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Two big plays (one good, one bad) from Commanders offense, defense & special teams in loss to Vikings

Washington falls to 4-5 while the Vikings move to 7-1

Minnesota Vikings v Washington Commanders Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

Today I want to show you six pivotal plays from Sunday’s loss to Minnesota.

Defense - good

Ben St-Juste & Danny Johnson combine for an interception in the end zone

Washington’s defense gave up an easy touchdown on the opening drive of the game, but then tightened up. They mixed up the defense, opening the game in a 5-man front, then playing a 4-man front for most of the rest of the game, with occasional 5-man fronts and some effective use of blitzes and occasionally deploying a ‘spy’ on Kirk Cousins.

For the most part, the Minnesota offense was struggling to deal with the defensive line, and the Commanders secondary was giving as good as they got; the Vikings punted on 4 straight possessions after gaining 10, 14, 36, and 8 yards, respectively.

But when they got the ball with 00:37 on the clock in the first half with 3 timeouts, the Vikings offense mounted a successful drive and had the ball 1st & 10 at the Washington 21 yards line with 18 seconds to play. After an incomplete pass and a delay of game penalty, the Vikings were facing 2nd & 15 from the 26 yard line.

The Commenders defense came up HUGE.

Washington’s secondary looked fairly porous early in the season, and the defense as a whole seemed to be struggling. However, things have tightened up in recent games. I don’t think it’s coincidental that the defensive improvement seems to coincide with the benching of William Jackson, who was traded to the Steelers for half a ham sandwich just ahead of the deadline earlier this week.

Benjamin St-Juste, the Canadian-born 2nd year corner drafted in the 3rd round of the 2021 draft out of Minnesota, has played well and seems to be improving weekly as a boundary corner. In training camp, the coaches tried to play the 6’3”, 200 pound CB in the slot, but he is much more effective on the outside, where he combines his height, length and speed with improving technique.

On this play, St-Juste disrupted the receiver by playing through his hands and popping the ball loose, and Danny Johnson, the 5th year CB who has spent his entire career in Washington bouncing between the practice squad and the regular roster, came down with a momentum-swinging interception that prevented the Vikings from putting 7 points on the board to end the half.

Special teams - good

Antonio Gibson opens the 2nd half with a 45-yard kickoff return

We knew in preseason that the kickoff game wasn’t dynamic. By the end of preseason, head coach Ron Rivera was saying that we’d be seeing Antonio Gibson back there to add some dynamism to the kickoff return game.

The gunshot wounding of rookie running back Brian Robinson in a carjacking attempt the day after the final preseason game changed that. With Gibson having to carry the running back load while Robinson was recovering, Dax Milne handled kickoff duties.

Starting in Week 6 against Chicago, Gibson began running back kickoffs. He has lined up as the returner 12 times this season per PFF.

In Sunday’s game against the Vikings, the Commanders offense struggled to move the ball in the first half, finishing the first 5 drives of the game with 4 punts and a field goal. But after ending the first half with 3-points and a red-zone interception to stop the Vikings offense, Washington needed a quick start to the 2nd half.

Gibson gave it to them with this kickoff return to the 48-yard line, giving the offense the best field position it would enjoy all day.

After the game, Taylor Hienicke talked about the significance of the play in the game:

The biggest part about that drive was AG’s kick return. It put us at midfield. That’s huge, that’s a lot of first downs that we don’t have to get. You go out there and you score a touchdown really quick, that gives people a lot of juice.

Gibson is enjoying a good season as a 3rd-year NFL player.

His role in the rushing game has been reduced, but his role in the passing game has expanded. He is on track for about 1,000 offensive yards for the season, and he has already added 146 kick return yards — a number he is likely to double by the end of the season, meaning that he is on track for about 1,300 all purpose yards, which would be his highest total to date.

A season after leading the league with 6 fumbles, and just several weeks after a concerning preseason fumble caused fans to doubt his ball security, Gibson has not lost control of the ball as a runner, pass catcher or returner, and has played a key role in every game so far this season.

Against the Vikings, he ran for 36 yards and caught 2 passes for 11 yards, but his big contribution was this return, one of two on the day for a total of 68 yards.

Offense - good

Heinicke throws up a prayer that is answered by Curtis Samuel

After Gibson’s big kickoff return, the Commanders didn’t waste a lot of time taking advantage of the field position advantage. On first down, Brian Robinson ran right for 3 yards, setting up 2nd & 7 just on the Vikings side of the field.

Then this happened:

I’ll let Taylor Heinicke tell you what he was thinking:

We got the coverage that we were looking for. Unfortunately, I had to move left a little bit so the ball came out a little late. Again, you put it up in the air and those guys are gonna go get it. They’re making plays week in, week out. Definitely need to give a game ball to that ref for knocking down that safety, but other than that, Curtis is making plays.

I was on the ground, I know he had a pretty good shot at catching it and the ref made a great play for us....I saw it kind of fluttering up there. I’ve been with Curtis two or three years in Carolina and here and I’ve seen him make plays like that and when you get the coverage that you want, you want to give him a shot. He made a great play and for him to know he wasn’t touched and get in, that’s huge too cause who knows what would’ve happened. They might have stopped us down there so that was a great play by Curtis.

This is all part of the Taylor Heinicke experience. No. 4 will trust his teammates to make plays, and he trusts his pre-snap reads. Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.

Ron Rivera was a bit less sanguine about Taylor’s offensive read than the quarteback himself. Here’s Ron responding to Heinicke’s decision to launch that ball to Curtis Samuel.

Are you kidding me? I saw him throw it up, and I was like, Uh oh.

But Curtis went up and got it. Curtis is doing things that two years ago we thought he would do; you know unfortunately he was hurt last year. But that’s the way the young man plays, he plays all out. You know, I thought a play had a chance to pop was when we got him inside and he got it inside run, and that speaks to his abilities. We’ve got a number of play makers, and we’ve got to distribute the ball to give them the chances.

Defense - bad

St-Juste called for interference on 3rd & 11 play, extending a drive that ended in a Vikings field goal

Let’s look at the pay before I offer any commentary.

This play happened with about 13:30 left in the game and Minnesota trailing by 10 points. Obviously, if the pick-6 were to stand, the 24-10 lead that would have resulted would have been nearly insurmountable given the way the Commanders defense was playing.

Instead, the play gave the Vikings a first down and they went on to kick a field goal to cut the deficit to 7 points.

In my view, this was a play where the yellow flag should have stayed in the official’s pocket. It’s not that there wasn’t contact, but I thought it was pretty even between the receiver and the defender, and I didn’t see evidence that St-Juste impeded or redirected the receiver. To me, it looked like the equivalent of “hand fighting” on a downfield pass play, and I thought both men were playing the ball, not the other guy.

When I watched it live, I thought that if the jerseys had been reversed, and it had been a Washington offensive drive that was extended by the penalty, I’d’ve thought it was a fortunate call.

Ron Rivera seemed to share my opinion when he talked about the play after the game.

A thing I struggle with is, you play the ball. You have two guys that are arm and arm. They clamp onto each other and are looking at the ball, and the ball gets thrown. I thought our guy played the ball. I got a chance to see that part of it, and our people replayed it again and I saw it. It’s one of those things if two guys are battling for the ball and neither guy is given an advantage, you probably don’t throw that flag.

This was a big play in the game, but when the drive was over, the Commanders still had a touchdown lead and the ball, with time winding down in the 4th quarter.

Offense - bad

Heinicke sails a pass over Logan Thomas’s head for an interception

Early in the 4th quarter, Washington’s defense surrendered a field goal to the Vikings following a long 9-play, 68-yard drive. The FG represented the first points the Vikings had scored since the opening drive of the game, and the score was 17-10 in favor of the Commanders.

Following the kickoff, Washington’s offense took the field with 75 yards of green grass in front of them and 10:46 left in the game.

My mind flashed back to last year’s game against the Buccaneers when Taylor Hienicke led the offense on the field against Tampa Bay’s defense, leading 23-19 with 10:55 on the clock. The Washington Football Team offense put together an epic drive that used 19 plays and burned 10:26 off the clock. It was ultimately, the drive of Taylor Heinicke’s career.

On Sunday against the Vikings, I thought to myself that we needed something similar to ice the game. Heinicke needed to lead the offense on a methodical, clock-consuming drive that ended up with points on the board. If he could get a 2-score lead with less than 6 minutes on the clock, I figured the Washington defense could do the rest.

The drive started out well enough, with the Commanders being gifted a 3rd down conversion on a penalty against the Minnesota defense. But two plays later, on 2nd & 11 from the Washington 30-yard line, the drive — and the game — went horribly wrong when Taylor Heinicke made the right read, but then, as he so often does, threw the ball off his back foot, sailing it over the head and out of reach of the 6’6” tight end, Logan Thomas.

Two weeks ago, Heinicke threw a pick-six against the Packers, but was able to manage a comeback to win the game.

Last week, he threw a 4th quarter interception that led to a Colts touchdown to put Indy ahead by 9 points with just over 11 minutes to play.

This week’s interception came with less than 8 minutes left. Like last week, it set up a touchdown by the opposing offense. Unlike the games versus the Packers and Colts, Heinicke didn’t have the magic he needed to come back from the turnover.

After the game, Heinicke explained what he saw:

We have a pivot route on the left side and it was my first read, and — going back to the iPad — he’s wide open so I just gotta stick to it.

I felt like the nickel or safety down there was gonna kind of ricochet in and cover him so I went to my second read and Logan [Thomas] was open, but the window was closing pretty quick.

[Eric] Kendricks did a really good job kind of ricocheting back in that hole so I wanna give [Logan] a high ball, just a little bit over Kendricks, but [it sailed] just a little bit too high. A little unfortunate but back to square one, I gotta just hit that pivot and move on.

Coach Rivera said that Taylor made the right decision to throw to Logan Thomas, but simply executed a poor throw.

He actually threw it high. If he brings that down, it’s a completion. He’s going to hit him right in the chest. But unfortunately, it got away from him a little and it was high.

Pretty much what you get from Taylor, I mean he’s going to control things, he’s going to handle things, he’s going to make plays. Unfortunately, he gave one away. The hard part about it is that he was right, if he brings that ball down that’s a first down, and we got the ball and we are still rolling. Unfortunately, he didn’t.

Special teams - bad

Ridgeway flagged on field goal defense, allowing the Vikings to run down the clock to 12 seconds before kicking the game winning field goal

Again, let’s look at the play first.

I don’t like this penalty decision by the officials at all.

You can see on the slow motion replay that Ridgeway goes from the center’s right to his left side and tries to go through the gap. The center leans that way to put a block on him, and falls backwards.

I don’t think this is the intent of the defenseless player rule on field goals. I think the flag should have stayed in the official’s pocket.

Ron Rivera again seemed to agree with me when he spoke to the media after the game.

We teach the guy to cross the guy’s face to get across. What we were told was he ran through the guy’s head and neck area. I can’t tell you whether he did or didn’t. You guys would have to tell me that. I didn’t see it. What it looked like on replay, was he did his technique. He came across. He did hit the guy coming across. The guy fell backwards, so that’s what he called it.

The penalty didn’t add any points to the Vikings score; they simply ran three plays and kicked the field goal again, but it made all the difference with respect to the time on the clock. Instead of Taylor Heinicke going onto the field with the offense with about 1:50 on the clock trailing by 3 points, Washington’s last drive started at their own 25-yard line with just 12 seconds remaining, and there just wasn’t time enough for Washington to mount a fourth consecutive 4th quarter comeback.