The illusions that Taylor Heinicke and Terry McLaurin keep pulling off have been the best magic tricks in the middle of this saved season, and they are worth the jaw drops. I'll let everyone come up with the new adjectives for that aspect of the Commander's late-game heroics this week (check out this column last week if you want to see the ode I wrote to Terry a week ago).
Today, it's time to focus on what may be the literal overlooked reason why this team has a shot to make a run at the playoffs as the second half of the season begins. In five of the eight games this season, Washington has forced a stop inside their own 10-yard line that ended up in no points and multiple times, it started with a first down from inside their own 3-yard line. FIVE of the EIGHT Games.
This is a stat that I find more remarkable than McLaurin ripping a ball out of a former defensive player of the year's hands with under 30 seconds to go to steal a road win.
It started in Week 1 against Jacksonville. The Jaguars had an eight-play, 68-yard drive end with a turnover on downs when they decided to attempt three passes from the Washington 2-yard line. The incompletion went to three different targets: Christian Kirk, Zay Jones and Travis Etienne. This happened in a game that Washington won by six points.
Take a look at the top photos from the Washington Commanders' Week 8 matchup against the Indianapolis Colts. (Emilee Fails/Washington Commanders)
Week 2 in Detroit won't be remembered for many positive moments. This was the game that saw Washington find itself in a 22-point hole at half thanks to an anemic offense and a defense that had many missed assignments that led to multiple chunk plays. But a stop inside the five did occur for the second straight week. The Lions tried a run that went nowhere on a second-and-goal at the 3-yard line. The following two plays were both incomplete; one was intended for Amon Ra St. Brown, while the second was for D.J. Chark.
In Week 3 against Philadelphia, Washington was able to get a stop inside their 10 once again. This time, the Eagles tried to run misdirection on an end around with receiver Zack Pascal. It was fourth-and-1 at the 8-yard line, and he got stuffed for no gain. Like the Lions game, this is lost in an outcome that wasn't in doubt at halftime. But it's still worth mentioning here because it continued a trend of what feels like an unusual ability to get stops at the edge of the end zone.
In Week 5, the defense did it three times. THREE. The initial red zone try for Chicago started with a first-and-goal from six. The first call was a run for one yard. The second down play was a pass that went off Efe Obada’s helmet and landed in the arms of Jonathan Allen for his first career interception.
The next stop started with a first-and-goal from the three. And this was after one of the three explosive plays allowed – the Khalil Herbert 64-yard run that included some serious over pursuit by Washington's defenders but some amazing hustle by players like Casey Toohill, who went from blocked to the ground to chasing down Herbert to set up the eventual stop.
First-and-goal from the three was a run for no gain; second-and-goal was an incompletion; third-and-goal saw Justin Fields try to scramble for it only to get a gain of one yard; and on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line, Herbert was stuffed at the line of scrimmage.
Yet still, Washington needed to do this one final time to ensure a win over the Bears. In the final minute, on first-and-goal from the five, Fields scrambled, only to get bottled up after a gain of one. That was followed by two straight incompletions, setting up the fourth-and-goal play with the game on the line.
Frankly, I think the Bears designed a perfect route. They put multiple receivers on the left and lined up Darnell Mooney solo to the right forcing a man coverage situation for Benjamin St-Juste. Mooney ran a terrific route – an inside slant where he puts his foot in the ground and makes a quick cut back to the outside. St-Juste wasn't fooled, followed Mooney and the ball, got to the receiver in literally the nick of time to make Mooney bobble it just enough that when he was able to regather, he fell out of bounds a few inches short of the end zone.
This stand, and the St-Juste play, was just as important to saving this season as McLaurin's catch this past Sunday.
That gets us to Indianapolis. Let's not forget that both Indy fumbles came in or near the Washington red zone. But the game-saving moment came on a drive that included first-and-goal from the 3-yard line. The Colts tried to spread the Commanders out, and all three of us in the booth were screaming "Keeper!"
We were on it and so was the defense: no gain. The next call was a pass play that went to Michael Pittman Jr., and if not for a strong tackle at the goal line, he would have scored easily, and the late game heroics never would have happened. On third-and-goal, the ball is handed to the reigning NFL rush champion, who is met by Jamin Davis in the backfield and flung to the ground. The Colts settled for a field goal, didn't score again and lost by a point.
The most telling part of the red zone stops week after week is that it's the entire unit in on the plays. All of the corners have had their part in the array of incompletions. The ends have consistently kept versatile running quarterbacks away from the edges. The center of the line consistently wins the line of scrimmage and the linebackers are shooting gaps and coming up with massive stops, often on solo tackles.
The Commanders have won their four games this year by a combined 14 points. Had teams elected for chip shot field goals on any of the stops that resulted in turnovers, they'd have scored at least 18 more points. While the world saw Heinicke and McLaurin hit the highlight reel, the defense should know that their efforts have not been overlooked and are as big a reason why this team has a shot to play in mid-January.