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From the booth | Commanders' defense has kept hopes alive


The opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of the team.

There is a high wire act playing out each week these days. It involves the defense making necessary stops inside their own 5-yard line regularly (see: last week’s “From the booth” column) or magical connections between Taylor Heinicke and Terry McLaurin, or in the case of this past Sunday, a spectacular play by Curtis Samuel.

Because every game has a heart attack written all over it. The age-old motto or "You win some, you lose some," feels apt, but it is also fair to say that the defense has deserved much better. 

The past five games have seen the defense allow a max of 21 points, even with accounting injuries to key players like leading tackler Cole Holcomb. And there hasn't been one position group that can take the credit for keeping the team in every game.

Kirk Cousins completed 55% of his passes in this past game -- his worst completion percentage of the season and bare minimum 10 percentage points lower than in any other game in more than a month.

Star Vikings receiver Justin Jefferson posted big numbers -- seven catches for 115 yards and a touchdown. But keep in mind that he caught five passes on the opening drive. He was targeted eight more times in the game and only made two catches. Couple that with a controversial overturned pick six where Benjamin St-Juste seemed to have won a tussle with Jefferson but called for a marginal pass interference, and all in all, we can chalk this up to a better then average day defending one of the best receivers in the NFL.

Dalvin Cook was held to 47 yards on 17 carries -- his worst per rush average since Week 2, when he only had six carries in a loss to Philadelphia. Cook averaged more than five yards per carry in each of the three previous games heading into the Washington game.

Minnesota was held to its second-lowest point total on the season -- four below their season average and gained almost 15% fewer yards than their average output.

Indianapolis was forced into two turnovers either near or in the red zone and was also held out of the end zone on a drive that included a first-and-goal inside the 5-yard line.

If I told you before the season that Aaron Rodgers would be held to less than 200 passing yards, you'd have been ecstatic. Obviously, the overall output of Green Bay's offense (maybe the surprise of the NFL season) has a lot left to be desired, but let's not put an asterisk on limiting a first ballot Hall of Famer and two-time reigning MVP to pedestrian numbers.

What's more, the combination of Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon were held to 12 carries for 38 yards.

Justin Fields completed 51% of his throws in the Commanders' Thursday night win in Chicago. In the game leading into the matchup, Fields completed over 70% of his throws against Minnesota and hasn't been held below a completion rate of 60% in any of the three games since. The Bears scored seven points against Washington; their lowest output in the next three games is 29.

Against Tennessee, the vaunted Titans rush attack barely averaged above three yards per carry, and Ryan Tannehill accounted for 136 passing yards, thanks largely to five sacks.

Washington only ranks collectively in the middle of the pack on total defense, but that really doesn't tell the story at the middle of this season. Teams are averaging under 20 points per game since Week 2, and that includes a monster first half from Philadelphia where they scored 24. So let's readjust the number. Since halftime in week 3, Washington is allowing an average of 16.5 points over six-and-a-half games. If they gave up that number for the entire season, they'd rank second in the league in points allowed.

Washington has some unusual traits as well. Coming into the Minnesota game, they were the only NFL team where the top two sack leaders are interior defensive linemen, which would suggest they aren't among the most prolific sack units in the league. That isn't the case, though, as they are in the top half of the league in that statistic.

Against Indianapolis, the leading tackler was Jon Allen -- an unusual designation in any game under any circumstances by an interior defensive lineman. The second leading tackler was Bobby McCain, who was floating all over the field as he was asked to fill multiple roles in the absence of Holcomb.

There is also a glaring omission in the story of the defense's dominant run: the lack of turnovers. Washington has only caused 7 total for the season, which is tied for second fewest in the league, and two of the turnovers came via muffed punts. And yet the team is not giving up points at a premium.

Complimentary football appears to be the biggest key to any hope for a playoff run by the Commanders. The offense is clearly going to have to find a way to score in the 20's regularly to give one of the league's stingiest defenses a chance. And these past five weeks suggest they deserve to look up at the scoreboard and feel as if bending and not breaking will definitely be good enough.

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