Head coach Ron Rivera was frustrated after the Washington Football Team's loss to the New Orleans Saints, and he left no confusion as to why: "We've got too many good football players to not be better than what we are right now."
The 33-22 defeat dropped the team to 2-3, and it's a clear reflection of how the team has performed to start the season. Head-scratching mistakes and uneven play has overshadowed the positives, and even wins over the New York Giants and Atlanta Falcons came with a few close calls along the way.
The loss to the Saints was no different, as Rivera said on Monday that a handful of plays cost Washington Sunday afternoon. The season is far from over, but with plenty of top tier opponents left on the schedule, the team is looking for ways to fix their mistakes quickly.
"We just gotta keep our heads up," said safety Landon Collins. "We just gotta keep holding each other accountable, understand each other and what's going on in each other's head. Gotta go into next week and stay focused."
The afternoon got off to as good a start as one could hope for the defense. Five plays into the Saints' opening drive, Winston threw the ball directly at Cole Holcomb for the interception, which was returned close enough to put Washington in field goal range. The play accomplished two things: it ended Washington's four-game streak of allowing points on opponents' drives, and it was the team's first turnover since Week 1.
But as Deonte Harris jogged unopposed into the end zone for a 72-yard touchdown, another issue reared its head again: Washington has routinely allowed chunk plays in the passing game. Washington has given up 203 yards on explosive pass plays, according to Sharp Football Stats, which ranks as the sixth-most in the NFL.
"It was a disguise," Collins said. "They just quick-snapped it, so they caused a situation where they had the advantage."
Because of a miscommunication by the defense, the Saints took a 7-3 lead. Later in the first half, a 49-yard Hail Mary from Winston as time expired turned a 13-13 score into a 20-13 deficit. Winston, who threw two more touchdowns on Sunday, finished the game with 279 yards on 15 passes.
Matt Ioannidis can't speak to how the secondary needs to improve, but he does know the defensive line needs to play better. And there were moments when it did so. The group generated nine quarterback hits -- the most it's had all season -- and got two sacks because of it. That's still not up to the standard it holds for itself, though, and with four first-round picks leading a position that is full of players who the coaches believe could be starters elsewhere, more consistency is expected from them.
"It's frustrating," Ioannidis said. "We need to rush better, we need to be more stout in the run game. The great thing about this league is there's another opportunity next week."
While Washington did slightly out-gain the Saints in total yards, there were signs of how differently the game could have gone. It was forced to settle for field goals on its first two drives, despite having a short field after the Holcomb interception and getting down to the Saints' 5-yard line.
Taylor Heinicke’s interceptions, one of which came with Washington backed up at the 2-yard line, came at inopportune times on ill-advised throws. Heinicke had his moments, Rivera said after the game. He had a strong connection with Adam Humphries and DeAndre Carter, who combined for 135 receiving yards. It's hard to fault Heinicke for trying to make a play, but like the big plays given up by the defense, forcing throws where they shouldn't go has been a persistent issue.
"We have to protect the ball a little bit better," Rivera said. "We have to make better decisions. On the defensive side, we just have to keep going. That's the truth of the matter. In this game, you have to be resilient, you have to keep fighting, you have to keep handling things. Things go bad, you have to step up and make a play and you have to bow your neck, and we didn't do that."
Your record tells everybody what you are, Rivera said, and right now Washington looks and plays like a 2-3 team. The head coach does believe there were some strides taken, but the handful of plays where the team lapsed in their assignments had a bigger effect on the outcome.
So, as Washington moves on to the Kansas City Chiefs, Rivera and his players don't want their mistakes to trip up their progress.
"All you can do in these situations is keep working hard," Rivera said. "That's the truth of the matter."