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Washington's defense took step towards returning to form vs. Falcons


Benjamin St-Juste recognized the play from practice earlier in the week.  

The Atlanta Falcons, lined up at the Washington Commanders' 7-yard line on third-and-goal, needed to get in the end zone to try and tie the score. The play they ran required Cordarrelle Patterson to run a route in the flat and Drake London to run a stop route in the end zone. Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio brought pressure with Jamin Davis, and Desmond Ridder only had about two seconds to make a throw off his back foot. 

All St-Juste needed to do was wait for the ball to come to him. 

"He lobbed it up," St-Juste said. "I made him pay for it." 

St-Juste's interception -- the first of his career -- was one of several plays the defense made in the Commanders' 24-16 win that kept them in the game. It was a noticeable turnaround from how the unit played in the past month, when it was getting gashed by explosive plays and letting teams jump out to almost insurmountable double-digit leads. 

Sunday's game, while far from perfect, was a step towards the defense returning to its expected form. 

"I thought the defense bowed up when they had to," said head coach Ron Rivera. "Made a couple plays that were really good, that really helped us."

Anyone looking at the box score from Sunday won't see numbers that suggest Washington's defense dominated the Falcons.

The Falcons were able to move the ball well against the Commanders overall. They put up 402 total yards for the third time in 2023, had 25 first downs on 11 drives and controlled the ball for over 36 minutes. Ridder also completed 60% of his passes for 307 yards -- the second-best total of his career -- and tossed two touchdowns.

Additionally, it's not as if the Falcons had trouble getting opportunities to win the game. After cutting the Commanders' lead down from 14 points to eight, they had three more drives to move down the field and at least tie the game.

The biggest problem for Atlanta was that Washington found ways to make plays when it needed them.

"Just playing good football," Kendall Fuller said. "We've been talking all week about just doing your job, doing the little details, trying to make your plays. In any game, you're always gonna have some adversity, and it's about just lining up, fighting back and competing. I think we did a good job of that today."

It hasn't always been that way for the Commanders, though. Take their previous game against the Chicago Bears as an example. Justin Fields and D.J. Moore scored on the Bears' opening drive to give themselves an early lead, and it took the better part of the evening for the Commanders to muster an adequate response. By then, however, the score was 27-3 and required a few miracles to overcome.

Check out the top photos of the Washington Commanders at Mercedes-Benz Stadium for their Week 6 matchup against the Atlanta Falcons. (Photos by Emilee Fails, Kourtney Carroll and Joe Noyes/Washington Commanders)

Things started similarly against the Falcons, who marched 75 yards downfield on their opening drive and saw Ridder connect with Kyle Pitts for the tight end's first touchdown of the season. After that, the Falcons were held to two three-and-outs, a turnover on downs and a field goal.

The Commanders made several adjustments over the "mini bye week" following the Chicago game, one of them being to give depth players like Khaleke Hudson more snaps. That ended up being a smart move, as shown by plays like Hudson running from the backside of an outside zone play to take down Tyler Allgeier for a gain of only two yards. But starters also stepped up their play, like when Kamren Curl broke up a pass intended for Bijan Robinson on fourth-and-3, giving Washington the ball back at its own 48-yard line.

Even plays like holding London to an 11-yard gain on third-and-24 were signs of progress. Sure, the play did put the Falcons in field goal range, but there have been several moments this season where Washington got gashed in similar circumstances.

So yeah, Atlanta put up a lot of yards on the Commanders, but it couldn't do much with them.

"That's how it works," St-Juste said. "It's not a game of being perfect, it's a game of who can stay as disciplined for as long as possible and when the play comes to you, make it."

And Washington made plenty of them in the second half. It started off with an interception by Fuller, who Pro Football Focus grades as the fifth best cornerback in the NFL, that set Washington up at the Falcons' 27-yard line. After Brian Robinson Jr.'s touchdown to make the score 24-10, Casey Toohill got an 11-yard sack on Ridder that forced the Falcons to punt.

"He works his technique," Rivera said of Toohill. "He's got a good little burst to him. He closes ground very quickly, and he's got length."

St-Juste's interception was particularly crushing for the Falcons. They had just closed the gap on the Commanders' two-score lead, and they were seven yards and a two-point conversion away from putting pressure on a Washington offense that was in the middle of a lull. The pick ensured that instead of that, the Falcons would be forced to play catchup for at least a little longer.

"I feel like we played well," said cornerback Danny Johnson. "We've got some things that we need to clean up, but turnovers help win games. You try and get more than the other team and the game goes to those in your favor. So, those turnovers for us were huge."

Johnson didn't have an interception, but the play he made was just as impactful. The Falcons had to try a fourth-down conversion with 2:30 left to play, and Johnson was able to bat a ball away intended for Pitts that would have given Atlanta a first down.

"That's a very heads-up play and those are the kinds of things that Danny's very capable of," Rivera said.

Then there was the game-sealer; Jamin Davis stepped in the way of a pass intended for Robinson and grabbed his first career interception, ending a drive that had already gotten to the Commanders' 34-yard line.

"They kept trying to isolate me with seven [Robinson]," Davis said. "He's a dangerous guy. He's real shifty. Just trying to anticipate what I knew was coming, short down-and-distance. It was probably gonna be a double move coming inside and [I] just let instincts take over."

The Falcons put up just 16 points in the loss, which is also the fewest Washington has given up since Week 1. As positive as that it, there's still a long way for the defense to get back to where it should be.

The Falcons are a solid team with plenty of talent on offense, but they're hardly the most impressive opponent the Commanders will see for the rest of the season. If they give 400 yards to teams like the San Francisco 49ers, Dallas Cowboys or Miami Dolphins, all of whom they will see later this year, it could lead to a disastrous outcome.

A win is a win, especially after losing three straight. As good as the Commanders feel about that, they know there's still more work to be done.

"We did our job," Rivera said, "but we got to pay even more attention to details because we almost got ourselves in trouble."

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