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3 Reasons For Washington's Slow Starts This Season

Wide receiver Marvin Jones catches a touchdown pass during the Washington Football Team's loss to the Detroit Lions on Nov. 15, 2020. (Zack Silver/NFL)
Wide receiver Marvin Jones catches a touchdown pass during the Washington Football Team's loss to the Detroit Lions on Nov. 15, 2020. (Zack Silver/NFL)

Any way you slice it, the Washington Football Team has not been good in the first half of games this season.

Washington is averaging 8.0 points -- tied for third-worst in the NFL -- and allowing 16.4 in first halves, and that gap would be wider if not for the team's 22-3 halftime lead over Dallas in Week 7. In its other eight games, it has trailed by double digits at the break six times. It also leads the league in percentage of snaps trailing by double digits, according to Sharp Football.

Washington (2-7) has fought back in many of these games, the latest of which came Sunday when it erased a 24-3 second-half deficit against the Lions, but the team has overcome a double-digit deficit just once this season. Its other victory was when it went ahead early and cruised past the Cowboys.

So, why has Washington started so slow, and how can it reverse this trend entering the final stretch of the season? For head coach Ron Rivera, it's simple. "Don't turn the ball over, take advantage of your opportunities to score and stop the opponent from scoring," he told reporters Monday.

Let's dig into each of these topics to find out why exactly Washington has constantly played from behind.

1. Turnovers

Following Washington's bye week, Rivera was asked to evaluate his team's offensive performance during the first seven games.

"Offensively, it really comes down to protecting the ball," Rivera said Nov. 4. "If you go back and look at the games we lost -- games that you can point to and say 'Hey, we had a chance' -- you can say Cleveland, you can say Arizona. We had some key turnovers that really hurt us, and they took advantage as football teams. You sit there and say, 'OK those games -- and New York -- you have three games that you can point at and say turnovers really cost us.'"

In Week 2 against Arizona, Washington was set up inside the red zone after an interception from Landon Collins in the first quarter. With the chance to tie the game with a touchdown, Dwayne Haskins Jr. fumbled to give Arizona the ball right back. And when the defense forced a three-and-out on the ensuing possession, Steven Sims Jr. muffed a punt at Washington's 40-yard line. The Cardinals capitalized on the short field with another touchdown to go up 14-0, and Washington never got closer than 13 points the rest of the way.

That trend continued a week later in Cleveland. After going ahead, 7-3, Haskins threw two second-quarter interceptions that resulted in 14 unanswered points and a 17-7 deficit at the break.

But none of these giveaways were as costly as those in two games against the New York Giants. In Week 6, a pair of mishaps by quarterback Kyle Allen led to 14 of the Giants' 20 points. Three weeks later, the Giants scored 10 points on two first-quarter turnovers and forced five turnovers overall in the 23-20 win.

For the season, Washington has 11 first-half turnovers that have led to 48 points, the last of which was Terry McLaurin's first-career fumble against Detroit on Sunday. The Lions capitalized with a field goal in the final seconds to go into the locker room with a 17-3 advantage.

2. First-Possession Woes

It took 10 weeks, but Washington finally looked like it was going to score on its opening possession Sunday. Behind five rushes and two catches that combined for 40 yards, Washington faced a 2nd-and-3 from the Lions' 14-yard line. Even if Washington did not get another yard, it would have sent out Dustin Hopkins for a 31-yard field goal. He has been nearly automatic (82-for-86) between 20 and 39 yards in his career.

Washington chose to run a reverse on second down with the hopes that the right defensive end would crash down on Antonio Gibson running the other way. But when J.D. McKissic took the pitch from Gibson, the defender was right there, and McKissic eventually went down 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage. On the next play, the Lions' defensive front got pressure on Smith almost immediately and sacked him for a 14-yard loss.

Having lost 24 yards in a matter of minutes, Washington was forced to punt from the 38-yard line.

"The biggest thing you talk about is we've got to take advantage of opportunities to get in the red zone," Rivera said. "You've got to put points on the board."

Washington is used to punting on its first possession, as it has happened six times in nine games. The other drives ended with a missed field goal from Hopkins, a fumble from Gibson and a turnover on downs at the 1-yard line. Washington remains the only offense that has yet to score on its opening drive.

Defensively, Washington has not been much better to start the game. The Philadelphia Eagles and Cardinals both scored touchdowns on their opening possessions, as did the Los Angeles Rams in Week 5. On Sunday, the Lions joined that group with a 55-yard touchdown pass to complete a five-play, 92-yard drive.

Washington has been outscored, 31-2, on opening drives this season, with its only points coming off a safety versus the Cowboys.

3. Too Many Big Plays

For the NFL's best passing defense, Washington tends to give up a lot of explosive plays. The Lions hit one on their opening drive Sunday when cornerback Kendall Fuller fell as he tried to keep up with Marvin Hall down the left sideline. That left Hall all alone for a walk-in, 55-yard touchdown less than eight minutes into the game.

"The one that we gave up yesterday was probably poor eye discipline more so than anything else," Rivera said of the Lions' long score. "It's unfortunate because it happened against our best cover guy as of right now. He just got out of position and lost sight of where he needed to be. Unfortunately, we gave up a big play. Again, you do that a couple of times and teams are going to take those shots. That's something that we've got to get corrected."

Washington has now given up six plays of at least 50 yards -- tied with Dallas for the most in the league -- and all of them have happened in the first half and resulted in 30 points. Opponents also have 15 plays of at least 30 yards against Washington, 12 of which have come in the opening two quarters.

Bottom Line

If Washington has any chance of contending for the NFC East, it likely has to beat the Cincinnati Bengals and Dallas Cowboys the next two weeks. Luckily, the Bengals and Cowboys are two of the least-explosive offenses, according to Sharp Football, and near the bottom of the league in turnovers forced.

That means Washington should have some opportunities to finally get out to early leads.

"It's been a tale of two halves," defensive tackle Jonathan Allen said after Sunday's game. "We play a terrible...first half, and we come out and we play a better second half. The thing is that when people think why that is, they think we're doing something different or we're doing some magical plays and it's really not any of that. It's doing your job to a higher level. It's doing the little things right, and that's ultimately what's killing us: we're not doing the little things right."