Back when Ron Rivera and his staff sat down at the end of the 2021 season to evaluate each side of the ball, one of the most glaring issues that needed to be addressed was the Washington Commanders' red zone defense.
There has been no better example of the work done to improve that area of the unit than what occurred last Thursday against the Chicago Bears. The primetime game was literally a few yards away from unfolding differently than the 12-7 victory that ultimately occurred, but the defense, which saw the Bears march into the red zone three times, held its opponent scoreless on all three trips.
Washington's players, who could collectively breathe a sigh of relief in the visiting locker room after snapping a four-game losing streak, believe the performance was a look at what the unit can accomplish when all the components are in sync.
"That just says a lot about the mentality of the defense," Jonathan Allen told reporters. "Not getting frustrated, not getting down on ourselves when they get down there [in the red zone] but stepping up and making the plays we needed to win the game."
There was a good bit of bending from the Commanders' defense as it squared off against one of the most productive rushing offenses in the league. With help from 238 rushing yards from the combination of Justin Fields, Khalil Herbert and David Montgomery, the Bears moved into Washington territory on seven of their 10 drives.
That started on the Bears' second drive of the game after their defense sent the Commanders back to the sideline on a three-and-out. Fields and his offense chipped their way down the field to the Washington 5-yard line, and it looked like the Burgundy & Gold were about to start their fifth straight game in a deficit.
Thanks to Fields' second-and-goal pass doinking off Efe Obada’s helmet, the Bears' 61 yards on that drive ended up as a fruitless endeavor to put points on the board. The ball fell into Allen's hands, marking the first interception of his career.
"I'm able to make a lot of plays because of the guys I play besides," Allen said. "I play beside some great guys, so they make my job a lot easier."
It is true that Washington's defensive line has been in better position to make plays lately. That, according to Rivera, is helped by the fact that Washington's defensive tackle rotation is "starting to firm up." Additions like defensive tackle John Ridgeway have helped the position fill up more space in the interior, allowing players like Allen and Daron Payne to be more explosive.
"They're not catching and reading as much," Rivera said. "They're getting vertical into their creases and they're making plays at or behind the line scrimmage."
The defense did not have much time to celebrate the turnover, because it was back on the field five plays later. A 64-yard run by Herbert set Chicago up at the 6-yard line, and after a penalty on Washington for having 12 players on the field and a two-yard run by Fields, the Bears were just a yard away from a touchdown.
Rivera certainly does not like the fact that the defense gave up an explosive play that put Chicago in scoring position, but he was impressed with the unit bowed its neck in a critical situation.
"Obviously [the red zone stops] were the difference in the game."
Neither of the other red zone stops exemplified that more than the one that came on the Bears' final drive of the night. After Joey Slye missed a 48-yard attempt wide left, a 39-yard run by Fields put the Bears at the Commanders' 5-yard line with just over a minute left.
Two incompletions and a one-yard gain left Chicago with a fourth-and-goal at the 4-yard line. Fields knew where he was going to throw the ball; Darnell Mooney, lined up against Benjamin St-Juste, started his route inside before cutting back out near the goal line.
For a moment, it looked like the game was lost. Mooney brought in the pass, but as he went to secure it, St-Juste wrapped his arms around the receiver, which forced the ball to bobble as Mooney fell out of bounds at the 1-yard line.
"That's we get paid the money that we get paid to make those type of plays," St-Juste said. "I had to lock in and make that play so we could get a win get back on track."
The Washington Commanders are taking on the Chicago Bears for their Thursday Night Football matchup in Week 6. (Emilee Fails/Washington Commanders)
When asked about the play, Allen gave a chuck before saying, "The NFL is not for the faint of heart, man."
"It's a tough game, man," Allen said. "I'm glad we were able to pull it out at the end."
"Juste made a big-time play," said cornerback Kendall Fuller. "'Nuff said."
St-Juste had another response to the play: "Shoutout to my long arms."
"Maybe if I had short arms, I don't make that play," St-Juste said. "I tried to fight him all the way to the ground, and it came down to a game of inches."
Those inches were the difference between Washington heading into Week 7 with either a 2-4 or 1-5 record. It also helped the Commanders climb up the rankings. Heading into the home matchup against the Green Bay Packers, who have the 16th red zone offense in the league, Washington is ninth in red zone touchdowns allowed.
Despite being more depleted on offense than they have been in recent years, the Packers still have one of the best quarterbacks in recent memory who can thrive in must-win situations. But the Commanders have confidence in themselves after Thursday's game, and that could go a long way towards securing their first home win since Week 1.
"It says a lot about our defense," St-Juste said. "It says that we got all the...right players in the right scheme to perform. Once we all click together, we can do some real good stuff."