nothing to put doubt in that statement against the Cardinals.
While there were a couple of explosive plays in the first quarter -- a 29-yard reverse by Marquise Brown and a 31-yard reception by Rondale Moore -- the Cardinals found little success throughout the afternoon. They were held to just 210 yards, including just 86 in the second half, and averaged just 3.6 yards per play.
Arizona went into halftime with a three-point lead with hopes of extending it, but Washington snuffed out any hopes of that. The unit forced two critical turnovers (more on that later) that gave Washington a short field and opportunities to put points on the board. Washington also made it almost impossible for Arizona to extend drives, as the team was limited to just 29% on third-down attempts.
Ron Rivera said after the game that Washington's secondary had multiple interceptions fall through their hands, but they did a good job of putting themselves in position to make plays. That was the case on the Cardinals' final offensive play of the day, when Emmanuel Forbes Jr. broke up a pass to Michael Wilson on fourth-and-10.
The defense wasn't free of mistakes, but it was clear that the unit played a key role in keeping Washington competitive.
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)
2. The defensive line is a force.
Let's stick with the defense for a little bit longer, because the Commanders' defensive line looked almost unstoppable at times.
Jonathan Allen, Montez Sweat and Daron Payne lived up to their reputations as some of the best defensive linemen in football against the Cardinals, especially in the second half. Whether it was a stop behind the line of scrimmage or sack on Josh Dobbs, the front made several drive-changing plays that stalled the Cardinals' momentum.
No plays were bigger than the forced fumbles that came in the third and fourth quarters. Both were forced by Sweat with Payne and Abdullah Anderson scooping them up. They put the offense in scoring position, and the unit responded with 10 points.
Washington's role players also had several impressive moments. James Smith-Williams, who got the start with Chase Young out, was the prime example of that, as he had a hurry and a tackle at the line of scrimmage in the first quarter. Backup Casey Toohill also corralled a tackle for a loss.
General manager Martin Mayhew spoke at the end of training camp about how important the defensive line was to the team's success. Games like Week 1 show why he is right to feel that way.
3. The offense struggled in the first half...
There were several questions about Washington's offense ahead of the season opener, and it was clear that the unit is still a work in progress.
Sure, there were flashes of what the unit could be in the first half. The touchdown in the first quarter to Brian Robinson Jr. showed off Howell's ability to scramble and deliver throws on the run. And the final drive in the first half, which resulted in a field goal, was a promising example of the offense scoring under pressure.
But it seemed like Washington could not get out of its own way. Aside from the fumble and strip-sack, both of which were obvious blemishes, the Commanders allowed six sacks that stymied any progress from the offense. Some were the result of Howell running out of bounds; others were the result of the offensive line getting beat.
Howell seemed off in the first half, throwing inaccurate passes and being forced to scramble and avoid pressure. That is partially a credit to the Cardinals' game plan, which involved rushing five and six players to get him off balance. There were also several drops by Washington's pass-catchers that would have resulted in decent gains.
After the game, Howell put it plainly that the offense has to be better.
"I just think too many mistakes. I think I had some mistakes for sure in the game, and I think just everyone was taking their turn of different mistakes."
4. ...but they did enough to win.
Thankfully, it wasn't all bad for Washington's offense. They put up points when they needed to, and their small bursts of energy were just enough to put the team over the top.
After the first forced fumble, Washington leaned heavily on the ground game with five of their seven plays being designed runs. Robinson ran hard through a physical Cardinals defense, plowing through the middle of the field for gains of four and seven-yard gains. Howell showed off his wheels again with a six-yard scramble for the score, becoming the first Washington quarterback with a passing and rushing touchdown in a Week 1 contest since 1986.
The drive after the second forced fumble, which encompassed four plays and seven yards, was not as impressive, but they did rely on Robinson and the run game to push them further into field goal range.
None of the offensive players were thrilled with how they played on Sunday, nor should they be, but there were positive moments for them to build on as they prepare for the Denver Broncos, who have an equally stout defense.
5. A lot to learn.
The Commanders are happy they got a win to start the season. A victory is always better than a loss, and it was a solid ending to a day that had several Washington Legends and celebrities in attendance at FedExField.
There was also a heavy dose of disappointment mixed with the positivity in the locker room.
"I want to thank the fans for coming out. We really do appreciate them coming out and we got to be a better football team for them though."
In a way, the disappointment that the team feels is a sign of growth. A few years ago, the players would have been thrilled to come away with a come-from-behind win at home in front of a sell-out crowd.
But the team has larger aspirations than getting a Week 1 win. They have a talented roster with a dominant defense, and their goal is not only to get into the playoffs, but also to make a statement in the postseason.
Perspective matters after a game like the one the Commanders went through. They have almost four months to improve on offense, and while it wasn't pretty, they did show enough resilience to pull out a win.
The Commanders are also aware that they need to improve, and that in itself is an encouraging sign.
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