Last year, the Washington Commanders forced just one turnover in their first six games, resulting in a 1-4 start that took almost a month to climb out of. This year, the Commanders have three takeaways in two games, giving them their first 2-0 start since 2011.
That is not a coincidence.
For all that the Commanders' defense did well in 2022, forcing turnovers was not among them, at least to start the season. They were 0-6 when they didn't get a takeaway last year; when they did, they were 8-2-1. Therefore, it only made sense for the Commanders to prioritize finding ways to get more turnovers, and get them sooner, this offseason.
Through two games, Washington has seen the results of that effort. The Commanders were dangerously close to letting each contest get away from them, only for the defense to make a game-changing play at the most crucial moment. Those turnovers had reverberating effects on the entire team that not only helped them climb out of the holes they had dug for themselves, but also turned them into a team that is significantly more potent on both sides of the ball.
"I think that's one our guys have to understand -- we are opportunistic," coach Ron Rivera said after Washington's 35-33 win over the Broncos. "We just have to make sure that we can create that earlier."
The Commanders forced fumbles in both of their previous games: one came in the third quarter from Montez Sweat’s hit on Josh Dobbs, while another was caused by Jamin Davis’ hit on Russell Wilson in the second quarter. In both games, there were two versions of the Washington team, one before the forced fumble and one after, and the differences are striking.
Last weekend's win over the Broncos was the clearest example of that. Before Wilson's fumble, Denver was moving the ball almost at will, scoring on each of their first three possessions and racking up 226 yards on 17 plays. Wilson was using his legs in ways that had gashed Washington in several previous matchups with the Pro Bowl quarterback, and explosive plays like the 60-yard bomb to Marvin Mims -- the result of a busted coverage -- were back and far too common for a defense that is supposed to have improved from a year ago.
After the fumble, the Broncos did little on offense until their final two drives, when they were desperately trying to come back from an 11-point deficit. Take away those two drives, and Denver moved the ball just 52 yards and was limited to three first downs.
"We never really let it hit us," Chase Young said in the locker room when asked about the early struggles. "We practice on, just keep chopping wood, just keep coming, and that's just what we did. We just continue to go."
From there, the defense lived up to the expectations the players set for themselves. Five of the Commanders' sacks, one of which was Young's first since 2021 that held the Broncos to a field goal, came after the forced fumble. Emmanuel Forbes Jr. grabbed his first career interception, and while it didn't lead to any points, it did help deflate the Broncos' momentum even further.
"We just told each other to keep going, it's a four-quarter game," Forbes said. "We never are out of the game. We just kept going and came out with the victory."
Broncos head coach Sean Payton also knew the effects the forced fumble would have on the game.
"The number one key in this game with this team, and we looked at it -- every one of their losses -- every one of their games last year where they didn't have a takeaway, they lost the game," Payton said. "We give them the ball at midfield, and that momentum shifts at that point with the fumble."
The energy caused by the forced fumble carried over to the offense as well. Prior to the play from Davis, Washington had only amassed 95 yards and three points on 26 plays. The unit moved the ball well enough on its first two possessions, marching down to the Broncos' 30- and 25-yard line. But the Commanders hit a wall once they got to that point, and after scoring a 44-yard field goal, they were limited to back-to-back three-and-outs with zero net yardage.
After the fumble, Washington moved up and down the field almost at will. The offense scored on four of its following five possessions, accumulating 295 yards and averaging 6.7 yards per play while outscoring the Broncos 32-6 before Denver's final two drives.
It was similar to what happened in Week 1 against the Cardinals. Prior to the forced fumble from Sweat, Washington had lost its way with three turnovers that removed any optimism created by a 90-yard scoring drive. The unit wasn't perfect after the fumble, but it was galvanized enough to retake and extend the lead in the fourth quarter.
Against the Broncos, however, Washington was much more efficient. Sam Howell showed improvement from his up-and-down season opening performance, throwing for 299 yards and two touchdowns; Brian Robinson Jr. had a career day with 129 total yards and two scores on the ground; and the offensive line, while still a work in progress, gave Howell enough time to throw, created running lanes and moved well in space on screen plays.
"We were kind of rolling on offense," Howell said. "We were doing some good things on the ground and in the air. We opened up the screen game in the second half, and that was big for us. I think the screen game was one of the main things that won us this game. The backs did a good job. The offensive line did a good job in space. We were getting to the screens because those guys were kind of teeing off. Getting to those screens was huge for us."
The desire to create more turnovers was a motivating factor for the Commanders this offseason. The coaching staff drove that point home to the players during OTAs and training camp. "Another turnover here or there in several of the ball games," said defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, "could make the difference between four or five wins or not." They also used their first-round pick on Forbes, who broke an FBS record for interceptions returned for touchdowns, to help the secondary create more game-changing plays.
So far, those efforts have paid off. The Commanders already have four turnovers -- it took them until Week 7 last year to reach that number -- and their three forced fumbles are third most in the league.
As good as that is for Washington, those numbers could be better. The secondary has dropped four interceptions, including one by Darrick Forrest one play before Forbes' pick. If the Commanders can force those momentum-shifting turnovers earlier, they won't need to play catch-up.
"We think it just comes in practice. Just keep working, keep grinding," Young said. "I feel like as we continue to do that, the pieces will come together even more. I feel like we didn't play our best game today, at all. We made a lot of mistakes out there. So, we definitely have a lot more pieces to put together."