Throughout the Redskins' three-game winning streak, the formula for success was laid in the trenches and relied on impactful turnovers. The defense controlled the line of scrimmage; the offense established the run game early; interceptions and forced fumbles thwarted drives and killed momentum.
On Sunday afternoon against the Falcons, the Redskins struggled to replicate success in any of those areas. They stumbled early and were never able to recover, losing key offensive linemen along the way in a 38-14 loss at FedExField.
The common theme in the postgame locker room centered on the lack of execution. Safety D.J. Swearinger Sr., usually one to judge the tone of Friday's practice and its effect on the game, attested to a strong final tune-up. "It wasn't the preparation, we just didn't execute," he said.
The mistakes permeated in all facets of the game. The Falcons posted 491 total net yards thanks to their playmakers finding open space early and often. Atlanta converted eight of their first eight third down situations, extending drives and scoring touchdowns on four of their first five drives.
Atlanta forged big holes for running backs Tevin Coleman and Ito Smith, who ran for a combined 148 yards. Penalties piled up for the Redskins (they committed 10 for 147 total yards), thwarting first down opportunities and forcing the offense to pivot from feeding running back Adrian Peterson the football. After cornerback Quinton Dunbar's first-quarter interception – the lone turnover – the offense punted following five plays.
"When you don't make a team one-dimensional, it's gonna be hard to beat them," Swearinger said. "We didn't make them one-dimensional, I think the first time all year we didn't stop the run. So, you don't make a team one-dimensional, you don't stop the run, it's hard to beat them. It's hard to stop them when they go play-action, bootlegs and all that…If we gotta load the box let's load the box. I don't like playing half-field, truthfully. I had zero tackles playing half-field."
The team's decision to play a lighter box, based on Atlanta's talented wide receivers group spreading the field, had implications up front. The defense allowed substantial gains – the Falcons averaged 6.4 yards per carry – providing manageable third downs, as they used misdirection and counter runs more than they'd shown in previous weeks.
"The third down conversions, really what kept them in the game," head coach Jay Gruden said. "They ran the ball effectively but for us to get a team like Atlanta, we have to get a team like them off the field on third down and we didn't do it."
"We had to play with a lighter box. They just made plays, man," linebacker Mason Foster said. "At the end of the day we all gotta make more plays. We had our chances, but like I said they had a good plan and they came out off a bye, showed new looks did their thing but we just have to play better, we just have to be ready for that. Play at a higher level. We didn't make enough plays on defense like we have been and that's not gonna cut it."
Washington, already handicapped before the game with left tackle Trent Williams, wide receiver Jamison Crowder and running back Chris Thompson out with injuries, suffered even more on Sunday. Left guard Shawn Lauvao injured his knee on the third play of the game, right tackle Morgan Moses missed time with his own knee injury and right guard Brandon Scherff left the game early in the third quarter with a shoulder injury.
That forced constant fluxation. Chase Roullier move to left guard, Tony Bergstrom moved to center and backup tackle Geron Christian Sr. jumped into action to make his 2018 debut. It wasn't an ideal recipe to run the football, and as the Redskins trailed by multiple scores, the offense chipped away in the passing game but couldn't creep close enough to Atlanta's lead.
"When Brandon went down I had to run to the sideline to [offensive line coach Bill] Callahan just to figure out where he wanted guys to go," offensive lineman Chase Roullier said. "Sometimes, depending on the defense, if they're more a power-rush team they want me at guard, maybe they want me at center, so we just have to figure all that out. Once we had it figured out it's just go out there and play football, it's what we're meant to do."
On both of the Redskins' scoring drives, quarterback Alex Smith started to make some plays, with his arm and his feet. He picked up crucial first downs, got wide receiver Maurice Harris and tight end Vernon Davis involved and kept comeback hope alive for the better part of three quarters.
But too many penalties down the stretch, and not enough stops on third down, proved too costly. The Redskins will once again have to adjust to adversity, lean on their ability to work through it and reset for a visit to Tampa Bay in an effort to shake off a Sunday afternoon they'd like to forget.
"Today wasn't our day but you get used to playing at a certain level and when you don't you just have to go back and get readjusted and tighten the screws again, that's all it is," Foster said. "Adversity is adversity, you can't fold or crumple when stuff like this happens because it's gonna happen in life or in football so, you've just got to keep working, it's not the end of the world. It's a tough loss, it sucks, it's gonna be hard to sleep tonight, it's gonna be tough all week until you get to play again. You just have to keep working and come out on fire next week to get this taste out of your mouth."