The Commanders took the field on primetime Sunday night, firmly in control of their own playoff destiny. If they could take care of business against their NFC East rival, with whom they had tied two weeks before, they would practically assure themselves of a playoff berth. Unfortunately, they were unable to get the job done. The New York Giants benefitted from some egregious officiating, but it was the Commanders’ lackluster performance that kept the game close enough for a few bad calls and one bad non-call to make the difference.
Sunday’s loss propels the Giants into the lead in the race for the Wild Card berth and leaves the Commanders in a close race with the Lions and Seahawks to make the postseason. To add insult to injury, the Commanders’ loss clinched a playoff spot for Dallas. Perhaps the game statistics and player snap counts can help make sense of what went wrong.
On offense, the Giants and Commanders were nearly evenly matched on 1st downs (WAS 20, NYG 19), total plays (WAS 58, NYG 62), total drives (10 apiece), and time of possession (WAS 29:30, NYG 30:30). Neither QB threw an interception, and the two teams were about equally inept at converting third downs (WAS 1-10, NYG 2-10). Washington had the advantage in passing yards (WAS 228, NYG 160), yards per pass attempt (WAS 7.1, NYG 5.0), rushing yards (WAS 159, NYG 128), and yards per rush attempt (WAS 6.1, NYG 4.3). While it might have seemed to viewers that the refs were on Mara’s payroll, the penalties were fairly evenly distributed (WAS 6-40, NYG 5-30).
The Commanders’ defense did its part, holding the Giants’ offense to 288 total yards and 13 points.
Two key statistics can largely explain why Washington lost, despite having better production on offense.
First, Washington lost the turnover battle 2-0, giving away two fumbles on offense while forcing no takeaways on defense. Both Washington fumbles led to scores by New York. In the second quarter, Kayvon Thibodeaux recovered a strip-sack fumble at the Washington 10-yard line for a TD, to put New York ahead 7 to 3. Then, with 6:13 remaining in the fourth quarter, with Washington facing third and four at the New York 5-yard line, the Giants forced a sack-fumble to claim their second turnover. The ensuing drive ended with a field goal to extend New York’s lead from 5 to 8 points, with 1:55 remaining. Washington is now 5-0 in games when it has won the turnover battle this season and 0-5 in games when it has lost. They are 2-1-1 in games when it was even.
Second, Washington had poor efficiency in the red zone, only converting 1 of 3 red zone opportunities into points. This is partly related to the previous point and also not entirely the Commanders’ fault. The sack-fumble at the Giants’ 5-yard line and ensuing field goal pushed the scoring margin in the late fourth quarter from within a touchdown to win (17-12) to requiring a touchdown with a two-point conversion to tie; whereas a field goal from that position would have brought them to within a field goal to win (17-15) with around six minutes remaining. On Washington’s next and final drive, the team failed to score from first-and-goal at the Giants’ 10-yard line. This failure was, in part, due to Washington’s failure to complete short passes on first and third downs. They also had to contend with a bad call by the officials, which negated a Brian Robinson rushing touchdown on third down, and a failure to enforce blatant pass interference against Curtis Samuel in the end zone on fourth down, which should have given them four more attempts from the 1-yard line.
While a few key plays and bad calls could have made the difference against the Giants, there were other ways that the Commanders failed to take opportunities that were available to them.
From Week 6, the Commanders’ have established an identity on offense, leaning on the running game to control the clock and limiting reliance on the weak passing game. Brian Robinson has been a crucial addition to the Commanders’ rushing attack. The Commanders have not lost any of the 6 games in which he has had 14 or more carries since his Week 5 debut. Offensive Coordinator Scott Turner inexplicably took his foot off the gas in the rematch with the Giants, limiting Robinson to 12 carries, despite the fact that he averaged a career high of 7.4 yards per carry. Instead, he gave five carries to Curtis Samuel, who averaged 0.2 yards per attempt.
Second-string QB Taylor Heinicke, filling in for the injured and disappointing starter, could have used all the help he could get from his teammates. Unfortunately, he did not get much from his offensive line against the Giants. Heinicke was pressured on 32.4% of dropbacks and was 3/9 for 51 yards with two lost fumbles when under pressure.
When the Commanders faced the Giants two weeks ago, the defense was highly disruptive up front, recording 4 sacks and 8 tackles for loss. In this week’s rematch, they were more accommodating, with just 1 tackle for loss and no sacks. They did manage to knock away 4 passes, up from 2 before the bye.
This time around, it was the Giants’ defense that put on a show with 3 sacks, 4 tackles for loss, 6 passes defended, 8 QB hits, 2 forced and recovered fumbles, and one touchdown.
Not surprisingly, the most impactful player in the game was playing for the Giants. Rookie edge rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux had a breakthrough performance including 12 tackles, a strip sack returned for a touchdown, three tackles for loss, a QB hit, three run stuffs and two QB pressures. His tackle of Taylor Heinicke at the one-yard line late in the fourth quarter effectively ended Washington’s comeback, albeit with a little help from the refs making ridiculous calls and non-calls on two of the remaining plays in the drive.
Most Impactful Plays
As a new feature, starting in Week 15, I will trial listing the most impactful plays of each of each game as determined by the advanced statistic Expected Points Added (EPA). EPA uses a statistical model, based on 10+ years of NFL plays, to quantify how each play adds or detracts from the offensive team’s expected score on a drive. A threshold of +/- 1.5 EPA was used to identify “big plays” for and against the Commanders.
Seven Biggest Plays on Offense and Special Teams
4th quarter, 9:06, 1st and 10 at WAS 9: Taylor Heinicke completion to Jahan Dotson for 61 yards. EPA 3.96
3rd quarter, 8:43, 1st and 10 at NYG 19: Taylor Heinicke completion to Jahan Dotson for 19 yards/touchdown. EPA 2.69.
1st quarter, 11:28, 4th and 1 at NYG 37: Brian Robinson rush left tackle for 5 yards/1st down. EPA 2.66.
4th quarter, 12:36, 4th and 9 at NYG 33: Joey Slye 51 yard field goal. EPA 1.85.
4th quarter, 1:55: NYG kickoff, Antonio Gibson return for 43 yards. EPA 1.8.
4th quarter, 1:47, 1st and 10 at WAS 43: Taylor Heinicke complete deep right to Curtis Samuel for 27 yards. EPA 1.78.
4th quarter, 14:21, 3rd and 1 at NYG 49: Taylor Heinicke scramble for 15 yards. EPA 1.62.
Four+* Biggest Setbacks on Offense and Special Teams
2nd quarter, 13:18, 2nd and 18 at WAS 10: Taylor Heinicke sacked by Kayvon Thibodeaux for -9 yards, fumble recovered by Thibodeaux for a touchdown. EPA -5.64.
4th quarter, 6:16, 3rd and 4 at NYG 5: Taylor Heinicke sacked by Azeez Ojulari and Dexter Lawrence for -9 yards, fumble recovered by Leonard Williams at NYG 14. EPA -4.16.
4th quarter, 0:56, 4th and goal at NYG 6: Taylor Heinicke pass incomplete short right to Curtis Samuel (defensive pass interference not called on Darnay Holmes). EPA -2.61.
1st quarter, 8:44, 4th and 12 at NYG 34: Tress Way punt 27 yards, returned by Richie James for 23 yards, tackled by Khaleke Hudson and Jeremy Reaves. EPA -2.
*Honorable Mention: 4th quarter, 1:01, 3rd and 1 at NYG 1: BAD CALL - penalty on Terry McLaurin for illegal shift, 5 yards, negating Brian Robinson’s touchdown. EPA is assessed at -1.13, as if the TD never happend. By all rights it should be -1.83 to give the referees credit for their contribution.
Two Biggest Plays on Defense
3rd quarter, 0:40, 3rd and 5 at NYG 6: Daniel Jones incomplete pass, short middle to Daniel Bellinger. EPA -1.65.
3rd quarter, 13:04, 3rd and 3 at NYG 42: Daniel Jones incomplete short middle to Richie James. EPA -1.55
If two big plays on defense strikes you as a small number, you are on to something. Since Week 7, the Commanders’s defense has only had two other games with only two big plays: once in the loss to Minnesota and once in the win over the Packers. In all of their other wins and the tie with the Giants they have had 4 to 6 big plays. In most of those games they had a few very high impact plays with EPA > 2, which they failed to do against the Giants. In fact, the two biggest plays while Commanders were on defense were really just failures to execute by the Giants.
Five Biggest Setbacks on Defense and Special Teams
2nd quarter, 2:23, 4th and 9 at WAS 35: Daniel Jones complete short middle to Richie James for 11 yds/1st down. EPA 3
2nd quarter, 2:00, 1st and 10 at WAS 24: Daniel Jones complete short middle to Isaiah Hodges for 19 yards. EPA 2.09.
2nd quarter, 6:39, 3rd and 9 at NYG 31: Daniel Jones completion short left to Richie James for 10 yards. EPA 1.82
4th quarter, 2:00, 4th and 7 at WAS 32: Graham Gano 50 yard field goal. EPA 1.76.
3rd quarter, 3:15, 4th and 5 at WAS 32, Graham Gano 50 yard field goal, EPA 1.74.
SNAP COUNTS - OFFENSE
Despite copping a fair bit of criticism from some fans and writers, Heinicke had one of his better games as a Commander in terms of total production, completing 17/29 passes for 249 yards with a long of 61, 1 TD, 0 INT. He also rushed 3 times for 33 yards, including a clutch pickup of 15 yards on 3rd and 1 early in the 4th quarter to set up a Joey Slye field goal. He was credited with throwing 4 uncatchable passes (14.8% bad throws), while his receivers only had one dropped pass. He was involved in 4 of Washington’s 7 biggest plays and 3 of Washington’s 4 worst plays on offense.
He did all of that in the face of steady pressure, taking 3 sacks resulting and 2 lost fumbles, in addition to 3 hurries and 5 hits, for a total of 11 pressures (32.4% of dropbacks).
He ended the night with a 98.2 passer rating, his third highest this season. Total QBR, which is based on QB’s contribution to scoring potential, taking into account down, distance and game situation, tells a somewhat different story. Heinicke’s Total 35.7 Total QBR ranked 24th in the league in Week 15. By that metric, this was his fifth best game this season. His season Total QBR of 41.6 ranks 27th in the league among QBs with more than 20 action plays per game.
Brian Robinson had arguably his best game for the Commanders, racking up 89 yards, 5 first downs and a touchdown (refs robbed him of his second) on just 12 rushing attempts, for an impressive 7.42 yards per attempt, while adding 18 yards on 1 reception. 36 of his rushing yards came after contact (40.4%), and he broke 1 tackle. Given how well he was running, it is not clear why he was given his third-lowest number of rushing attempts in 10 games this season.
Antonio Gibson also saw limited usage, with just 5 rushing attempts for 21 yards and 4 passing targets resulting in 2 receptions for 6 yards. He had his first fumble of the season, which he recovered. He was also the only Washington receiver to drop a pass this week.
Rookie Jahan Dotson led Washington’s receivers, with 4 receptions on 6 targets for 105 yards and a touchdown. He was on the receiving end of Washington’s two biggest plays on offense. He has scored touchdowns on 26.1% of receptions so far this season. For his efforts, he was voted Pepsi Rookie of the Week. Scott Turner and Taylor Heinicke should probably target him more often. Heinicke had a 149.3 passer rating when throwing to Dotson.
Terry McLaurin was the second-leading receiver with 6 receptions for 70 yards on 6 targets. 32 of his 70 receiving yards were after the catch. Heinicke’s passer rating was 115.3 when throwing to Terry. Curtis Samuel had 3 receptions for 44 yards on 5 targets. He also had 1 rushing yard on 5 attempts. This was only the third time in Samuel’s career when he has rushed for fewer than 1 yard per attempt, and the only time he has done so when he had more than 1 attempt. Dyami Brown was targeted twice, but did not catch either pass. He contributed 15 yards on one rushing attempt. Cam Sims barely played on offense and was not targeted.
None of Washington’s wide receivers dropped a pass against the Giants.
Logan Thomas was the only tight end to touch the ball. He caught one pass on three targets for 6 yards. At least one of the other two targets was sailed out of his reach. The Commanders ran a lot of 12 personnel sets on offense and the tight ends’ contribution was mainly as blockers, which is not well reflected in available statistics.
All five starters played 100% of snaps. That’s pretty impressive.
Now for the bad news. As I mentioned above, the line gave up a ton of pressure on passing plays, making life difficult for Taylor Heinicke. Giants’ Dexter Lawrence had the 5th highest pass rush win rate amongst defensive tackles in Week 15 (16%, just behind former Washington DT Matt Ioannidis at 17%). Teammate Leonard Williams was tied for 9th highest run-stop win rate at 40%. Surprisingly, Kayvon Thibodeaux was not ranked in the top 10 for pass rush win rate. I suppose you have to face blocks to record a win.
On a positive note, RT Cornelius Lucas ranked 2nd in run-block win rate among OTs in Week 15 at 84%.
DEFENSE – SNAP COUNTS
The defensive line was fairly subdued compared to their play in their last meeting with New York. They failed to register a single sack or hurry and only managed 4 QB hits (Montez Sweat and James Smith-Williams, 2 apiece) and one tackle for loss (Jonathan Allen). For fans looking for a silver lining, Allen had the 7th highest pass-rush win rate among DTs at 14% (tied with Zach Allen), although he did not manage to convert any rush wins into a sack or QB hit. He did collect 6 total tackles. Montez Sweat had the 10th highest run-stop win rate among edge defenders in Week 15. Efe Obada deflected a pass.
Jamin Davis had the Commanders’ second-highest tackle total with 9 and missed 0 tackles. He allowed 3 receptions on 5 targets in coverage for 21 yards and an opposing QB passer rating of 69.6.
Jon Bostic made 1 tackle and missed 2. He allowed 2 receptions on 3 targets in coverage and gave up 25 yards. He had an opposing QB passer rating of 92.4 in coverage.
Danny Johnson was Washington’s third-leading tackler with 7 solo stops and 1 assist. He also defended 2 passes and allowed 5 completions on 8 targets for 31 yards and an opposing QB passer rating of 70.3.
Kendall Fuller had 3 tackles. He was only targeted twice in coverage, which is a very good sign. When he was targeted, he allowed 2 receptions for 22 yards and an opposing passer rating of 112.5. I wouldn’t be too concerned about that passer rating. The key point here is that he shut down the receivers he was covering for most of the game.
Safety/Slot Corner Bobby McCain led the Commanders with 11 combined tackles and added a forced fumble. He was targeted 7 times in coverage and allowed 7 completions with an opposing passer rating of 90.5.
Kamren Curl was fourth on the team with 7 combined tackles, but had one missed tackle. He was not targeted in coverage.
Darrick Forrest had 6 combined tackles and 1 missed tackle. He was targeted twice in coverage and allowed 0 completions, with one pass knocked away.
Antonio Gibson returned 3 kicks for 93 total yards, including a 43-yard return which was the Commanders’ 5th most impactful play of the game. Meanwhile, Dax Milne returned 1 punt for 4 yards.
Tress Way averaged 44.3 yards on 4 punts. He had a long punt of 65 yards, which was downed at the New York 1-yard line by Percy Butler. That punt was Washington’s 8th most impactful play of the game (EPA 1.49). One other punt was downed inside the Giants’ 20 yard line.
Joey Slye was 2 for 2 on field goals of 51 and 41 yards, but missed an extra point on Washington’s only touchdown.
Who made the biggest contribution to the Commanders’ loss?
This poll is closed
The offensive line
The defensive line
Jack Del Rio
The Referees and/or John Mara