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Washington's defense had one of NFL's best performances in Week 1


The entire outlook for the Washington Commanders during their Week 1 matchup against the Arizona Cardinals changed in three plays. 

First, there was a one-yard tackle for loss from Daron Payne, who put a swim move on Paris Johnson Jr. to wrap up Keaontay Ingram. Next, it was Jonathan Allen’s turn to wreak havoc on the Cardinals, as the Pro Bowl defensive tackle bust through Arizona's front to take down Josh Dobbs for a four-yard sack in 3.67 seconds. 

Finally, there was the game-changer: Montez Sweat worked his way around left tackle D.J. Humphries and knocked the ball from Dobbs' grasp with a chop on the quarterback's arm. Payne fell on it, and seven plays later, Washington retook the lead on a six-yard touchdown run from Sam Howell. 

That series was what fans expected from the Commanders' defense this season. The belief was that Washington had one of the top units in the league, and aside from a few errors, the group played up to that standard in the 20-16 win over the Cardinals. They looked the part of a unit that is going to cause problems for offenses, but the analytics also suggest that Washington is off to a strong start in 2023. 

"I thought the way the unit played as a whole on defense, I thought that was outstanding," coach Ron Rivera said after the game. "I really did. They played hard. They made plays when they had to. They gave us opportunities to create field position, put us in scoring position."

It was clear from the Cardinals' first drive that the unit, led by Josh Dobbs, was going to have a tough time moving downfield. Their first play, a run to the left by James Conner, resulted in a one-yard loss, which became a common theme. Of the Cardinals' 58 plays, 23 of their second- and third-down attempts featured a distance of at least eight yards.

That resulted in the Cardinals having to rebound from one precarious situation after the other, but aside from a few positives like the reverse to Marquise Brown and the 29-yard grab by Rondale Moore, they never managed to gain any consistency. Washington held Arizona to the fourth-fewest yards in Week 1 (210) with the fifth-fewest passing yards (114). The Burgundy & Gold defense was ninth in third-down rate allowed (28.6%) and allowed the second-fewest first downs (13).

The Cardinals only managed to run 15 plays on the Commanders' side of the 50-yard line. That led to the Commanders earning the seventh-best defensive DVOA and tying the Baltimore Ravens for the fourth-fewest points allowed (technically, the Commanders are tied for eighth in points allowed, but seven of the Cardinals 16 points came from Howell fumble returned for a touchdown in the second quarter).

Of the Cardinals' 11 possessions, only two went further than 30 yards, and three of them actually resulted in negative yardage. That got noticed by Pro Football Focus, which gave Washington top 10 grades in overall defense (fourth), run defense (third), pass rush (10th) and coverage (seventh).

"I thought as a unit they played extremely well," Rivera said on Monday. "I think [Defensive Coordinator] Jack [Del Rio] and the staff had a real good plan going in, and we were able to execute it."

Check out the best photos from the Washington Commanders' Week 1 matchup against the Arizona Cardinals. (Photos by Emilee Fails and Kourtney Carroll/Washington Commanders)

The reason Washington was to put together such a stifling plan was because several of Washington's starters and backups either lived up to or exceeded expectations. That starts with the defensive line, which carried over its dominant showing from training camp into the sold-out Week 1 opener. Together, the position group accounted for 19 of the team's 67 stops and eight of its 11 tackles for loss.

The best showing of how much the group can affect games came in the fourth quarter. Sweat forced another fumble, which was recovered this time by Abdullah Anderson, that led to a field goal with 2:23 left to play. What's more, they helped Washington almost completely shut down Arizona's offense in the second half. After their field goal to open the third quarter that put them up by six points, the Cardinals only mustered 30 yards on five possessions.

They also held Dobbs to the seventh lowest QBR in Week 1.

"That's what we pride ourselves on; defense closing games," Sweat said in the locker room. "I kept on telling them, 'Who is going to be the closer?'"

In a group that was the defense's strength on Sunday, Sweat was one of the clear standouts. He had five tackles (two for a loss), a quarterback hit and 1.5 sacks, which led to PFF giving him the ninth-best grade among defensive ends (86.4) and third-best run defense grade (84.2).

"I think that's the Montez that has been continually getting better each and every year," said wideout Terry McLaurin. "And now, he's at a place where he's changing the game, and I think you need that from a guy with his potential, a guy with his skill set, and it changed the game what he did."

But Sweat was just one of several defensive linemen who had solid outings on Sunday. Allen was fourth among defensive tackles in defensive grade and third in run defense, according to PFF, and he led his position in pass-rush win rate, per ESPN's analytics.

Even players like James Smith-Williams, who started at defensive end with Chase Young ruled out, and backups like Casey Toohill played key roles in creating problems for the Cardinals. On Arizona's opening drive, Smith-Williams forced Dobbs to overthrow an open Zach Pascal, and on the next play, he wrapped up Zach Ertz for a loss of three yards.

"James Smith-Williams was solid, very stout at the point," Rivera said. "He held the point very nicely. For the most part, he was able to contain the quarterback on some of the play-action boots. He was very disciplined and got vertical and forced the ball to the quarterback's hands a couple of times."

Rivera also said that Toohill was "his usual very, very steady self."

"He again set very good edges, kept the ball inside of him, on the pass rush he was able to stay disciplined, keep the edge up, force the quarterback to step up and so they picked up right where they left off as a group and that was really nice to see."

As good as the defense was on Sunday, Rivera said Del Rio was "really honest and upfront and upbeat" about how the unit performed against a team it was expected to beat. Del Rio said they could have been better, and it showed a handful of plays. The reverse from Brown came from a missed assignment by Andre Jones Jr., and there were at least three pass breakups, one of which was a fourth-down stop by Emmanuel Forbes Jr., that could have been interceptions.

All those mistakes are correctable, and the Commanders will need to smooth out those issues before their next matchup against the Denver Broncos, which boasts an offense that is at least more experienced than the one they saw against Arizona.

Rivera has confidence they're up for the challenge.

"But it's one of those things that he [Del Rio] expects even more," Rivera said. "That's the crazy part, but that's the good part."

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