That’s not the game we were hoping for
It’s probably easy to feel as if Washington got blown out by the Cowboys on Sunday, but that’s not what happened. Washington got blown out in the first quarter, but following the sack-fumble-return for touchdown play that came with just seconds remaining in the first quarter, the football game was pretty even, and Washington’s defense played a very good game.
On the day, the Cowboys’ offense scored only one touchdown — that came in the first quarter. Look at the Dallas drives for the final 3 quarters of the game:
- 3 plays, -2 yards, punt
- 11 plays, 61 yards, field goal
- 12 plays, 58 yards, field goal
- 9 plays, 43 yards, punt
- 4 plays, 16 yards, punt
- 5 plays, 15 yards, field goal
- 3 plays, 6 yards, punt
- 3 plays, -10 yards, punt
- 2 plays, 4 yards, Pick 6
- 3 plays, 7 yards, punt
- 6 plays, 8 yards, end of game
In 11 drives (which is what most NFL offenses get in a typical game), Dallas put up 206 yards, kicked 3 field goals and gave up a Pick-6 to Cole Holcomb.
The defense did a good job, giving up 21 points (6 scored by the Dallas defense) to the #2 ranked scoring offense in the NFL, and surrendering 323 total yards of offense to a team that is averaging 409 yards per game.
On Sunday, it was the offense that sputtered.
Washington’s offensive turnovers
Washington’s defense had two interceptions, and scored a touchdown. Washington’s offense had 4 turnovers — 3 fumbles and an interception, with one fumble returned for a touchdown.
A lot of different offensive players were involved in that turnover number. Taylor Heinicke had an interception that killed momentum gained just 3 plays earlier from a Landon Collins interception and set Dallas up with a short field (Washington’s 41 yard line), leading directly to the Cowboys’ only offensive touchdown of the day.
On the next offensive series, Ron Rivera decided to go for it on 4th & 2 at the Dallas 46 yard line (a decision I supported), but the play was blown up by Micah Parsons. Heinicke was sacked; he fumbled, and Dorrance Armstrong scooped & scored on a 37 yard recovery return. The first quarter route was on.
The third turnover of the day was on a short pas to Antonio Gibson that initially had the look of a good offensive play on a series that held the promise of a 3rd-quarter comeback. Washington had scored on its previous possession, and the defense had forced a punt. A touchdown on this drive could potentially make it a one-score game. But Gibson was hit by two defenders and he dropped the ball; Dallas recovered. Washington should have retained possession because there had been an illegal hit below the knees on Heinicke on the play, but the refs didn’t throw the flag. Dallas added 3 points on a field goal 5 plays later, having taken possession of the football on Washington’s 25 yard line.
Between that fumble and the final turnover of the game, Dallas was forced to punt three times, the Washington offense scored its second touchdown of the day, and Cole Holcomb scored on a pick-6. A blocked extra point meant that Washington was 7 points behind instead of 6, but the offense got the ball back back, 1st & 10 at their own 30 yard line with 3:04 left in the game. This is the type of situation that Taylor Heinicke has thrived in during his short NFL career.
But it wasn’t Heinicke in the game; it was Kyle Allen. Heinicke, who had started the game, was hurt a couple of times. He left the game for good when he was sacked early in the 4th quarter, hurting his knee. So it was Allen on the field for the Football Team’s final offensive drive of the day. Washington gained 7 yards on 1st down. On 2nd & 3, Allen threw a beautiful pass down the right sideline that traveled about 40 yards in the air, hitting Deandre Carter in the hands at the Dallas 30-yard-line. Carter dropped the pass.
Facing 3rd & 3, and with 2 plays to get 3 yards, the Dallas pass rush got hands on Kyle Allen, who tried to save the play by throwing the ball as he went to the ground. The ball fell to the grass, and Dallas picked it up. The play was ruled a fumble rather than an incomplete pass, and the game was over. No comeback victory.
While most people will remember the sack-fumble as the killing blow, the play that haunts me is the one before it — the 2nd down pass deep downfield to Carter that he dropped. This throw from Allen was the one that Heinicke hadn’t been able to get to McLaurin all day. This time, Allen had the arm, but Carter didn’t have the hands or concentration needed to make the big play. 1st & 10 from the Cowboys’ 30-yard line would have felt a lot different than 3rd & 3 from Washington’s 37.
The sack-fumble was a tough ending to a gritty fightback, and it likely ended any hopes Washington might have had of winning the divison. At this point, Washington would have to win out while Dallas finished 1-3 for the Football Team to have a shot at a division title. It did not, however end Washington’s playoff hopes. Even after the loss, Washington sits in the 7th seed position in the NFC, meaning that, if the season ended today (it doesn’t) Washington would be in the playoffs.
Getting healthy and moving forward
There’s certainly no time to sit around feeling sorry for themselves. Washington has to play another tough opponent in the chase for a wildcard spot.
The Football Team will look to get back on track on the road against the Eagles, who, like Washington, have a 6-7 record and are trying to get into the postseason. The winner of next week’s game will get a big leg up in that competition, while the loser will likely have to finish 3-0 to get into the playoffs.
One thing that Washington coaches will be hoping for this week will be to have a more complete roster for the trip to Philadelphia.
Injury & illness
Against the Cowboys, Washington’s top 4 defensive ends were unavailable, with Chase Young gone for the season due to an ACL tear, Montez Sweat on both IR and the COVID reserve list, and the two primary backups — James Smith-Williams and Casey Toohill — also ruled out of the game due to COVID. Getting (at least) Sweat back for the Eagles game would be helpful, though, after 6 weeks off, conditioning will be a concern.
J.D. McKissic has missed two games in concussion protocol and seems likely to return for the game against Philly.
But there will be plenty of concerns coming out of this week’s game. Center Tyler Larsen was carted off the field in the second half, continuing the adventures at that position that have plagued the team since Chase Roullier’s injury sent him to IR after Week 8. The next man up is Keith Ismael, who got his first NFL start in relief of Larsen a week ago. If the team is forced to go to its 5th center of the year, it would likely be Jon Toth, who was signed from the practice squad this week, and who has never played an NFL offensive snap (though he has 4 special teams snaps with WFT in the past two weeks).
Indications from both Ron Rivera and Taylor Heinicke after the game were that — while the QB will undergo an MRI to check for damage — his knee injury was not initially thought to be serious, and the expectation is that he will be available to play against Philly on Sunday. Coach Rivera was asked, and he answered clearly that Heinicke is the starting quarterback if he is healthy.
There will also be great concern for the status of Terry McLaurin, who was ruled out of Sunday’s game with a concussion suffered 2 minutes into the 2nd half when Terry highpointed a ball, gaining control of it, but landing hard on his shoulder/back, slamming his head into the ground. Washington may have to head into Philadelphia without the star receiver on the active roster.
On McLaurin’s ‘concussion play’, Heinicke was scrambling, and motioned for McLaurin to go deep, then underthrew the receiver by a few yards, forcing the contested catch attempt. It was hardly Heinicke’s first underthrow to McLaurin on the day. The TV crew highlighted one play where Greg Olsen praised Trevon Diggs for his coverage of McLaurin in defending the play and forcing the incompletion. The only problem is that Terry had blown past Diggs and had about a yard & a half lead on the DB; it was Heinicke’s underthrown ball that caused Terry to have to come back for the ball, allowing Diggs to make the play.
Heinicke fell into some bad habits as Washington fell behind in the score, and by the end of the first half, the QB was throwing downfield into groups of 4 or 5 Cowboy defenders. He clearly settled down, and came out for the third quarter playing the kind of football that had been successful for Washington in recent weeks, and drove for a touchdown on the second possession of the third quarter.
Negatives and positives
There were plenty of problems for Washington in this game. In addition to the four turnovers, an extra point kick was blocked. DBs dropped easy interceptions and the offensive line struggled against the Cowboys front 7.
But the team made big plays too.
Cam Sims made a highlight reel touchdown catch on a 43-yard pass from Taylor Heinicke to put Washington’s first points on the board. Then we were treated to a patented Heinicke pylon dive on the two-point conversion that followed.
Adam Humphries somehow caught passes when no one else on the offense could in the first half. Humphries had an unspectacular 4 catches for 34 yards, but he was the only part of the offense that was working at all for about half the game.
Of course, Cole Holcomb got a great pick-6 (including a fairly elusive run to the end zone) to put his team back into position to win late in the 4th quarter, and Landon Collins picked up the other INT in the first quarter by catching it when Dak Prescott threw it to him.
When Washington needed to force a punt by the Cowboys with just over 3 minutes left in the game, Kendall Fuller had great pass coverage and breakup on 3rd & 3 from the Dallas 20 yard line.
Also, Washington succeeded in getting pressure on the quarterback, collecting 4 sacks on the day. Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne each got one, and Landon Collins was credited with two sacks to go with his interception.
Of course, there were other good plays by many other players. My point is that, while it is easy to feel as if Dallas had their way with Washington because of the way the game started, that narrative simply isn’t true. Washington didn’t do enough to win, but when they fell behind 24-0, they didn’t tuck tail and crawl into a shell. The Washington players fought back, and they came close enough to put WFT fans on the edges of their seats, and to cause Cowboy fans to sweat the final minutes of the game.
In short, this was an imperfect game by two imperfect teams. Washington’s defense played well for most of the game, but the Dallas defense got the better of the WFT offense through too much of the game. Each defense scored a touchdown; each defense forced turnovers (2 by Washington, 4 by Dallas).
It felt, for much of the game, like a blowout, but that was just timing. Dallas dominated the first quarter and had a strong advantage in the second quarter. Washington outscored Dallas 20-3 in the second half, but it wasn’t enough.
Dallas was the better team on the day, but not so much better that I would think that Washington can’t beat them. In fact, the opposite is true. Watching the Football Team fight back in the second half — even though the team ultimately fell short — gave me confidence that they have enough talent to beat Dallas in the rematch that is now less than two weeks away.
Sunday was ultimately a frustrating and disappointing loss, but in the face of adversity, the team kept fighting and gave themselves a chance to win. They have four more chances to do better before the regular season comes to an end.
Let’s hope the make the most of those opportunities.